It would be a stretch to say Sony Michel’s auditioning for his future with the Patriots on Sunday.
But after 10 games of solid production from Damien Harris, Michel’s performance is going to be under heavy scrutiny with Harris’ ankle injury keeping him out against the Dolphins.
Since taking over for the injured Michel in Week 4, the hard-running Harris’ production has been steadily impressive (691 yards on 137 carries, 5.0 YPC). Harris had 100 yards on 17 carries in his first start against the Chiefs. He’s gone over 100 two more times since and has only been under 4 yards per carry just three times in his 10 games.
Michel’s played in five games. He had a nine-carry, 117-yard outburst against the Raiders in Week 3 (that’s when he injured his quad and went to IR). In the other four games, Michel’s been under 4 yards per carry in all of them.
There’s little debate right now as to who’s more productive. The answer is Harris, a 2019 third-round pick out of Alabama who basically redshirted as a rookie behind Michel (the 31st overall pick in 2018) and Rex Burkhead.
But there’s a widespread and moronic belief that Michel is a complete and utter stiff.
That undeniably stems from the fact he was a first-round pick. When he started 2019 by averaging 2.4 yards per carry in the first three games (108 yards, 45 carries), howling about his draft status and calls for Harris to be unveiled commenced.
Michel took way more heat than deserved for his stuck-in-the-mud start to the 2019 season. He was running behind a jumbled offensive line with no fullback or tight ends to help clear a path. There was, too often, nowhere to go.
As the season went on and the offensive line stabilized a bit, Michel was better. In the Patriots final four games including the playoff loss to Tennessee he carried 72 times for 320 yards. He wasn’t the horse he’d been in the 2018 playoffs (71 carries, 336 yards and six touchdowns in three games). But that offense had fullback James Develin and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen clearing space for him.
Michel’s draft status has been an albatross. That Harris was a third-round pick and runs with more ferocity than Michel only serves to buttress the argument for those that insist the Patriots erred in taking a running back in the first round.
Was it? It’s not at all cut-and-dried. Michel helped deliver a Super Bowl in 2018. The Patriots brought him on because they needed offensive punch and a lead back to succeed LeGarrette Blount. He’s a more-than-competent NFL back.
Compared to some of the other players the Patriots have taken in the first two rounds in recent years (N’Keal Harry, 32; JoeJuan Williams, 45; Duke Dawson, 56; Cyrus Jones, 60; Jordan Richards, 64), he’s a home run. Only two other running backs taken in 2018 have outperformed Michel. Saquon Barkley, taken second overall. And Nick Chubb. Chubb – a backfield mate of Michel’s at Georgia – is a force. He’s averaging almost 6 yards per carry this year, he had 1,494 yards last year and he was taken three slots after Michel.
So, between those two, they got the wrong guy. But in terms of finding a player who helped the team win? They got one.
And honestly, you need two. Running backs get hurt. Having two that can run between the tackles and in short-yardage is a good idea. And whether you think he’s good or bad, Michel’s signed through 2021. He’s probably not going anywhere. Besides, with both James White and Rex Burkhead set to become free agents in March, the Patriots won’t be looking to create more uncertainty in the backfield this offseason.
All that aside, in order to have a shot against the Dolphins, the Patriots need to run the ball effectively. And that starts with Sony who, to borrow an old tagline, will be New England’s one and only in Miami.