Sony Michel's tenure in New England came to a close on Wednesday when the Patriots agreed to trade the former first-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for conditional Day 3 draft capital. Despite leaving with a Super Bowl ring on his finger, the back does depart Foxborough without entirely living up to the No. 31 overall price tag that the team paid back in 2018. In truth, Michel is just the latest example of New England's poor drafting over the last decade, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The club even telegraphed that the end was possibly near for Michel earlier this offseason when they declined to pick up his fifth-year option, meaning 2021 was going to be the final year on the back's rookie contract.
So, when you mix in Michel's play that didn't live up to first-round standards over the last three years and the lack of commitment beyond this coming season, it was easy to identify him as someone on the chopping block. While those were certainly factors in him being the odd man out in this backfield rotation for the Patriots, this trade does speak volumes about some of the young backs in Bill Belichick's stable.
Of course, third-year back Damien Harris is going to be the team's starter to begin the regular season. He unseated Michel as the team's lead back during the 2020 campaign, where he started all 10 of the games he appeared in. Even as he missed six games, Harris led the team in rushing with 691 yards on a five yards per carry clip. In this backfield, he'll continue to get the early-down work, which is a role he thrived in last year. When given the ball on second down specifically in 2020, Harris averaged 5.9 yards per rush and converted 18 of his 39 attempts for first downs. Even if New England looks to pass prior to third down, Harris did show an ability to perform in that setting, catching four of his five targets on first down for 52 yards. Albeit that's a small sample size, but those totals could encourage the team to possibly look to him more in that regard.
In the same breath, Harris' role in the passing game will have a low ceiling as long as James White is on the roster. The veteran is still New England's main passing down back. Even in what could be considered a down year for the 29-year-old from a statistical standpoint, White hauled in 79% of his targets, which was a career-high outside of his rookie season when he appeared in just three games. White will continue to be a key figure in the passing game for the Patriots and serve as the elder statesman of the group.
As for the two youngsters in rookie Rhamondre Stevenson and second-year back J.J. Taylor, their combined success this preseason was likely what pushed the Patriots to ultimately trade Michel. Stevenson, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma, has dazzled this summer with some eye-opening runs. Through two exhibitions, he's totaled 193 rushing yards on 7.72 yards per carry and four touchdowns. With Michel gone, expect him to be the primary early-down backup to Harris, with the possibility of growth as the season progresses. With Taylor, he provides an electricity that hasn't been seen in the Patriots backfield since Dion Lewis (running backs coach Ivan Fears has even referred to him as "Little Dion"). He impressed during limited playing time in 2020 and has only continued to make a name for himself this summer where he has 103 yards and a touchdown while also catching all eight of his targets for 49 yards. This coming season, Taylor could be pegged for a Rex Burkhead-type role in this offense.
As for the goal-line work, it really depends on how the situation develops at quarterback. If Cam Newton continues to hold firm on the starting job, he'll be the focal point of the offense in that area of the field. Last year, he logged 137 total carries (second-highest of his career) and 73 of them came inside the red zone (31 carries inside the opponent's 10-yard line). If Mac Jones takes over, Stevenson and his 227-pound frame fits the mold of a more traditional goal-line back. However, Belichick also didn't rule out a platoon situation at quarterback, so this could be an area where Newton continues to see playing time even if Jones ascends to QB1.
Who will be the Patriots' starting quarterback this season? Can Mac Jones unseat Cam Newton? And what does it mean for the rest of the Patriots' players? Download the CBS Sports app to find out! Plus, get insight from our resident Patriots insider, Tyler Sullivan. If you already have the CBS Sports app, make sure to pick the Patriots as your favorite team for up-to-the-minute news.