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Perry's Mailbag: Is James White the best back of the Belichick era?

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Football will return to Foxboro on Thursday night as the New England Patriots will host the New York Giants in their preseason opener. Before the fun begins, it's time to answer some of your mailbag questions.

Let's dive in.

First, let me say that White is one of the best players and people I've been able to cover in my time following this team. Hard to find understated leaders who are universally beloved in a locker room with dozens of people from a variety of backgrounds. But White was that guy. It's unfortunate the way his career ended due to injury, but he'll be wearing a red jacket soon. He's one of the most important running backs in franchise history.

To your question, comparing Faulk and White, I think it's close. My guy Tom E. Curran and I have debated this often. But I'd go with White. Dependability. Big-game performance. Yards after the catch in the open field. White wasn't the pure runner Faulk (a Patriots Hall of Famer) was, but his postseason production gives him the edge for me.

He didn't get as playoff many opportunities (five appearances) as Faulk (seven), but let's look at their Super Bowl runs.

In three championship runs (his third season in 2001, 2003 and 2004), Faulk had 15 catches, 54 total touches, 317 total yards from scrimmage and no touchdowns.

In two championship runs (White's third season in 2016 and 2018), White had 48 catches, 63 total touches, 344 total yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. 

 

If you include failed Super Bowl runs in 2007 for Faulk (20 catches, 170 yards receiving, six carries, 24 yards rushing, no touchdowns) and 2017 for White (9 catches, 72 yards receiving, 14 carries, 60 yards rushing, four total touchdowns), the more productive back is still White on a per-game basis. 

If you want to go with total yards per playoff game if you were to combine all of their postseason runs, White (64.4) outgained Faulk (44.1). White also had more yards per touch (6.9) in the postseason than Faulk (6.0).

Faulk could do more at a higher level when you factor in his special teams and tailback abilities. And he had great longevity. White was the more impactful player in the most important games. That earns him the nod from me. But you really can't go wrong either way.

Touched on this in the latest Next Pats, but it's worth mentioning here. Yes. There are definitely plays the Patriots have carried over from the McDaniels era to this season. Power running plays with pulling guards? Check. Inside zone runs? Check. Spread passing concepts? Yup. Sprint-out passes? Yes. Even the outside zone plays we harp on consistently -- those have long been in the playbook as well. It just looks like the team is focusing more on those this season, potentially building off those to make it a staple of their offense.

Next Pats Podcast: How Bill Belichick’s new-look offense showed SIGNS OF LIFE | Listen & Follow | Watch on YouTube

But it does appear as though the Patriots will continue to be a versatile run scheme. And their play-action shots will be based off of the run plays they feel they can execute well. Otherwise those fakes won't manipulate defenders. The old power play-action pass -- when Rob Gronkowski would leak behind defenders who crashed the line of scrimmage as soon as they saw a guard pull -- popped up in practice the other day. So yes. It's not all new. Which is why if the Patriots wanted to bail on the change in emphasis they've made this offseason, they could, in my opinion. There are other elements to this offense.

One other look we've seen, meanwhile, that would be somewhat new would be run-pass option plays. McDaniels had those in the playbook last year, too, but they were barely used. We've seen a few more of those sporadically through camp so perhaps they'll be spotlighted more in 2022.

There are plays on tape where Mac Jones has shown the ability to throw on the move. Could Tom Brady do that? He could. But talking to people who were with the organization when Brady was here, that was never going to be something the Patriots "majored" in. "Hell no," said one offensive staffer during the Brady era. With Jones, he's athletic enough to pull it off. But it's not as though you need an elite athlete to do it. Kirk Cousins does it. Matt Ryan did it en route to an MVP. Matt Schaub rode those passes to a Pro Bowl nod. It's well within Jones' physical capabilities.

 

I actually think Uche has had a better camp than his previous two seasons in New England. He's made some splash plays in one-on-one settings as well as team periods. We've seen Uche's speed pop at times in the past, but oftentimes those were in padless sessions... Not much should be taken from those practices -- especially for front-seven defenders, unless they are thriving in coverage.

We've witnessed Uche make a play or two as a zone dropper, but he's put Isaiah Wynn on his back in a one-on-one rep, and he's been used all over the front in pass-rushing situations. He's a bit of a niche player -- I can't see them leaning on him on first and second down to stop the run -- but if he can impact the passing game, there will be plenty of value in what he brings to the table. 

Todd, to be honest, it's very difficult to tell. How an offense plays just has such an impact on how a defense looks. I'll always go back to 2019 to illustrate that point. The Patriots had a historically effective defense through the first half of that season. Then they played better offenses, and the narrative changed. All the numbers had the Patriots as an all-time unit on that side of the ball. The reality was they were good, but not that good.

Until the Patriots offense can be a little more consistent, I'm not sure it's wise to make any grand proclamations about their teammates on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. What can we definitively say about the defense? They've gotten faster at linebacker. They have an intriguing slot option in Marcus Jones. They're going to do a lot of late-in-the-play-clock pre-snap movement. They're deep with versatile safeties, which should help them disguise their intentions. 

How effective they'll be? Whether or not they'll be able to be the driving force behind wins for the Patriots? We'll see.

Still digging into that one! Communication has most definitely been an issue. (There are talent issues at times, too, where someone like Christian Barmore or Matt Judon simply dominates their one-on-one matchups. But communication seems to be the bigger problem.) I spoke with a quarterback with experience in this scheme recently who said they may be more willing to throw "hot" this year as opposed to redirecting protections pre-snap in order to handle pressures, and that would be a communication change that could take some time to iron out -- particularly for a quarterback and some linemen who have a lot of experience doing things a particular way.

 

If that pre-snap change has gunked up the communication and led to free runners, that's something the Patriots will obviously have to fix. Those free runners, which Mac Jones discussed earlier this week, have been a consistent problem this summer. 

No. Very good player. Not necessarily a position you want to commit a boatload of cash to. In my opinion. Fred Warner is a great player. Shaquille (formerly known as Darius) Leonard is a great player. Players at that spot still tend to get hurt. As the Colts are finding now.

That said! There's something to be said for having an athletic linebacker who can cover a lot of ground in today's game. If defenses are going to more two-high safety looks to eliminate explosive pass plays -- spoiler alert: they are -- then having linebackers who can handle the stress of covering the more open areas that result underneath would be valuable.

Even in 7-on-7, Kasey, it's not an air-it-out kind of attack. It looks more like a point guard getting the ball to his scorers. It's quick. It's efficient. It's not a bombs-away feel, though. The downfield throws Jones has executed most frequently have been one-on-one 50-50 balls when Jones can identify a matchup clearly and loft one high quickly after receiving the snap. More play-action throws -- which should follow if the ground game continues to make progress -- would be something we haven't seen that has the potential to make this a much more explosive attack.

Always a possibility. Keep an eye on players in the final year of their deals. Would the Patriots ever see enough from Justin Herron or Yodny Cajuste that they felt OK with moving on from Isaiah Wynn? My guess is no. But Wynn is already missing time as he deals with an apparent injury. Would they trade Damien Harris if they fall in love with Ty Montgomery or one of their rookies? Again, my guess is no. But they would've had him on the block, I believe, had they signed Leonard Fournette this offseason.

Perry: New-look running game showing some signs of life

Would Nelson Agholor get moved if he can up his value during preseason? If there's a willing buyer, I could see that happening easily. That one would only be a shocker insofar as there was a willing buyer. But those would be the types of names you're talking about, I think.

Unfortunately, not really. One of those where you catch two guys going at it after watching something else. They've been battling for weeks now, though. Not surprising. Andrews going to the back corner of the practice field after getting sent off and Barmore going to the locker room was something a little bit new. Maybe -- after sending two guys to the locker room for fighting on Friday when Herron and Uche were booted -- the team felt a different approach was warranted.

 

Let's go rapid fire for the rest here...

I do! As of right now, at least. Can't see a trade for a wideout. They're deep there. And big. DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers are all over 6-feet tall.

Buffalo.

Stevenson should catch the ball a bunch. I think he's their most talented back. Can do it all. Ty Montgomery looks like the best option if they want a "sub" specialist like White.

Banged up. Tough camp for him. Dealt with injury in the spring, too. Just having a hard time staying on the field. Doesn't look good for his roster chances. I think there's a shot they only roll with two tight ends on the active roster even though they're hoping to be more of a two-tight-end team. The NFL-caliber talent behind them just hasn't revealed itself to this point.

I'm going with tight end. We know what Hunter Henry is. Jonnu Smith will be much better. He has to be. And based on what I've seen and heard this summer, he will be. Can you be sneaky good when you're the highest paid group at your position in the league? Maybe not. But because of Smith's season last season, I'm going to make an exception.

None, really. Not yet. He's off PUP. But he's still working his way back. Has been limited in practices.

He has gotten reps at gunner, which surprised me. Made two career tackles in college -- both on Baylor quarterback interceptions. But he's so fast it would make sense to use him in plus-50 situations when Jake Bailey is going to boot it high enough that it won't be returned. If Thornton can use his speed and tracking ability to get underneath the football and down it deep? Would be a good option there. 

Other rookies in the kicking game? Brenden Schooler, the undrafted player out of Texas, is the one to watch. Marcus Jones as a punt returner, of course. DaMarcus Mitchell has also seen plenty of kicking-game reps and I could see him making a play for a core role.

Had them at 10 months ago and I'm sticking with that for now.

Let's start digging into this with a Next Pats guest sometime in the near future, shall we...?

Thanks for all the submissions, as always. And thanks for listening to Next Pats, where we've been incorporating more and more of your questions. We'll talk to you there again very soon.