Donald Brown vs. James White: In battle for backup spot, who has edge?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Running back Donald Brown isn’t at the same point of his career when he could command a three-year, $10.5 million contract in free agency, as was the case two years ago in San Diego. This is also different from 2009, when he entered the NFL as a highly touted first-round draft choice in Indianapolis.

Brown arrived in New England this year on a modest one-year deal, and will compete for a roster spot at a position that could still be bolstered in the draft.

“My role will be a byproduct of how I work, so as long as I work hard, get in the playbook, expedite this learning curve, everything will take care of itself,” Brown said Thursday at Gillette Stadium.

In San Diego last year, Brown got caught in a numbers crunch of sorts after the club selected running back Melvin Gordon in the first round. In a Week 14 loss to Kansas City, for example, Brown didn’t play an offensive snap.

But he played more than the norm in the final three games of the year, totaling 94 of 229 snaps while providing a glimpse of what he might bring to New England.

Watching some of Brown’s late-season game tape led me to this conclusion: He could be an upgrade as a Patriots backup because he could be an early-down option as well as a factor a pass-catcher, and is likely in direct competition with third-year man James White for a roster spot if everyone is healthy.

In San Diego, the 5-foot-10, 207-pound Brown did many of the things one expects to see from a “passing back” in the Patriots’ scheme. In a Week 13 loss to Denver, he aligned to the right of quarterback Philip Rivers in the shotgun, chipped linebacker Von Miller to disrupt the pass rush and then ran a shallow cross before catching a short pass and outrunning a linebacker up the left sideline for a 31-yard gain. The play showed Brown still has speed to separate in the open field.

Similarly, in a Week 15 win over Miami, Brown aligned as a single back in a more traditional running set with Rivers under center, and hit the hole quickly up the middle before racing 53 yards. He made three Dolphins defenders miss or bounce off him in the process.

Those were a few of Brown’s highlights (he also had a 20-yard run in the season finale), but there were other times he struggled to get things going. In a Week 16 loss to Oakland, for example, he finished with 14 carries for 17 yards.

Overall, my early impressions are that Brown might offer more than White as a rusher, while White might have the slight edge in the passing game.

But it’s close.