Sony Michel finished his 13-game rookie season with 981 total yards and six touchdowns. Then he annihilated defenses in three playoff games with another 345 total yards and six more rushing scores (with at least one per game). His 4.5-yard rushing average was the second-highest of any Patriots rush-attempts leader since 2009.
But none of that is enough to lock him into the main rushing downs role for the Patriots this fall, according to The Boston Globe's Ben Volin, who joined the Fantasy Football Today podcast this week. Michel might start, and he might lead the team in carries, but he might not be the next Corey Dillon or LeGarrette Blount.
"Michel was their between-the-tackles guy last year, and I don't think that's really his true role," Volin, the Patriots beat reporter, told our Fantasy Football Today Podcast last week. "... Michel struggled a lot in the short-yardage and the goal-line situations last year, so I could see (Damien) Harris picking up the slack in that situation. I think it's going to come down to Harris and Michel for first and second downs, and they're probably just going to ride the hot hand."
So here we are, right back in the mess we always seem to be in with Patriots running backs in Fantasy.
It's not like the Patriots didn't trust Michel as a rookie. He had 15-plus carries in 10 of 16 possible games (including the postseason) and came through in eight of them for at least 94 rush yards and at least one touchdown. Save for a letdown at Miami and a throwdown with the Vikings tough defense, he delivered everything you'd ask for from a volume runner.
It's those other regular-season games that were headaches. He missed three with left knee issues (he's had those since high school) and was below 65 yards in the other matchups he suited up for.
Keep in mind that for most of these games, the Patriots really had no other alternative for first and second downs besides Michel. Jeremy Hill got hurt in Week 1, Rex Burkhead was fragile and ineffective and Cordarelle Patterson and Kenjon Barner weren't really viable.
But, as Volin mentioned, Michel was not always money in short-yardage and goal-line situations. In fact, he was slightly better than a coin-flip:
DOWNS WITH <3 YDS TO GO
LAST 3 + PLAYOFF GAMES
ALL GOAL-TO-GO DOWNS
2018 NFL AVG
Not all of Michel's short-yardage struggles can be pinned on him — his offensive line blew assignments and fell down on many occasions, giving him no room to run. But I watched these plays and charted Michel for self-inflicted mistakes on nearly a third of his non-conversions. He'd miss a hole, dance in the backfield or bump into a teammate. His vision was disappointing and his reliance on fullback James Develin (his lead blocker on all five short-yardage touchdowns) tipped off defenses as to where he was running.
Now for Harris:
DOWNS WITH < 3 YDS TO GO
LAST 3 + PLAYOFF GAMES
ALL GOAL-TO-GO DOWNS
2018 NCAA average
Harris wasn't nearly as frustrating. Though he did benefit from a powerful offensive line and weaker competition in college, Harris rarely used a fullback and was more efficient in nearly every single area than Michel. Best of all, Harris never hesitated once he got the handoff and only ran into his linemen when there wasn't a lane to gallop through.
The only negative was that Harris struggled to convert late in the year — eight of his last 12 failed. But that clearly didn't deter the Patriots from snagging him in the draft.
It just so happens that Harris is built similarly to Michel, maybe even a little bulkier, and plays with just as much physicality and explosiveness with similar speed traits (both ran in the 4.5s at the combine):
|5-10 5/8||Height||5-10 1/8|
|6.2||NCAA Rush Avg.||6.5|
|2.56||YD after contact/Att||3.0|
|5||Games missed, '16-'18||0|
However, Harris enters the NFL with better receiving chops and healthier knees. He doesn't need a fullback to win short-yardage situations, which makes it harder for defenses to know what's coming. Even Patriots Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio touted Harris' versatility and even referred to him as "a pretty consistently productive player."
There's just one thing Michel has that Harris doesn't, and it's a biggie — experience. It's not like the Patriots to hand over important touches to a rookie running back. Matter of fact, Michel was the first rookie in the Bill Belichick era, at any position, to amass over 1,000 total yards from scrimmage. And that might have even happened if the team weren't woefully thin on running options.
So, while Volin's proclamations could eventually prove to be dead-on, odds are it won't happen right away. Not that it'll be easy for Michel to keep Harris at bay. I mean, all he'll have to do is improve mightily on his short-yardage opportunities, never miss a pass protection assignment, maintain his 4.5-yard rushing average and not fumble the ball away. Oh, and stay healthy.
If you think that's asking too much, drafting Michel shouldn't be part of your Draft Day plans. I've got Michel as a Round 4 pick in non-PPR and a Round 5 pick in PPR — and even that might be too high a price to pay for a headache we may never remedy. Harris will gain traction as a double-digit rounder with upside, making him a must-choose in Round 10 if you roster Michel.
Know what this whole exercise did? It made me want to pass on all the Patriots running backs except for James White in PPR leagues. I'll trust the Patriots to keep him involved in the passing game. He's a top-50 pick there, and borderline top-60 in non-PPR.
Poor Michel. He's a two-down player with a seemingly capable replacement waiting in the wings, creating the kind of doubt and downside that threatens to overshadow all the good-will he established the year prior.