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.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.