Every Friday during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related question. Today, the topic is whether or not Sony Michel stands among the top-10 running backs in the league:
Is Sony Michel a top-10 running back in the NFL?
The Senator looked at me with this face. He wasn’t sure. Maybe? But now that I mentioned it … was he really?
Only a Grade A cement-head would look at Michel’s eye-poppingly bad numbers last week and draw any negative conclusions about the second-year back. Fifteen carries. Fourteen yards.
Michel was about the only player on the Patriots you wouldn’t blow off the confetti cannons for after the 33-3 win. Fact is, the blocking on Michel’s carries was so shaky, there weren’t that many plays when he failed to make all the yards the line opened up for him. Michel is very, very good at running with the football.
But how does he stack up against the rest of the NFL backs? There are two ways to look at it. As simply a runner – which is the more favorable view for the as-yet-untested-as-a-pass-catcher Michel – or as a complete back.
Either way, when you scroll through the best backs in the NFL you really don’t get to Michel until around No. 15.
As an all-around back (and I’m not getting into blitz-pickup, even though that’s a strength because I have no idea how Gio Bernard is in pass pro) who’s ahead of him? Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le’Veon Bell, Kareem Hunt, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon and Christian McCaffrey.
I don’t know if you can put David Johnson over Michel. He’s played 18 games in three seasons. I’m leaning Sony.
James Conner? More versatile with the 55 catches last year and 973 yards rushing in 13 games. So put him up there.
Michel is better than Kerryon Johnson by a smidge. He’s better than Dalvin Cook. I’d take him over Leonard Fournette. About in a draw with Phillip Lindsay.
So yeah. It goes like this: Barkley, Kamara, Elliott, Bell, Hunt, Gurley, Gordon, Chubb, Mixon, McCaffrey, Conner then Michel. No. 12. My first hunch. DEAD ON!
We're left with numbers. While the numbers would suggest that running back production is replaceable and while they would suggest that the value of the position has diminished, running backs still matter. And there are ways to try to quantify what running backs do and how well they do it relative to others at the position.
FiveThirtyEight suggests that there are three situations in which it is truly valuable to run: In closing out a game, in short-yardage red-zone situations, and in short-yardage situations in the "open field" (not in the red zone). In other situations, it's argued, passing is typically the better option and so rush success isn’t as valuable.
Stick with me. We’re getting to Sony Michel.
In terms of win-probability added (WPA), Michel didn’t crack the top-25 in any of those three categories. James White was the only Patriots back in the top-25 in any category and it was the “closer” category believe it or not.
Let’s check in with Football Outsiders to see how Michel stacked up with other runners according to their advanced metrics. In 2018, Michel ranked 24th in their DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) category and 26th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) among running backs. Those metrics are adjusted for the defense a back faced and the situations in which he ran. Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara and Derrick Henry were tops in the DYAR category last year, and Gurley, Kamara and Melvin Gordon led in DVOA.
None of these numbers include passing-game effectiveness, meaning that Michel isn’t penalized for being arguably the most predictable run-or-pass player in football last season. (The Patriots ran with Michel on the field 76 percent of the time last season, more than any regularly-used back in the NFL.) They also don’t try to separate a running back from his offensive line, meaning players with good offensive lines have a better shot of being rated more highly. The Patriots offensive line was considered by many, including Football Outsiders, to be among the best in football last year.
If you want to include the effectiveness of the passing game into any running back ranking, passes to running backs typically aren't all that valuable when compared to passes to other positions. But because the passing game is so efficient when compared to the run — even less-efficient passes to backs are more efficient than runs in most scenarios — that gives pass-catching backs added value on a per-play basis.
Understanding that, the argument could be made that Michel isn’t the most valuable back on his own team — that’d be White — never mind a top-10 or top-15 player at his position across the league.
There is a counter to all of this: The above numbers don’t include postseason play. Michel was dynamite in the playoffs and effective in just about every running situation, including the three mentioned above as particularly important. He helped close out the Super Bowl and was an impact player in short-yardage, scoring the game-winning touchdown from the goal-line against the Rams in Atlanta.
If those three games in the playoffs were a guaranteed harbinger of what’s to come for Michel, and they certainly could be, then I’d be more comfortable calling him a top-15 back (or top-12 guy, like you, Tom).
But I think last year’s numbers over a wider swath of regular-season games would suggest he’s closer to a top-20 or 25 back right now. Unfortunately for us, guys who can’t watch every snap of every game, numbers are what we have to go on.
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