Patriots haven't had a running back like Sony Michel since: ____________— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) September 30, 2018
After Sunday’s victory over the Miami Dolphins, I posed an open-ended question to Twitter. I didn’t give much guidance because I wanted to see how people would interpret the question. I simply asked asked people to fill in the blank: The Patriots haven’t had a running back like Sony Michel since ______.
Now my intention was with regards to Michel’s running style. I think Dion Lewis is the most talented running back the Patriots have had since Corey Dillon in 2004, but I don’t think many people would confuse Lewis’ running style with that of Michel. Where Lewis would make twenty tacklers miss, Michel flashed an ability to use patience behind a blocker and then lower his shoulder to get yards after contact.
But 10 people offered Lewis’ name as the blank, the most of any opinion. Six people offered Dillon and Curtis Martin, while four said Robert Edwards.
I said Stevan Ridley and three people agreed with that sentiment. Perhaps Michel can develop into a receiving back, too, but so long as James White is on the roster I have a hard time seeing Michel being the all-around back of Curtis Martin, the player responsible for three of the four best running back seasons in a Patriots uniform over the past 30 years.
Michel only has 5 targets on the season and none of them came last week against the Dolphins. But perhaps they just wanted to preserve Michel after Rex Burkhead’s injury, and I could see the Patriots trying to have a more defined role for Michel and White.
Expectations for Michel were extremely high after the Patriots selected him in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft and he’ll have to match his production against the Dolphins multiple times over the coming weeks in order to satisfy the fans. But out of all rookies, Michel ranks fifth in yards from scrimmage with 202 and that’s even after missing the season opener. He likely won’t catch up to Saquon Barkley (453 yards from scrimmage), but the door is open for Michel to be one of the most productive players in the entire rookie class.
Michel had a 23-yard gain and a 14-yard gain against the Dolphins, showing a mix of patience behind his blockers, explosion in traffic, and power at the point of contact that makes me think he’ll continue to improve each week as he settles into the New England offense. He’s a one-cut slasher like Stevan Ridley, but where Ridley sometimes crashed into the backs of his blockers, I think Michel shows an ability to wait for a crease to open. I also think Michel shows a little more athleticism in the open field.
But until Michel starts getting involved in the passing game, Ridley’s 2012 season with 1,263 rushing yards and a mere 14 targets is the likely trajectory- and that’s an incredible season, especially if that’s the future for Michel’s rookie year.
As for the expectations around Michel as a first round pick, the way teams win through the draft is by getting players that outperform their rookie contracts. For example, the New York Giants made Saquon Barkely the 2nd overall pick, which makes him the fifth-highest paid running back in the league (sixth-highest once Le’Veon Bell returns to the field). It’s incredibly difficult for Barkely to out-perform his contract, so even as he’s ranked fifth in yards from scrimmage for all running backs, the Giants are just getting market value.
Michel, on the other hand, ranks 30th in average contract for running backs, behind James White (t-18th) and Rex Burkhead (25th). For context, White ranks 14th in yards from scrimmage and Burkhead is on the injured reserve. Michel ranks 32nd in yards from scrimmage, but he’s missed a game and is trending up. Ultimately, a top-20 season from Michel sounds pretty reasonable and would also be a major win and a solid return on salary cap investment.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Michel’s had one strong game and two replacement-level appearances. He’s by no means a lock to be the next Corey Dillon. But I haven’t hoped for any Patriots running back to be the next Dillon, until Michel came along.
Because if Ridley’s 2012 season is the projection for Michel’s rookie season, Dillon’s 2004 season- with 1,635 rushing yards and only 21 targets- could be on Michel’s horizon.