New England’s dynasty should probably be over by now. No scratch that—it should DEFINITELY be over by now. If the Patriots were a library book, they’d be WAY past due.
None of this should work. Think about it. Their star quarterback began his career during the Clinton administration. Their all-world tight end runs like he has a refrigerator on his back. They don’t even have a defensive coordinator and the last time they did, they gave up 41 points to Eagles backup Nick Foles. But somehow with Bill Belichick and his infinite supply of devil magic, the Patriots always find a way, even when they’re trailing 28-3 in the Super Bowl.
This whole dynasty is overkill. It only took the writers of Breaking Bad—arguably the greatest TV drama of all time—five seasons (the equivalent of one MLB playoff game) to wrap up Walt White’s character arc. Why can’t the Patriots just cut to the chase already? What’s the end game here? Filling an airport hangar full of Lombardi Trophies? A seat on the United Nations Security Council? To have the TB12 diet be government-mandated (avocado ice cream? Hard pass)?
Talk about wearing out your welcome. At this rate, Dr. Dre’s long-rumored Detox album might hit shelves before Tom Brady (though, are we sure this is actually Tom Brady and not some sort of Dr. Krieger clone scenario? I’m on the fence) decides to hang up his cleats. The Patriots’ longevity is unparalleled. Every time we think they’re dead in the water, someone throws them a life jacket.
I’ve been watching the Red Sox through their World Series run (hence the perpetual bags under my eyes) and what I see—and I hope I’m not jinxing them—is an absolute juggernaut, an un-slayable super-team chock with generational talents like Chris Sale, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez. The Red Sox weren’t just built to win pennants—they were built to destroy everything in their path.
But that rarely describes the Patriots. Sure there have been times when New England resembled a team built on Madden franchise mode, but more often than not, the Pats have gotten by with scrappy overachievers. There’s never been a moment where Brady wasn’t pulling the strings and Belichick, that diabolic football savant, deserves just as much credit for outsmarting his opponents on a weekly basis (and never smiling). But we can’t overlook New England’s knack for uncovering hidden gems, the Danny Woodheads and Wes Welkers who always seem to fall under other teams’ noses.’ It’s like the Patriots have a sixth sense, but instead of dead people, all they see are winners.
It can be instantaneous—Welker’s transformation from anonymous special teamer to record-setting slot receiver happened almost overnight. But usually when the Patriots find a diamond in the rough like Dion Lewis or BenJarvus Green-Ellis (better known as the Law Firm), it takes a few years for the goodness to marinate. Take James White for example. Drafted as a fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin (where he shared work with future Los Angeles Charger Melvin Gordon), White had some depth-chart climbing to do before he could make a real influence on the fantasy scene. Even as recently as last year, the 26-year-old was little more than a bye-week fill-in, the type of hit-or-miss bench option you hope you never have to break out. That’s not to say White wasn’t a big contributor—without his second-half heroics in Super Bowl LI, New England would still be sitting on four championship rings. But as the years have taught us, trusting a Patriots running back to see consistent usage, a must in the fantasy realm, is a fool’s errand.
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But forget the narrative for a minute. After getting off to a rocky start—which has become an annual tradition in Foxboro—the Patriots have climbed back to 5-2, putting them just a game behind Kansas City for the top overall seed in the AFC (New England holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its win against the Chiefs in Week 6). Care to guess how the Patriots, the undead zombie team the league can never kill, came back to life this time? That wasn’t the doing of Tom Brady or Julian Edelman (who missed the first four games due to suspension) and it definitely wasn’t their defense, which took “bend don’t break” to its logical extreme Sunday against the Bears.
No, the architect behind New England’s latest renaissance has been James White, who leads all NFL running backs with six receiving touchdowns. On top of that, he’s also second in both receiving yards (380) and catches (45) behind New York’s Saquon Barkley, which shouldn’t even count because Barkley is a cyborg who was genetically-engineered in a laboratory (think Barry from Archer, but with better field vision). Not bad for a guy you could have had for an 11th-round pick in PPR leagues this summer.
“League-winner” is one of those cringe-worthy fantasy clichés that will make you want to walk into the ocean, but once in a blue moon, the label fits. Alvin Kamara fit that description a year ago and now White is checking off many of those same boxes. Brady must have remembered that time Jimmy Dubs bailed him out in the Super Bowl because after the Pats got shellacked by Matt Patricia (who may or may not have been Adam Sandler’s caddy in Happy Gilmore) and the Lions in Week 3, Tom said he had a fever and the only prescription was more White. When Brady wants something, the Pats usually abide. More targets for Edelman? Done. A raise for Josh McDaniels? You got it. Banish Jimmy Garoppolo to Siberia? Not a problem.
So when Tom said, “Más Blanco, por favor,” the powers that be said, “Sure thing, boss.” It’s been smooth sailing ever since as the surging Pats have won four straight on the back of White, who has torn the league to shreds with his potent concoction of expert space-finding (he’s averaging a healthy 4.7 yards per carry) and soft hands (31-255-4 receiving line over his last four games).
It’s probably helped that Rex Burkhead, who shares many of the same traits as White, has spent much of the year on I.R. with a neck injury. And now it’s about to get that much sweeter for White and his loyal band of fantasy disciples. With stud rookie Sony Michel nursing the latest in his never-ending assortment of knee injuries, it appears White will see his largest rushing workload of the year Monday night against a Bills D that Marlon Mack just clowned for 159 yards (126 rushing, 33 receiving) in Week 7. The football apocalypse is nigh. It’s 2018 and James White is an every-week RB1 in fantasy. Evacuate the city, stock the bomb shelter, hug your loved ones—this is really happening.
White will never be an every-down workhorse in the mold of Todd Gurley, nor does he need to be. In fact, the current landscape seems to favor backs with White’s skill set more than ever. Scat-back types have been around—Darren Sproles was catching balls out of the backfield long before White arrived on the scene. But now that teams have begun using short passes as an extension of their ground game, receiving backs like White, Tarik Cohen and Chris Thompson have become more prevalent across football.
A decade ago, back when you could still breathe on a quarterback without getting arrested for attempted murder (remember when they locked Clay Matthews up and threw away the key after this embarrassingly low-wattage hit a few weeks ago?), only one of the league’s backs finished with over 500 yards receiving (Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville). This year we could see up to a dozen players clear that mark—White, Kamara, Cohen, Thompson, Saquon Barkley, Touchdown Todd, Christian McCaffrey, Melvin Gordon, T.J. Yeldon, James Conner, Jalen Richard, Kareem Hunt and Austin Ekeler all have a puncher’s chance of reaching that lofty threshold. Meanwhile one-dimensional pile-movers like LeGarrette Blount are disappearing from the league. I compare it to the NBA phasing out back-to-the-basket centers in favor of stretch fours who can hit from long range. Teams would rather have Kristaps Porzingis than Shaq now-a-days. In today’s NFL, if you’re going to be a difference-maker at the running back position, you better be able to catch passes.
Brady’s infatuation with White makes sense, doesn’t it? It stands to reason that with age, Tom’s long ball will soon go the way of Velociraptors and Blockbuster video. That decline has already begun as Brady ranks 28th among quarterbacks in deep-throw (balls traveling at least 20 yards downfield) accuracy this year. Because he understands the concept of time and what it does to a man’s arm strength, Brady has been noticeably less daring this year, trying for the home run on just 32 attempts (4.6 per game). With deep threat Brandin Cooks now calling Los Angeles his home and Gronk struggling to separate downfield, Brady rarely forces the issue anymore, as evidenced by his shrinking pass distance (8.5 yards per attempt, down from 9.7 in 2017). That makes White a perfect co-conspirator in Brady’s grand scheme to overthrow Father Time and continue playing into his early 70s.
With LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis hogging the rock early in his career, White’s end-zone visits used to be few and far between. But now he can’t get enough of the painted area, binging touchdowns like the new season of Making a Murderer. White has almost as many touchdowns through seven games (seven) as he did in his previous two seasons combined (eight). Being a card-carrying member of Tom Brady’s “circle of trust” certainly has its advantages and for White, the biggest perk is unlimited end-zone privileges. It’s like Olive Garden’s Never Ending Pasta Bowl but instead of loading up on ziti and breadsticks, White’s been filling his plate with touchdowns. That’s a change the perennially underappreciated White can get behind. His fantasy owners don’t mind it either.
What’s the fantasy rub?
Receiving backs often get a bad rap in the fantasy-sphere because their volume isn’t as bankable as the Ezekiel Elliotts and Kareem Hunts of the world. The perception is that they are entirely at the mercy of game script, performing only in shootouts or when their team is playing from behind. But I don’t think that’s been the case for White this year. Even with Sony Michel taking the lead on early downs, White has remained exceptionally productive, averaging 81.3 yards from scrimmage on 12.1 touches per game. That compares favorably to Alvin Kamara, who averaged 12.6 touches during last year’s breakout season.
White will never be a 20-carry-a-game bell-cow but how many of those actually exist in today’s NFL? With more teams emphasizing committee backfields with specialized roles (neither of last year’s Super Bowl participants employed a feature back), opportunities for pass-catching backs like White are more available than ever. There will be touchdown regression—I highly doubt White reaches the 16 touchdowns he’s currently projected for. But with Burkhead gone and Michel likely looking at a multi-week absence, White’s fantasy stock is approaching an all-time high. Sit back and watch him bring the thunder Monday night at Orchard Park.