James White Will Be Great Again in 2019 (Fantasy Football)
How many times have you heard someone say they stay away from Patriots running backs because they’re unpredictable? I know I’ve heard it plenty of times and from people who actually cover football for a living. Is there truth to this, or has it been simply accepted as the truth because so many people say it?
After finishing as the No. 8 running back in half-PPR formats in 2018, early draft position has James White falling into the sixth-round as the 28th running back off the board. Were there factors that led to him scoring more than we expected in 2018? Yeah, is that enough to slide him into flex-type territory?
HISTORY WITH WHITE
After popping up on the fantasy radar in 2015 as the No. 39 running back in PPR formats, White has slowly earned the trust of fantasy players. He followed that campaign up with a No. 26 finish in 2016, though many still viewed him as an unpredictable Patriots running back who was going to be boom-or-bust most weeks. It was more of the same in 2017, though he missed two games and missing out on another top-30 finish.
Then comes his true breakout season in 2018, finishing as the No. 8 running back in half-PPR (No. 7 in PPR, No. 11 in standard). What changed that allowed him to get into that territory? Did something click for him? Did the coaching staff/Tom Brady start to trust him more? Many already know the answer, though they’ve chose to ignore just how impactful the change is/will continue to be.
This is something many haven’t come to terms with, but without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup, White becomes an every-week starter in fantasy. Since the start of 2015, here are the splits with and without Gronkowski in the lineup.
As you can see, things start moving towards White when Gronkowski missed time over the last four years. Keep in mind that this includes the 2018 season, where Gronkowski was on the field quite often, but wasn’t playing at 100 percent, allowing White to garner more targets, which ultimately help the numbers “with Gronkowski” on the field. Bottom line is that White benefits more than anyone on the field with Gronkowski retired.
If there’s one thing we know about Tom Brady, it’s that he loves certain targets. There’s always some new face in town that everyone seems to love, but it always comes back to the same ol’ story. Remember Aaron Dobson? How about Kenbrell Thompkins, Brandon LaFell, Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, or Chris Hogan? Everyone wants to find the guy Brady’s going to latch onto, and the newest one is their first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry. For a guy who struggles getting separation, he may have a hard time getting targeted by Brady, who threw into tight windows just 13.9 percent of the time in 2018, one of the lowest marks in the league.
Everyone thinks it’s a coincidence, but White has been earning more and more of trust throughout Brady’s career and the numbers tell you the story.
Danny Amendola leaving during the 2018 offseason proved to be big for White’s target share, as did the less-than-100-percent Gronkowski. This offseason, the Patriots lost Gronkowski, Hogan, and Cordarrelle Patterson. If you think that hurts White, I’m not sure what to tell you. Their current depth chart is Julian Edelman, Demaryius Thomas (who won’t be ready to play anytime soon), N’Keal Harry, Phillip Dorsett, and Dontrelle Inman. Exactly two of those guys have caught a pass from Brady in their career.
COORELATION AMONG RB/TE
The Patriots have a mess at tight end trying to replace Gronkowski, as Ben Watson is suspended for the first four games and they cut Austin Seferian-Jenkins, which leaves Matt LaCosse and Stephen Anderson to compete for the job. Those guys… are not going to total a whole lot of targets. Fair to say?
Between the running backs and tight ends, the Patriots offense has targeted them and average of 255.1 times since Josh McDaniels took over as the offensive coordinator in 2012. There hasn’t been a single season in which they weren’t targeted at least 199 times, though 5-of-7 seasons have netted 253 or more. When you start to do the math, you can see why White is likely to remain in his target range from 2018, if not higher. Just to give you a gauge, the league average for combined targets to running backs and tight ends sits at 219.
Another important fact to know is that there’s been no one tight end and running back who’ve combined for more than 195 targets on the same team over the last three years, which has obviously limited White’s ceiling with Gronkowski there seeing the target share he did.
TEAM SCORING MATTERS
I posted an article this offseason highlighting just how much team scoring matters to running backs. If you missed it (read it here), you ideally want running backs tied to high-scoring offenses. While that seems obvious, it’s often hard to predict which teams will finish as top-six or top-12 in team scoring. However, with the Patriots, we know. Here are their ranks over the last seven years (most recent first): 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 1st. Knowing that White plays on a top-six scoring offense is huge for his fantasy upside, as 62 percent of RB1s come from top-12 scoring offenses.
Needless to say, you should be much higher than the consensus currently is on White. His efficiency was really good in 2018 when he scored 1.31 half-PPR points per target, but he’s done that throughout his entire career. In 2017, he averaged 1.24 per target. In 2016, he averaged 1.34 per target. In 2015, he averaged 1.57 per target. So, his 2018 efficiency was actually slightly below his career average. As long as the volume is there, White will perform. His 94 carries he received in 2018 won’t be there as long as Sony Michel and Damien Harris are healthy, but that’s not a large part about where he gets his fantasy points from. I’ll leave you with this… It took an average of 12.5 PPR points to finish as an RB2 or better in 2018. White hit that mark 12 times. The only guys who did it more? Christian McCaffrey (15), Saquon Barkley (15), Ezekiel Elliott (14), and Alvin Kamara (13). So, the next time someone tells you that Patriots running backs are too hard to predict, point them here. White is a rock-solid RB2 in all formats, though he’s on the high-end of that in PPR formats.