James White's value to the Patriots continues to grow

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- James White had quarterback Tom Brady marveling at how he seamlessly transitioned from his “passing back” role to more traditional running back responsibilities in Sunday’s victory over the Chicago Bears, bailing the New England Patriots out of an emergency situation with Sony Michel knocked out due to injury.

White proved he was more than capable, which sparks a question: Why not continue to rely on him for double duty until Michel returns?

This is a scenario coach Bill Belichick might consider as the Patriots shift their focus to a Monday Night Football road game against the Buffalo Bills, but there’s reason to proceed with caution. White is so valuable in his regular role, so adding more to his responsibilities exposes him to more injury risk and the possibility of over-extending himself.

“That’s a good question,” Belichick acknowledged. “We’ll just have to take it week by week and see how it goes, see what type of a game plan we would want to evolve into, who’s available on our side, and how we would want to distribute that.”

Because the Patriots vary their offensive approach significantly on a week-to-week basis -- perhaps more than any team in the NFL -- New England's need for more of a traditional running back might not be as much of a priority. A good example of that came Oct. 4 against the Indianapolis Colts, when the Josh McDaniels-led offense favored a pass-first approach and had just two running backs active for the game.

That is when White is at his best, and he’s been leaned on heavily in that role through seven games. His 45 catches rank 11th in the NFL and second among all running backs behind Saquan Barkley (49). And he has six touchdown receptions, which is tied for the second-highest total in the NFL. White is also excellent when asked to block blitzers.

As a rusher, he has 189 yards on 40 carries (4.7 average), with his value to the team continuing to grow (2018 is his first year as a captain).

“I know I talk about James White a lot, but you just couldn’t ask for a better player, a better teammate,” Brady said during his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI. “Someone who is as dependable and consistent as he’s been as long as he’s been here, it’s been incredible for me to watch. ... He’s really invaluable to our team.”

Brady seemed genuinely amazed by White’s transition into a between-the-tackles grinder in the fourth quarter Sunday -- his experience with the team made him the choice over Kenjon Barner, the only other running back on the roster -- which helped the Patriots (5-2) burn significant time off the clock.

That would have been Michel had he not left the game with a knee injury. Or it might have been Jeremy Hill or Rex Burkhead, but they are both currently on injured reserve.

So it ended up being White.

The Patriots could always call on him again, but they’ll proceed carefully given how valuable the 26-year-old is in his regular role.