Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s offensive backfield.
Name: Sony Michel
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 26
Opening day age: 25
Size: 5-foot-11, 215 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 + 5th-year option (2022 or 2023 UFA)
What is his experience? Following a standout four-year career at the University of Georgia, during which he appeared in 42 games and registered 4,234 yards from scrimmage as well as 39 touchdowns, Michel entered the NFL draft as one of the top running back prospects in the 2018 class. Eventually, he came off the board as the third player selected at his position — behind Saquon Barkley (1-2) and Rashaad Penny (1-27) — when the Patriots invested the 31st overall pick in the late first round to get him on board.
Since then, Michel served as the undisputed top early down running back and appeared in 33 of New England’s 36 games between the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Along the way, he played a pivotal role in the organization winning Super Bowl 53 to cap his rookie campaign: Michel was already very good during the regular season by rushing for 931 yards and six touchdowns on 209 carries, but he elevated his game to a different level during the playoffs when he gained 336 yards on 71 carries and found the end zone six times.
While Michel was not quite able to build on this foundation in his second season as a pro, the traits that made him a productive player in 2018 were still on display albeit somewhat challenged by an inconsistent offensive line.
What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off a solid rookie season and impressive three-game postseason stretch, Michel was forced to sit out parts of New England’s offseason preparation after undergoing a knee arthroscopy. But while he missed all of mandatory minicamp and also had to open the Patriots’ training camp on the physically unable to perform list, he eventually returned to the practice field in late July while gradually increasing his workload and even seeing action in one preseason contest.
Michel was fully ready again by the time the regular season was kicked off in early September, and he went on to appear in all 17 of the Patriots’ games throughout the year. In total, he was on the field for 443 out of a possible 1,210 offensive snaps (36.6%) — second on the team behind receiving back James White’s 519 — and was the clear top option as an early-down ball-carrier out of the backfield. As such, the second-year man finished as New England’s leader in rushing attempts, rushing yards and total offensive touchdowns.
He carried the football 247 times during the regular season while gaining 912 yards and finding the end zone seven times, before adding 61 yards on 14 carries during the Patriots’ lone playoff contest. Along the way, he also registered 103 yards on 14 combined receptions and lost one of his two fumbles on the season. As was the case for most of the team’s offense in 2019, however, Michel had his ups to go along with his downs.
For one, he did not miss any playing time due to injury and was mentioned on an injury report just once all year — a clear improvement over his 2018 season. Furthermore, he slightly increased his productivity as a receiver out of the backfield and also improved as a pass protector. However, Michel’s efficiency numbers took a major hit in 2019: after averaging 79.2 rushing yards per game as a rookie, the number decreased to 57.2 in Year Two — all while his yards per carry went down from 4.5 to 3.7.
As always in football, there is more than one cause for a development like this. While Michel looked timid as a ball carrier at times and showcased inconsistent vision, his offensive line — one that missed center David Andrews all year, and left tackle Isaiah Wynn for eight weeks — also did him no favors. That said, he did improve as the year went along: while he averaged 3.4 yards per carry before his team’s Week 10 bye, that number increased to 4.2 over the second half of the season and with Wynn back in the lineup.
What is his projected role? In the grand tradition of the Corey Dillons, Stevan Ridleys and LeGarrette Blounts, Michel is again projected to be New England’s bell cow running back — maybe even more so in 2020 than over his first two years in the league. The Patriots will field a new quarterback, after all, and the ground game might therefore play a bigger role within the team’s new offensive attack. That said, the majority of Michel’s snaps is still expected to come on early downs and in short yardage and goal line situations.
What is his special teams value? Michel’s kicking game usage evolved only slightly over his first two years in the NFL: he saw little action on special teams in both 2018 (22 total snaps) and 2019 (19 total snaps). The only difference is that he ran back four kickoffs for an average of 19.3 yards per return during his rookie campaign, while he did not register any stats in this area last season. Heading into 2020, his value on special teams will therefore likely be limited again.
Does he have positional versatility? While he had some success as a pass catcher at Georgia, the Patriots rarely used Michel in this capacity over the last two years — something that is reflected in his alignments: he saw most of his action as an early down runner and when aligned in the backfield. In fact, just 12 of his 443 offensive snaps last season (2.7%) came with him spread out wide or playing from the slot. New England does have versatility among its running backs in the form of James White and Rex Burkhead, but Michel is not on that level when it comes to multi-faceted usage.
What is his salary cap situation? Michel signed a four-year rookie contract with New England in 2018 that also includes a fifth-year option for the 2022 season. As part of this deal, he will be on the team’s books with a salary cap hit of $2.63 million this year — $1.36 million of which in the form of a fully guaranteed salary. Considering his potential importance to the Patriots as part of a post-Tom Brady offense, Michel offers some good value.
What is his roster outlook? Given his role over the last two years in combination with his contract status, Michel appears to be a lock to make the Patriots’ roster in 2020. The question will be how his role will eventually look like: he could see an increase in playing time for the third straight year with a new quarterback under center, but also might see a more specialized usage due to the presence of second-year man Damien Harris. Either way, Michel is projected to see prominent snaps once again.