With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with running back Sony Michel.
Name: Sony Michel
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 26
Opening day age: 26
Size: 5-foot-11, 215 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 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 has been an integral part of the team’s offense and has appeared in 42 combined regular season and playoff games between 2018 and 2020. 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.
Michel was not quite able to build on those positive moments, though. Injuries in particular have been an issue for him: Michel has missed significant time since joining the league, which in turn limited his overall output. In total, he has carried the football 620 times for 2,689 yards — an average of 4.3 yards per carry — and 20 touchdowns. He also has 29 receptions for an additional 276 yards and a score on his résumé. While this is solid production, it was not enough for the team to pick up his fifth-year contract option.
What did his 2020 season look like? Coming off a challenging sophomore season that saw him average just 3.7 yards per carry, Michel had to undergo surgery on his foot in May — the second straight offseason he had to undergo a medical procedure (he underwent a knee scope in 2019). As a result of the foot surgery, he had to focus on rehabilitation during the Coronavirus-altered offseason and later spent the first three weeks of training camp on the Patriots’ physically unable to perform list.
Despite his missed practice time, Michel opened the regular season as the team’s number one running back. As such, he started New England’s first three games of the year and carried the football 26 times for 173 yards and a touchdown. While those numbers looked very promising, Michel remained inconsistent: he averaged just 3.3 yards per carry over the first two games, before a breakout performance against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3 — one that saw him gain 117 yards on only 9 carries.
While the arrow was pointing in the right direction at that point in time, any momentum he had was stalled heading into Week 4. Dealing with a quadriceps injury, the Patriots decided to send him to injured reserve for at least three weeks. However, Michel missed considerably more time than that: he was out for the next seven contests — including a two-week stint on the newly created Covid-19 reserve list and a game day deactivation after returning from IR to the active roster in late November.
When he did return to the field, Michel found himself playing second fiddle behind Damien Harris. He carried the ball just 17 times over the next three weeks, before again taking over the lead back role over the final three games of the season: with Harris out due to an ankle injury, the former first-round pick saw 36 combined carries to close out the year — putting up almost half of his season-long output during that three-game stretch: he gained 219 of his 449 yards between Week 15 and Week 17.
All in all, the 2020 season was a rollercoaster ride for Michel. On the one hand, he finished with some strong efficiency numbers — he gained 449 yards on 79 carries for an average of 5.7 yards per attempt — and caught 7 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. On the other hand, he only found the end zone once as a rusher, missed time due to injury once again and saw inconsistent playing time when active (181 of 623 offensive snaps in 10 non-IR games; 29.1%) while losing his RB1 status to second-year man Damien Harris.
What is his projected role? Ever since his arrival in 2018, Michel has played a relatively clearly-defined role in the Patriots offense. He has served as an early-down and short-yardage back, seeing only one third of his offensive playing time in passing situations. While the emergence of Damien Harris and the addition of Rhamondre Stevenson could change his usage, it would be a surprise to see Michel’s role drastically change four years into his career.
What is his special teams value? Michel’s kicking game usage evolved only slightly over his first three years in the NFL: he saw little action on special teams in 2018 (22 total snaps), 2019 (19) and 2020 (16). 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 over the last two seasons. Heading into his 2021 campaign, 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 4 of his 181 offensive snaps last season (2.2%) came with him spread out wide or playing from the slot. New England has had some versatile running backs through the years, but Michel is not one of them.
What is his salary cap situation? Michel signed a four-year rookie deal with New England in 2018 that also included a fifth-year option for the 2022 season. With the Patriots declining that option earlier this offseason, however, he is now heading into the final year of his contract with a cap number of $3.06 million — $1.83 million of which guaranteed. That said, New England could move his entire $1.79 salary off its books in case of a trade, and $1.23 million in case of him getting released.
What is his roster outlook? When he was on the field, Michel was a productive player for the Patriots last season. However, the writing seems to be on the wall: not only did the team draft another early-down back, Rhamondre Stevenson, in the fourth round, it later also declined his fifth-year contract option. The 2021 season therefore projects as his final one in New England, and there is no guarantee he even makes it that far. The team could create cap savings regardless of a trade or release, after all, which makes him a candidate to be moved off the roster at one point — especially if Stevenson looks good during the summer. Michel helped the Patriots win a Super Bowl in 2018, but his future with the organization is very much in question.