Team centered and executes in big moments.
Those are the two criteria identified by Urban Meyer as the most important to Bill Belichick when he is scouting college prospects. With that in mind it should be of little surprise that the Patriots drafted Sony Michel who passes both tests with flying colors. At any other school Sony Michel would have been the superstar. The center of attention. But instead that attention was often obfuscated by his fellow running back. In the beginning of last year Nick Chubb, who had massive collegiate production before going down with an injury, was the focus of the attention. So much so that at the beginning of the 2017 season Sony Michel was asked in interviews whether he felt like the "forgotten man"?
Sony would not be forgotten for long. By the end of the 2017 season Chubb and Michel had combined for the best record of a RB duo in FBS history. And it would be Sony Michel, not Nick Chubb, who would be selected in the 1st round.
How did Sony Michel go from being the "forgotten man" to being picked four spots above his Georgia teammate?
Team centered and executing in big moments.
This question and answer from Sony Michel from the pre-championship interview stood out to me.
A: What do you make of all this (referencing the championship media process)?
Q: I think it’s distraction. It’s a big distraction. It just takes away from our focus. The focus is Alabama. People keep bringing up old games. People keep bringing up plays you made. A lot of things in the past cannot affect the future. They cannot affect the present. As coach keeps saying be where your feet are. We need to focus on the task at hand.
In the post championship interview Georgia coach Kirby Smart specifically singled Sony Michel out for his vocal leadership before the game. He praised the way Sony affected and elevated the play of other players.
I think this helps shed light on why Sony Michel was twice selected to a position as team captain. Not to mention disdain for the media is never a bad way to get on Belichicks good side.
Sony also showed a mastery of big moments. In the playoffs Sony rushed for 3 TD’s against Oklahoma including a game clinching scamper for a TD in OT that visibly crushed 1st overall pick Baker Mayfield. In the Championship game against Alabama Sony Michel averaged 7 yards a carry. Alabama rushing defense had gone into the game against Georgia allowing an average of 2.7 yards per a carry. I was particularly struck by the way Smart, for the first time in the interview, became visibly uncomfortable rubbing his temples and scalp as he recounted the way Sony Michel had "willed" himself into 6-7 yard runs. It was almost as if Smart could hear the future criticism that he had made a fatal error in giving too many carries to Nick Chubb instead of the much more productive Sony Michel. Sony is a gamer. His performance during the playoffs was impressive but more than a display of talent it appeared to be a statement of will. Sony wanted it more than you. And so he got it.
Team centered and executing in big moments. Those words describe Sony Michel to a T.
So what are the concerns? I think there are two potentially fatal flaws and one that is more debatable.
The first is Sony Michel’s fumble rate. Nothing correlates with losing in the NFL more than turnovers. If Sony Michel turns the ball over he will not take snaps for the New England Patriots. Sony Michel fumbled almost TWICE as much as the average college running back. He fumbled the ball roughly once every 55 touches. That is completely unacceptable for the NFL.
The good news is that Sony got better at protecting the ball the longer he played in college and some of the worst fumbling coincided directly with an injured hand. Fumbling can be fixed, especially if it’s injury related, but Sony MUST protect the ball better as a pro.
The second fatal flaw could be risk of injury. There is an argument that the reason Sony dipped in the draft was concern about his medicals. I am comforted by the fact that so many teams passed on players like Josh Sweat and Maurice Hurst. If the medicals were truly devastating it is more likely Sony would have fallen far further as opposed to being selected at 31 as the Patriots fended off offers from numerous teams to trade up for Michel.
The last flaw is more debatable. It’s the issue of value. Every sports statistician in the country will tell you that running backs have an increasingly low impact on the chances of winning a football game and there is a higher probability of finding a quality RB in the lower rounds relative to other positions. In my opinion running backs have to pass a four prong test in order to be considered worthy of a first round pick.
1. They must be productive as a runner
2. They must be good in pass protection
3. They must be legitimate receiving threat
4. They must be able to handle a good volume of carries
Sony Michel passes the first prong with flying colors. Is he perfect? By no means. I do have some concerns. But my concerns about his weaknesses are far outweighed by admiration for his strengths. Sony also passes the second prong with ease. There are a lot of successful dual threat running backs that are limited by their inability to pass protect. Devonte Freeman is an example of this. He is a deadly runner and pass catcher. He is not a good pass protector. That cost Atlanta the SB and is a trait that is lacking from a lot of very good running backs. Michel is arguably the best pass protecting back coming out of the draft in years.
The third prong is where I am most worried about Michel. Michel has shown an ability to catch passes in college. But he is not a natural pass catcher. He cannot run wide receiver routes. He is a projection as a pass catcher in a way 2nd overall pick Barkley was not. I STRONGLY suspect that McDaniel’s intends to get the ball to Michel in space. One of the best things McDaniel’s scheme does is get the ball to players in space so they can wrack up yards after the catch. Michel ability to do this will probably make or break him as a pick.
The fourth and final prong is carry volume. There are two ways of looking at this. Michel split carries in college with Nick Chubb so he has fresh tread and can be used more or you can say he split carries with Chubb because he can’t carry the load on his own. Either way I’d argue this is the least important prong. There are very few "bell cow" backs in the NFL anymore. The Patriots will almost assuredly put a decent committee around Michel even if he can bear the load alone. This is something to watch but not something I am overly concerned with.
I was an enormous Sony Michel fan coming into the draft. If you look at the next ten draft picks afterwards the only pick I’d have preferred over Sony was Harold Landry. I believe Landry had traits that translated better to the pros than number four overall pick Bradley Chubb. But Landry dipped well into the second round, so clearly there was more going on there than what was on the tape.
Team centered and executes in big moments.
Sony has these things in spades. He has the potential to be a legitimate 3 down back. Is the "The Forgotten Man" the right call at 31? Yes, I believe he was. Time will tell if that is right.