If needed, can Damien Harris approximate what Sony Michel provides for Patriots?

If needed, can Damien Harris approximate what Sony Michel provides for Patriots?

Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where our focus will be when practices begin. Today we take a look at the running back position and what the Patriots will look like if last year's between-the-tackles runner Sony Michel has to miss any time. 

We don't know how much time Sony Michel will miss, but here's what we do know: He'll begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list; he's recovering from an offseason procedure on his knee; he entered the league with a history of knee issues; he suffered a knee injury as a rookie that robbed him of a couple games midseason.

After Michel twisted his leg in Chicago last fall, though, he became one of the focal points of New England's run-heavy offensive attack. He got at least 13 attempts every week between a win over the Jets in Jersey in Week 12 and Super Bowl LIII when he plunged into the end zone for the game-winning score. In wins against the Chargers and Chiefs in the Divisional Round and AFC title game, Michel took a combined 53 handoffs and ran for 242 yards. 

But now that we know the start to his sophomore campaign will be at least a little bit delayed, it's worth wondering what the Patriots have in terms of contingency plans should they carry the same old-school attack into 2019. Of course, it'd make sense if they did. That grind-it-out approach had myriad benefits, as it took advantage of smaller defensive groupings that were better-equipped to defend the pass to dominate time of possession and keep quarterback Tom Brady upright.

So what do the Patriots do if Michel misses time?

It was a mess in 2018 without him, because for a time Rex Burkhead was out hurt as well. That thrust James White into more of a traditional between-the-tackles role and occasionally plopped Cordarrelle Patterson in the backfield. Burkhead still has to be considered one of the team's best traditional running-back options — remember, he got the goal-line carry at the end of the AFC Championship Game that gave the Patriots a late lead — but he's been banged up enough over the course of his career that depending on him to carry the load at any point other than late in the season carries risk. Brandon Bolden could provide some offensive value, but he's primarily a special-teamer who saw 18 total attempts in his last two years (2016-2017) with the Patriots. 

This is where the decision to take Damien Harris in the third round of this year's draft looks prescient. If the Patriots are without last year's no-nonsense, SEC-tested rookie runner who was at his best with a definitive rush lane and an opportunity to run through first contact... they now have a no-nonsense, SEC-tested rookie runner who looks as though he'll be at his best with a definitive rush lane and an opportunity to run through first contact.

Both Harris and Michel come from similar collegiate backgrounds and posted similar numbers with similar running styles. Both were parts of high-profile committees who emerged from pro-style running games. Michel averaged 3.4 yards after contact per attempt at Georgia while Harris averaged 3.7, according to Pro Football Focus. Harris forced 93 missed tackles on 475 attempts in his career, while Michel forced 112 misses in 528 attempts. Michel showed relatively solid ball-security in his three years, fumbling six times in all and never more than twice in a year. Harris was even better at Alabama, fumbling only twice in his career and not fumbling in either of his last two seasons. Both were capable pass-protectors with Michel winning 96.9 percent of his pass-block reps, while Harris won 96.0.

Expecting Harris to give the Patriots what Michel gave them in the postseason would be asking a lot. But if you look at Michel's overall production last year, the numbers shouldn't be out of reach for someone of Harris' ability level. Michel was 30th in the NFL in yards per attempt among backs with at least 25 percent of their team's snaps, per PFF. He ranked 20th in missed tackles forced, and he was 43rd in average yards after contact. There were issues for Michel and the Patriots offensive line at times in short-yardage, and he was not a factor in the passing game. 

Time will tell on Harris and whether or not he can be counted upon in his first year as a pro; we'll be watching him closely in training camp to see if he's keeping pace with the rest of the offense. But if the Patriots are forced to go any length of time without Michel, they have a pretty good backup plan in place to put to work.

Great Patriots Debate: Does Brady or Belichick deserve more credit?

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10 takeaways from Patriots vs Titans: Isaiah Wynn a wall in pass protection

10 takeaways from Patriots vs Titans: Isaiah Wynn a wall in pass protection

NASHVILLE – The product popped last week when the Patriots played the Lions in their preseason opener. This week in Nashville? Kinda messy.

The explanation for that is simple. Very few of the team’s best players took part on either side of the ball.

Among those on the DNP-CD list were: Tom Brady, Phillip Dorsett, Stephon Gilmore, Sony Michel, James White, Jonathan Jones, Devin McCourty, Rex Burkhead, James Develin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, David Andrew, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, Michael Bennett and Lawrence Guy.

“A lot of the guys that practiced a lot (during the week) didn’t play tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “Guys that didn’t practice as much played a lot tonight so I think we had a really good evaluation of everybody.”

What was our evaluation? Come with! We’ll show you!
The Patriots left tackle position is going to be in unbelievably capable hands with ISAIAH WYNN. Playing in a game for the first time since blowing his Achilles last preseason, Wynn was a wall in pass protection, showed great feet in getting blocks at the first level and then looking for work further downfield and seems to just lock defenders up.  

I asked Wynn, “How did you feel you did out there?”

“Good,” he said. Then, as if remembering he better sound too satisfied, he added a beat later, “I still have plenty of things to work on though.”

The pace of the game was – at times – excruciating. It was a little bit of everything. An early PI challenge by the Titans (they lost as rookie Joejuan Williams was found to be on the right side of the law on a third-down pass breakup). A couple of injuries to Patriots (Derek Rivers hurt his knee and, sadly, it looks like it’s going to be a while for him. Again. Shilique Calhoun got dinged but appeared fine in the locker room). But more than anything else, it was the penalties. The Patriots had 12 called on them and the Titans had 10. That is attributable to less-experienced players on the field in some cases but the most significant penalty sequence of the night came late in the first half. First, tight end Lance Kendricks placed a Titan in a headlock when he was pass-protecting for Jarrett Stidham. The holding call resulted in a safety. Next, after the free kick, the Patriots had 12 men on the field defensively.

Speaking of defense, there’s a real collaboration going down on the Patriots sidelines. It appeared Steve Belichick called defensive plays in the first half and Jerod Mayo called them in the second half. Also, Patrick Chung – in uniform but not playing – was active in helping coach the secondary on a down-to-down basis, signaling in plays and seeming to help make calls.

Getting back to that free kick I mentioned? Jake Bailey, the Stanford rookie took it. And he hit it almost to Pluto, about 65 yards in the air. On Bailey’s only punt of the night, he hung it 54 yards and there was no return. Ryan Allen, God bless him, he’s not going down without a fight. He had a punt of 57 yards and dropped one of his two inside the 20. Bailey was the holder on field goals and PATs and Stephen Gostkowski missed his only attempt, a 40-yarder.

In two preseason games, Jakobi Meyers has caught 12 of the 14 passes sent his way for 151 yards and two touchdowns. And the balls he’s catching aren’t short little slants and outs. They are crossers in traffic and downfield passes as well. After watching him during practice and in two games, it’s clear he’s the real thing and he deserves to be a starter. Honestly, when N’Keal Harry returns from whatever’s ailing him and Josh Gordon joins the team and begins practicing, I’m going to be really interested to see if they can exceed what Meyers is doing. And not just exceed it for a time. Do it every day the way he has. It’s a fascinating story. During the game, longtime NFL personnel man Jim Nagy, who runs the Senior Bowl, stated plainly on Twitter that Meyers was “the best contested ball catcher in last year’s draft.” 

A great week of practice by Braxton Berrios was followed up by a modest game. He was targeted once and that pass was picked by Logan Ryan. The throw from Brian Hoyer didn’t have a lot of zing on it but Berrios was kind of floating upfield on his route as well which made it easy for Logan Ryan to undercut him for the pick.

Rookie running back Damien Harris worked his ass off with four catches for 23 yards and 14 carries for 80. He’s not an edge-of-your-seat kind of runner who’ll make spectacular moves but his meat-and-potatoes style is a nice fit. Reminds me a little bit of Benjarvus Green-Ellis.

I had no idea the Patriots had a player named Calvin Munson. But when No. 48 showed up on about eight straight plays defensively with pursuit, pressure or brilliant form tackling at linebacker I made sure to check. He was everywhere. And, mind you, that was against the Titans first offense.

How important to the team is Matt Slater? Both times the Patriots had a player spend an extended period on the field with an injury, Slater was the person who went out with the medical staff to – I’m assuming – lend some support to the player. Whether he was assigned that job or just took it on himself, I don’t know but nothing happens without the OK of Bill Belichick. He’s not going to sign off on guys just walking on the field whenever they want if someone is hurt. This is a role for Slater. Between this assignment and seeing Chung as almost a player-coach, it’s cool to see how empowering Belichick can be as a boss with some of his players.

Through two preseason games, Jarrett Stidham has performed exactly as advertised. He makes some incredible throws – a back-shoulder touchdown to shortish receiver Damoun Patterson was like a drone strike – and he gets a little skittish and can make some sketchy decisions. He had two near-picks that could have been taken the distance the other way.

Those throws and decisions can definitely be coached out of him if he’s willing. But the touch and accuracy? That’s a gift. I also liked his instincts on a pair of scrambles that picked up first downs. The issue he’ll deal with – as Jimmy Garoppolo did – is that the starters are better than the scrubs and if you find yourself on the field with them, they move faster and hit harder so spin-o-rama escape moves that work in August can put a quarterback in a sling in October.

The Patriots are off Sunday but back at it again on Monday and Tuesday getting ready for their first home game of the preseason. There are no more open practices this season so that party is over.

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Matthew Slater on Josh Gordon's return: 'Football is No. 2'

Matthew Slater on Josh Gordon's return: 'Football is No. 2'

Despite playing a sport that typically values third-down efficiency over empathy, Matthew Slater has no problem speaking up to be the voice of compassion inside the Patriots locker room.

Josh Gordon's reinstatement by the NFL on Friday is a complicated issue. How was it determined that Gordon is well enough to play? Is football what's best for him? How will the Patriots provide him with support when he returns?

But Slater broke it down more simply following his team's preseason win over the Titans in Nashville: When it comes to Gordon, football isn't what's most important right now.

"We are excited,” Slater said of Gordon's return. “I’ll say this: Football is number two. We want to see him first and foremost doing well as an individual, doing well as a man, and we want to support him however we can. We’re just going to take this one day at a time, which is all any of us can do. And we’ll see what tomorrow brings and then we’ll let the day after that worry about it when it comes around."

Gordon was a big-play threat any time he was on the field for the Patriots last season. He played in 11 games and led the NFL in yards per reception (18.0). He was suspended late in the year for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and though his NFL rights have remained with the Patriots -- they signed his restricted free-agent tender this offseason -- he hasn't been with the team for months.

Bill Belichick pointed that out in a statement released Saturday.

“For the past eight months, Josh’s situation has been entirely a league matter," Belichick's statement said. "When Josh returns to our program, we will evaluate the entire situation and do what we feel is best for Josh and the team."

Slater emphasized the point that he and others will welcome Gordon with open arms.

“I think having support is always a good thing, no matter who you are, no matter what life has brought your way," Slater said. "I think support is good, and hopefully he finds that he has support here. I think that’s really all I can say about it now. What’s good, what’s not good remains to be seen.”

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