One of the deepest positions you'll find in New England is in the backfield. The combination of Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, and now Lamar Miller, is a pretty well-rounded stable that, on paper, should get the job done. That depth, however, could be looked at as a house of cards as the club moves forward into 2020 and beyond.
This all comes to light off the heels of the Patriots signing Miller to a deal on Monday. On the surface, this could simply be viewed as a club seeing value on the open market and hoping that Miller, who missed all of last season due to a torn ACL, can return to his Pro Bowl form while getting him on the cheap. A lottery ticket, if you will.
If you peel it back a little more though the timing of Miller's signing is a bit curious at the very least. Why now and not a month ago so that he'd be ready to compete immediately upon the start of training camp and, in turn, be better prepared for the regular season? You could say that it was a cap space issue, something that New England dealt with for the bulk of the offseason, but that would be a bit misguided. On top of recently gaining a tremendous amount of space following the opt-outs, New England also netted more than $6 million in wiggle room back in mid-July after settling grievances with the Antonio Brown and Aaron Hernandez camps. While the financial specifics to Miller's one-year deal are unclear, it's not expected to break the bank by any means, which means the club could have brought him in as recently as mid-July.
So why did they wait until now? It could have a lot to do with Sony Michel, New England's first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and starter for the past two seasons. He's currently on the PUP list and still recovering from offseason foot surgery that occurred in May, the latest in a myriad of injuries he's suffered since coming to Foxborough. The simple fact that the Patriots are bringing in another back that has 89 starts under his belt and four seasons of 200-plus carries seem to be a good indication that Michel won't be ready for Week 1, which is just about a month away.
This is a pivotal year for Michel as the Patriots will eventually need to make the decision of picking up his fifth-year option for 2022. He's battled injuries since coming into the league and while he's shown flashes of his first-round potential (specifically throughout New England's run to Super Bowl LIII), it hasn't shown up consistently. In 2019, Michel's efficiency was down from his rookie campaign, dropping from 4.5 yards a carry to 3.7. He also failed to rush for 100-plus yards in any of his 16 games last season, despite seeing 18-22 carries in eight contests. Michel also has yet to make the leap in the passing game that many expected he would coming out of Georgia.
If this offseason foot surgery again puts him behind the eight-ball, Michel's future in New England could be over rather quickly and the arrival of Miller could be the first sign of the tides turning in that direction.
Really, the Patriots backfield as a whole could look a lot different by this time next year. Along with Miller being on a one-year deal, White and Burkhead, who has also struggled with injuries, are also heading into the final years of their contracts and set to hit unrestricted free agency in 2021. That would leave just Michel and 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris as the two most well-known commodities in the backfield. If Michel falters in 2020, it could leave just Harris, who played scarcely throughout his rookie season, as the only man standing.
It's going to be a different year for the Patriots offense now that Tom Brady is throwing passes in Tampa Bay, but whoever ultimately wins the starting job under center will need a capable backfield to lean on, which may not be as sturdy as the depth chart says it is.