Phil Perry

Why Keion White has talent, motor to be an elite defender for Bill Belichick

Former Patriots edge rusher Rob Ninkovich is impressed by the rookie defensive end.

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FOXBORO -- Keion White tallied four pressures on 13 pass-rush snaps against the Eagles. One came on a potential future Hall of Famer when he bull-rushed Lane Johnson back into quarterback Jalen Hurts' lap and forced an errant throw. 

It was just one game. But it was the kind of game that had one of the most accomplished edge rushers in recent Patriots history taking notice.

"He's very talented," Rob Ninkovich told Next Pats this week after watching some of White's film against the Eagles. "That's a ton of talent... Just from watching those clips, I would say, 'Dang, that kid's got a ton of talent.' You could just tell by his ability to play from a two-point (stance) on either side, left and right, some guys they're not comfortable rushing from the left side or the right side. He was basically able to move two big men into the quarterback's lap from both sides, hustle, speed to the football, (at) 6-5, 290 (pounds). That's tons of talent right there."

🔊 Next Pats: Rob Ninkovich says Keion White has the potential to be "SUPER ELITE"Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

The Patriots considered drafting Keion White in the first round back in the spring. They ultimately traded down from No. 14 overall because they liked grades they had on multiple players when they came up on the clock. When they traded down to No. 17, White was there again, but they filled the greater need with corner Christian Gonzalez. 

Lo and behold, they were able to get two of the highly-graded defenders on their board because when their turn came up in the second round at No. 46 overall, White was there again. 

Through training camp he wowed teammates with his physical ability -- including covering punts at almost 300 pounds -- and he put together an outstandingdo-everything first preseason game against the Texans. He looks like a player whose upward trajectory hasn't come close to peaking after physically overwhelming Eagles tackles on more than one occasion in Week 1. 

While watching the bull-rush that ended with White getting a piece of Hurts' arm as he threw, Ninkovich was impressed.

"He does a great job of using his power and weight to just go basically... straight," Ninkovich said. "If you watch him, he's going straight to the quarterback. He's not rounding it. He's not running away from Lane Johnson. 

"He's basically putting his feet in the ground and using his strength with great inside hand (placement)... That's in the inside armpit. That's like the ideal place to get good pressure, get good push on a tackle. That's like the money spot right there. With this position he's able to put the tackle on skates and go right back to the quarterback. That's a great rush. That's an ideal picture of what you want to see from the left side of the pass-rush to look like."

When another bull-rush -- this one on massive left tackle Jordan Mailata -- popped up on film, Ninkovich liked what he saw yet again.

"Really good stutter bull... Great hand placement," Ninkovich said. "He puts Mailata on skates there because of just the leverage that he's using with a really strong low-to-high bull rush.

"The best thing about this particular rush is that when Hurts gets out, [White] goes flat down the line of scrimmage. That is almost veteran-esque. He understands, 'I got a fast quarterback, who just got out on me. I'm not going to catch him if I try to get up the field. I have to literally put my foot in the ground and go flat to the sideline.' "

And the hustle White showed was something a high-motor player like Ninkovich found particularly noteworthy.

"It's like a shark, man. It's like Jaws," Ninkovich said. "When you chum it up and you got blood in the water, when you bull-rush a guy and you're in the quarterback's lap, you can sense it. You're right there. It gives you that extra motivation. You want to get to the quarterback. I love that bull-rush. Great hands. Good awareness there, and good angle on the pursuit."

It wasn't perfect, Ninkovich acknowledged. 

White pressured Hurts off Johnson at another point in the game, but when he did, he opened a potential running lane for Hurts through the "B" gap between the guard and tackle. His responsibility, as far as Ninkovich could tell, was to contain the quarterback as a 3-4 defensive end. 

"In all honesty, Hurts missed an opportunity to step up," Ninkovich said. "If he steps up right there, there's no shot of anyone really getting there considering [the Patriots defensive line] all got walled off. On this play, they kinda got lucky. If he stepped up, he would've at least been able to get out of the pocket." 

White also tried to scoot past Johnson with an inside move on another pass-rush rep. He helped flush Hurts from the pocket, but it came with some risk. The edge was vacated. And Hurts' athleticism to scramble could've ended up hurting Bill Belichick's defense.

"This is definitely a play Bill would say, 'We can't have this.' If you're going to make an inside move, you have to try to make that play," Ninkovich said. "Sometimes [inside moves] can hurt you. If you're playing against a team that has a mobile quarterback and you make an inside move and they do get out, sometimes you pay a price for that."

White's defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington was encouraged by what he saw in the rookie's first regular-season game, but he didn't go overboard with praise this week. Long way to go, he knows. 

"I thought he did a good job for us Sunday," Covington said. "I think he's gonna continue to improve week to week just like we're all trying to do, especially in this month of September, the month of improvement. For him, just continuing the fundamentals, learning those, learning the defense, continuing to grow in those areas and helping out in whatever role he can build for himself."

That role could extend beyond the 23 reps he saw against Philadelphia. Maybe he showed enough in Week 1 to earn more pass-rush work, and perhaps he'll be called upon in obvious passing situations more often as opposed to playing a series at a time -- which is what it seemed like the Patriots wanted him to do in his debut -- starting in Week 2 against the Dolphins. 

However his role evolves, it wouldn't be surprising to see it grow based on the way his teammates speak about him.

"He works his butt off," Lawrence Guy said. "He understands the role he's put in. He goes out there and gives it all he can. The best thing you can have as a young player is being coachable and he's very coachable. He comes to the sideline, he listens, he talks, he says, 'Hey, this is what I'm seeing. This is what I'm doing.' That's very easy to work with when you're on the defensive line. He knows how to leave his emotions on the field when he comes to the sideline."

Players joke that White's emotions are stuck on "serious" almost no matter the situation. Veteran captain Matthew Slater said during camp that he's been trying to get White to loosen up because he's so stoic. 

But the diligence with which he approaches his job could be one of the reasons why he's already ready to contribute in his first year. And it could help him get closer to what looks like a sky-high ceiling. 

"Now I think the job for the Patriots is to develop the talent to being an elite level," Ninkovich said. "As a young guy, he's got the ability to be very elite. He could be a super-elite player... They're deep up front, and they have guys who can move around. I'm sure Bill is licking his chops and (Jerod) Mayo and Steve (Belichick) are having a blast coming up with different game plans."

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