In a sense, James White’s rookie season was much like Shane Vereen’s.
The New England Patriots fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin played in three games. He handled nine carries for 38 yards and five receptions for 23 yards. He served as a redshirt, rounding out the running back position behind the likes of Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden and Vereen.
Opportunities to serve as more were seldom seen.
White’s final snaps of the campaign came with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback versus the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale. And when New England’s two-minute drill fell short, so did his 2014 campaign.
It was over then, even though New England’s was far from it. Yet it was a similar case for a certain Patriots second-round pick out of California back in 2011.
Vereen appeared in five games for New England that year, looking on behind the likes of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and the back drafted one round after him in Ridley.
He was injured. He didn’t harness the football until late November, when he tallied 15 carries for 57 yards over a two-game span. But with one last touch against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 12, his inaugural campaign was also finished.
Vereen’s long-term impact on the Patriots’ offense, and the way in which he would be utilized, was not.
It culminated in a four-carry, 11-catch, performance against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, when No. 34 added an underneath dimension out of the backfield; when he took the yards and first downs he was given to finish with 77 and five, respectively.
Only now it remains to be seen if he’ll be back in 2015 to take more.
Vereen is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in March. White is slated to be back fighting for a roster spot and role not all that different than the one his predecessor has carved. And although it would be shortsighted to think one wouldn’t be back because of the other, it would also be shortsighted to think the Patriots didn’t draft White – who collected 4,685 all-purpose yards and 48 touchdowns with the Badgers – to be part of the future.
Their rookie years followed a similar trajectory. Their 5-foot-10, 205-pound builds, short-area burst and receiving versatility could send one down a similar road as the other also.
But White’s path hinges on his ability to find it. It hinges on his ability to apply what he’s observed.
The latter began early.
“I’ve learned a lot. He’s a guy that has a similar style as me,” White said of Vereen back in July. “I go out there and ask what he sees on plays so I can go out there and add it to my game.”
The process of getting White to that level is something only time will tell. The efforts seemed to begin in training camp, when the 23-year-old lined up out wide during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, not unlike what 25-year-old Vereen has been tasked with doing over his last three seasons in Foxborough.
Some semblance of that emulation continued in the preseason as White and Vereen headed onto the field together as dual-threat mismatches for linebackers. It went a step further over White’s limited snaps in the regular season as a change-of-pace reliever from single-back formations.
What was thought to be an immediate transition was not, however. The three games he accrued snaps in during the season were mostly out of hand by the time he entered them.
As far as what that means moving forward, that’s subject to interpretation.
It may be too soon to say White can follow those footsteps to become another dynamic in New England’s offense. But as Vereen’s journey has shown, it’s also too soon to say he cannot.