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Curran: Is James White or Faulk the better Belichick-era Patriot?

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Back in April of 2016, at the height of FREE BRADY! hysteria, the Patriots sent forth Kevin Faulk to announce their third-round pick at the NFL Draft.

With a Brady jersey under his sportscoat, he stood defiantly nearby while one of Brady’s Deflategate henchmen, Troy Vincent, introduced him.  

When he got to the mic, he raised his voice over the chorus of hoots and boos and said, "With the 78th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots AND Tom Brady, select Joe Thuney, linebacker, North Carolina State."

So he was a little off on the position. Details, details. It was high amusement from Faulk, poking the NFL bear at one of its marquee events at a time when the league was trying to dig out from under their dog-and-pony, Keystone Cops investigation.

A few weeks later, though, when Faulk won the fan vote for induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame that August, there were a whole lot of people who believed that – were it not for that stunt – Faulk wouldn’t have gotten in. Which, to me, insinuates that there was a belief that he … didn’t belong? Was overrated?

Dear Lord. When you talk about a game-on-the-line kind of player, Kevin Faulk personified that as a kickoff returner, punt returner, between-the-tackles back and in his main role as a third-down back.

 

The first time I did this list back in 2015, Faulk landed at 15. There were hoots of “Too high!” So where do we go now with Faulk? And where do we go with James White, who wasn’t even on the list in 2015 but had four-season run from 2016 through 2019 that will have him skyrocketing up the list.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Top 50 of the Belichick era debate: Kevin Faulk vs. James White | Listen & Follow | Watch on YouTube

“Kevin was like the dark horse within our group back in those days,” said Deion Branch. “He was the unsung guy, the guy who was probably the one who was going to get forgotten. But we didn't. We knew how valuable Kevin was, and I think overall the Patriot fans knows how valuable Kevin was.

"But in the game it was almost like, ‘OK, we got to stop this guy, this guy, that guy.’ But nobody was really thinking Kevin Faulk and what to do with him. He always kept coaches and coordinators on edge. Even nowadays when I speak to guys that we played against, they talk about Kevin.”

Faulk was with the Patriots from 1999 through 2011 so he went through the transition from Pete Carroll to Bill Belichick. He was the lead back in 2000 but ball-security issues had him doing more harm than good when the offense was on the field. But Faulk made himself a better player by fixing things he didn’t do well and adding to his toolbox. When he became the third-down back, he flourished. And he did it not just for a short span but on through the 2011 season, bridging the rebuild and passing on the culture.

When James White came to the Patriots in 2014, he was flat overmatched. He couldn’t make anyone miss as a rookie and went down on first contact. He was OK in 2015 but his AFC Championship Game performance when he was thrown to 16 times and caught five left a bad feeling about his ceiling.

Curran: Why it's time to update the Top 50 Under Belichick list

Then, like Faulk, White found his stride. He caught 60, 56, 87 and 72 balls from 2016 through 2019 and added another 49 in 2020 with Cam Newton as his quarterback. He also had a fairly noteworthy Super Bowl against Atlanta: an MVP-level performance with 14 catches for 110 yards, three touchdowns and a two-point conversion on the ol’ Kevin Faulk Play from the 2003 Super Bowl.

White had bigger statistical seasons. He had more dominant individual games. But Faulk’s legend is hard to eclipse.

James White ahead of Faulk?

“No way,” said Christian Fauria. “Kevin Faulk, may be the best athlete I've ever seen. I know this isn't a baseball, basketball thing but as far as the best athlete I've ever seen, Kevin is that guy who can do anything - baseball, basketball, football. You want to knock him for a fourth-and-2 against Indy? Go ahead. I mean, that's fine. Otherwise he is like such a perfect football player.”

 

“I’m a huge James White fan,” said Ted Johnson. “Clearly, when you think of James White you think of that 2016 Super Bowl. But Kevin Faulk is in that Troy Brown category. Whenever you needed him, he was money in the bank.”

Faulk and White are both outstanding leaders but they go about it much differently. White is a perfect gentleman. Self-effacing, humble, minds his own business.

Faulk really wasn’t.

Tom E. Curran's Top 50 Players Under Belichick, circa 2015

“I remember doing an interview my second year when someone asked me a question and I was struggling,” said Devin McCourty. Feezy’s (Faulk's nickname is Feezy, FYI) locker was next to mine and he said, ‘Did you just ask him that? You don’t ask him a question like that.’ I didn't know what to say. I was young. But he had that type of leadership about him that he was never scared to be outspoken and do the right thing.

“I only got two seasons with Kev and in one he tore his ACL so I just saw his leadership impact,” said McCourty. “I think it's hard but you could rank one right above the other because their impact is so similar. They were both very needed.”

“Kevin is your ultimate, true, all-purpose Patriot,” said Scott Zolak. “It’s Kevin Faulk. It’s Julian Edelman. It’s Troy Brown. Quintessential red jacket Patriot guys. They impacted the franchise. They knew how to compete, how to run the locker room, how to play, how to work out and make young kids want to do what they did and that’s why James is in that class too.”

Editor's note: Tom E. Curran's Top 50 players under Bill Belichick, 2.0, will be released beginning Monday, June 28 right here on NBCSportsBoston.com.