Week 7 Booms and Busts: James White, league-winner

The Patriots have tried several paths to shore up their backfield over the years. They’ve signed free agents. They’ve traded for backs. They even tried the draft capital route this year, going completely against type and spending a first-round pick on Sony Michel.

And Michel, to be fair, has been excellent. He had three straight 100-yard games entering Week 7, and was starting to gobble up short touchdowns as well. But Michel was injured in Sunday’s victory at Chicago, pushing the Patriots back to their unheralded problem solver — good old James White.

James White has turned into New England’s most important running back (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
James White has turned into New England’s most important running back (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

White was a solid if unspectacular fantasy producer over the last three years. After seldom playing during his 2014 rookie season, he checked in as the RB49, RB33, and RB47 the last three years. With 116 catches the last two years, he was best utilized in PPR formats. He also threw a haymaker at the Falcons in Super Bowl 51, rolling for 139 total yards, three touchdowns, and a conversion rush. His 2-yard run in overtime ended the game, releasing the confetti.

White had a representative game during Sunday’s 38-31 victory over the Bears, collecting 97 total yards and two touchdowns. He posted 11-40 on the ground, caught eight of his 10 targets, and scored twice from close range. It’s important to appreciate how White generally scores his touchdowns — the Patriots frequently find ways for him to be loose in space, commonly leading to untouched, walk-in scores. White now has seven touchdowns in seven games, and it looks like Michel (knee) is going to miss several games.

Maybe it’s overdue and maybe it’s long been obvious — bark at me all you want — but White has earned his graduation papers. He’s no longer that “ah, screw it” flex play or that so-so RB2 you can live with. He’s now in RB1 territory, set-and-forget territory. We trust his quarterback, of course. We trust OC Josh McDaniels. New England doesn’t have much else in the backfield, if Michel’s injury is as bad as it looked. And White has been a consistency monster anyway.

Let’s check out the week-by-week finishes. White graded as the RB19, RB14, RB22, RB3, RB7 and RB15 over his first six games; he’s currently RB3 this week as we go to press. He’s grabbed 45 of his 61 targets, thriving in the modern game of space and versatility. You can’t blame the Patriots for their never-ending quest for running-back depth, but maybe they had a right answer all along. White’s fantasy owners likely landed a Top-12 back at discount prices.

Not to mention, the New England backfield is often a path to fantasy glory. LeGarrette Blount plunged for 18 touchdowns in 2016. Dion Lewis was the best fantasy back this side of Todd Gurley in the second half of 2017. Perhaps White is going to add his name to that legacy group; maybe it’s his year to fully reap the benefits of a Patriots gravy train. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

• Mitchell Trubisky was a hard watch on the Chicago side of things, throwing two picks and getting away with a few others. But we’re just in it for the numbers, and his athleticism and supporting cast continued to bail him out. Trubisky finished the day with 333 passing yards and two touchdowns, and he tacked on 81 rushing yards and another touchdown (the Patriots linebackers look like they’re running in ski boots).

No current fantasy player better underscores the difference between real football and the fantasy game we play. Trubisky is still early in his development — heck, last year was essentially a waste of time with the dated coaching staff he was stuck with. Now, the Bears have a creative head coach and OC, and plenty of skill players we can get behind. Is it enough to carry Trubisky through growing pains? It has been the last three games (Trubisky was undeniably great against Tampa, then uneven against Miami and New England).

The Jets and Bills are gettable matchups the next two weeks. Even if you decide to own Trubisky and not watch him, he’s approved for fantasy ownership.

• No one grabbed boatloads of DFS cash through Adrian Peterson in Week 7 — 107 total yards is nice, but it came without a touchdown. But it’s interesting to note that his 24 carries led the league this week, and he was just one of two backs to get past 20 (Lamar Miller also did it). Pinball obviously rules the NFL in 2018. Teams don’t want to play checkers by mail.

This is not to dismiss Peterson out of hand. We know the NFL commonly is no league for old men, but Peterson’s tank looks surprisingly full, even at age 33. He was an unsurprising no-show in the Monday night game at New Orleans, but Peterson has met or exceeded fantasy expectations in four of his other five starts. I see nothing threatening about the Giants, Falcons, or Buccaneers the next three weeks. Perhaps the upside is gone for good, but Peterson can be viewed as a reasonably safe RB2 these days. There’s some value to that.

• While Adam Thielen is a weekly 100-yard machine for Minnesota, Stefon Diggs is in a funk. The Vikings peppered him with 14 targets Sunday at the Jets, netting just 33 yards. His two rushing attempts went for a sum of minus-seven yards. He hasn’t scored a touchdown since Week 2, and he’s been at 43 receiving yards or fewer in four games. Meanwhile, Thielen is rolling along as fantasy’s No. 1 wideout.

I wish I had a good theory on Diggs. Maybe I’ll pick up something on the rewatch, but I am not an NFL head coach. The upcoming New Orleans matchup is a juicy one, and keep in mind Diggs cooked them in the playoffs last year. Minnesota still has a fairly narrow passing tree, and Kirk Cousins is a plus-quarterback. Maybe it’s just a matter of getting used to a new QB and a different play caller. I’m still going to rank Diggs optimistically, and probably aggressively, next week.

• It might be a good time to get back in on Jared Goff. He’s been sluggish for fantasy on the just-concluded three-game road trip, including two especially mediocre games against Denver and San Francisco. In both of those matches, the Rams controlled the matter with Todd Gurley and defense, and didn’t need Goff for much. Granted, his season-high for passes is just 36, but he’s chucked just 52 balls the last two weeks.

Green Bay and New Orleans come calling in Weeks 8 and 9. Those offenses should put up a fight, even against behemoth Aaron Donald and the surging Rams pass rush.

• Although Kerryon Johnson had a snappy 158 yards at Miami, it was frustrating to watch the Lions farm out three touchdowns to non-fantasy factors (tight end Michael Roberts caught two, and LeGarrette Blount plunged in one). Meanwhile, the trio of Kenny Golladay, Golden Tate, and Marvin Jones had just 12 collected targets (Tate also had one 30-yard run), zero spikes.

Golladay and Tate were close to much better days — Golladay had a touchdown overruled by penalty, and Tate dropped a sure touchdown. The Lions passing game hasn’t gone bonkers this year, but Matthew Stafford has 11 touchdown passes and just one pick since the shocking opening-night loss to the Jets. I think it’s a good time to kick the tires on a possible trade for Stafford, Golladay, or Tate. The pending schedule isn’t a layup — Seattle, Minnesota, and Chicago — but there are very few matchups that push me off skill players I want to deploy. Detroit has plenty of those offensive talents.

• Given how explosive Austin Ekeler has looked in his change-of-pace role, we had reason to be excited when he was forced into an emergency start against Tennessee. But maybe Ekeler is best served to be a less-is-more guy. Ekeler had a pedestrian 12-42-0 rushing line against the Titans, with an additional 5-26-0 on seven targets. Not a washout game, but this was a bogey, not a par. The Chargers get their bye week to follow, which means Melvin Gordon should be back — with Ekeler the counter-puncher — in Week 9.

As for the conclusion of the game, I’m all for how the Titans played it. When you’re the clear underdog, try to win the game at the end. Tennessee’s problem was not going for it, it was the lousy play they opted for. But the general decision was a sharp one.

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