FOXBOROUGH — When one of the very teammates you might be taking playing time away from sings your praises, you might be pretty good.
Such was the case last week when Stevan Ridley was asked about rookie fourth-round pick James White, the running back from Wisconsin who has impressed nearly everyone at 1 Patriot Place since first walking in the door more than two months ago.
“From what I’ve seen from him, he’s been a team player, worked hard, made some great cuts and catches,’’ Ridley said. “He’s doing it in all three phases: blitz pickup, passing, and running. And that’s what we need in our running back, a complete back.”
With first-round pick Dominique Easley still not on the field as he continues to recover from a torn ACL suffered last fall, and second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo in no position to challenge Tom Brady at quarterback, White stands to be the rookie with the biggest impact this year.
Both Ridley and Shane Vereen are in contract years, and while New England has gone with a running-back-by-committee approach for several years, White is more well-rounded than either member of the fourth-year duo: he is a solid pass catcher (not a strength of Ridley’s) and a solid ball carrier (Vereen had more catches than carries last year).
At St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., White split time with current Bengals back Giovani Bernard. White left Wisconsin as the school’s fourth-most productive back, with 4,015 rushing yards, despite sitting behind the Broncos’ Montee Ball. White’s 45 rushing touchdowns are third in school history.
Perhaps most important, and of particular interest to those who have been critical of Ridley, who fumbled four times last season, White had just two fumbles in 754 career touches for the Badgers.
“Ball security is job security,” he declared in May.
White has seen a lot of time with Brady and the offense since training camp began, and Brady, who doesn’t often talk up rookies, has spoken in glowing terms about the 5-foot-10-inch, 205-pounder.
“He’s done a great job since he’s got here. He’s got a real maturity for someone who is just getting out of college,” Brady said. “He’s made a lot of really great plays out here. We’re all trying to work to get better, and we’re all trying to make improvements.
“The young players need to come out here and keep working hard, and he’s one of those guys who has been out here every day, so he’s been able to do that. He’s been able to make a mistake, get the correction, come out again and not make the mistake the next day, so it’s been great.”
Running backs have seen their stock plummet in recent drafts as the NFL has become more pass-friendly. The 2013 draft was the first time a back was not taken in the first round, a feat repeated this year. So if White is the find that he appears to be, getting him in the fourth round could prove to be a steal.
“I knew when we drafted him everyone really liked him, so that’s why he’s here,” Brady said. “I think everyone thinks he can contribute to the team and he can make a big impact on the team. He’s done that.
“He makes really impressive plays for a young player. The more of those guys we have, the better we’re going to be collectively, and that’s what training camp really gives everybody an opportunity to do — because you get the chance, and you want to try to go out and show people what you’re capable of, you want to go out and surprise people that they didn’t think you’re capable of something, and you show them that you can do it. That’s where you really gain the trust of your coaches and your teammates.”
Someone who stands to lose carries to him loves him, the not-easy-to-please quarterback loves him — even Bill Belichick loves him. Talk about someone who rarely talks up players with just a few weeks in an NFL playbook.
“It’s been good working with James White,” Belichick told SiriusXM. “He’s a very interesting and versatile player, he does a good job in the passing game and in the running game, both inside and outside, blitz pickup. We have a pretty extensive offense for him to learn and he’s working hard at it. We’ll just let him go and see how it goes. But I think he has the ability to compete on all three downs, in both the running game and the passing game.”
Belichick saying that White has the ability to compete on all three downs is high praise indeed. From Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead to Vereen, for years the Patriots have had a third-down specialist in the backfield, a guy who has sure hands as a receiver and can be counted on to pick up first downs in key situations.
Rounding out White’s chorus of admirers are his defensive teammates.
“I was just talking to one of my teammates about him,” defensive end Chandler Jones said. “He’s a good player. He hasn’t played in a game yet, but just the certain cuts he makes and the vision that he has when I see him on the practice field and seeing him on film, he looks like a veteran running back the way he’s running. We still haven’t seen him on the field yet, but I feel like he’ll be good. He’ll help us a lot.”
Rob Ninkovich echoed Jones’s thoughts.
“He’s got tremendous cut ability — when I was watching some of the run clips, his vision is amazing. His ability to get into the line of scrimmage and change direction, his explosiveness, is impressive,” he said.
While everyone else has been quick to talk him up last week, White said little when he met with reporters, giving answers that were respectful but lacking in any detail.
Apparently he’ll let his play do all the talking for him.
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The Patriots released rookie wideout Cole Stanford, who signed a week ago after being undrafted out of Cal Poly.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.