Without Amendola and Edelman, James White is the Patriots' most valuable receiver
The Patriots offense has traditionally run through man coverage-beaters underneath and quick option routes to march the ball down the field. After watching Chris Hogan explode in the playoffs and trading for Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett, this year's incarnation was always going to be more vertically oriented than usual. But New England was never planning to sacrifice its core offensive identity: and with the wide receiver depth chart ravaged by injuries, the team needed a threat to balance the field. That threat is James White.
First, and most importantly, White has a rock-solid rapport with Tom Brady. After the Patriots' Week 2 victory over the Saints, Brady spoke about that relationship. As NESN wrote:
“(White made) a lot of big plays,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “Every time he touches the ball, it’s important. He’s just so dependable, consistent, tough and hard-working. He shows up to work every day to do his job as best as he can with the best attitude. … I’ve played with a lot of great teammates, and James is right there at the top.”
White has certainly reinforced that impression with his play in recent weeks. He collected eight receptions against the Saints, with the Patriots down to only three healthy receivers, and over the past year he's established himself as Brady's primary safety valve: since the start of the 2016 season, he's seen 99 passing targets to only 51 rushing attempts (per Pro Football Reference). That nose for the ball is especially valuable against teams that can consistently generate pressure on Tom Brady. Against the Broncos last year he saw eight targets, and in the Super Bowl against the Falcons he caught a whopping 14 balls on 16 targets.
White may be a sure-handed option for Brady--his 70% catch rate in 2016 easily bests both Chris Hogan (66%) and Julian Edelman (62%)--but he's also caught more than just dink-and-dunk balls. In fact, the back's average grab has gone for 9.8 yards since the start of 2016. Edelman averaged 11.3 yards per catch in 2016, but tore his ACL in the preseason. With his year over and Danny Amendola dealing with concussion and knee issues, White is the Patriots' only consistent receiving threat underneath and over the middle.
So far, the snap counts back up that perception: White has been on the field for 73 snaps, with Mike Gillislee behind him at 54 and Dion Lewis lagging back with a mere 20. The Wisconsin product's extreme versatility makes him more valuable to the club than any other back. And as long as Amendola is on and off the field, he'll continue to be the team's most valuable receiver as well.