Patriots Point/Counterpoint: Is Sony Michel a top-10 running back in the NFL?

Patriots Point/Counterpoint: Is Sony Michel a top-10 running back in the NFL?

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?

“Sony Michel’s gotta be, what, top 12? Top 15? Right? One of the top 15 running backs in the league?”

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!

Here's the thing about rankings. We don't watch every snap of every team. Can't pretend to. We watch the Patriots and the teams they play. That means the "eye test," no matter how many times we see them on Red Zone or while watching film of upcoming Patriots opponents, is kind of useless in instances like this.

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.

Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Dolphins preview>>>

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Preventable Patriots controversy is the last thing Bill Belichick needed

Preventable Patriots controversy is the last thing Bill Belichick needed

The Patriots locker room was choked with media Wednesday afternoon. We mostly milled in small crowds of three or four with nothing to do but chat until a player stopped long enough to signal a willingness to chat. 

Then, like ants on a dropped popsicle stick, we’d swarm. Inevitably, a question about what happened in the Cleveland press box last Sunday would be lobbed up. The answer would be some variation of, “Not my department,” accompanied by a shrug. 

Away from the throngs, I buttonholed two different Patriots starters. 

I asked how much the swirl caused by an independent contractor for Kraft Sports Entertainment shooting video of the Bengals sideline from the Browns press box was impacting the team.

“F--- that shit,” said one. “I’m thinking about playing good on Sunday. I’m thinking about the Bengals. I have enough to think about. Not a concern.”

The other just shook his head and offered a pitying smile as if to say, “You don’t really think that’s on our plate, do you?” 

It wasn’t technically Bill Belichick’s department either, but it has very much been on his plate all week. 

If any of the 31 other franchises made headlines for doing what the Patriots did Sunday, the general reaction would likely be along the lines of, “Wow. That seems boldly stupid given the nuclear fallout from the Patriots sideline filming in 2007.”

For the Patriots to do it, given the nuclear fallout from their sideline filming in 2007? 

It was like an SNL skit. It couldn’t be real. 

Not surprisingly, Belichick is beside himself about it for a couple of reasons. 

First, he tolerates the intrusion of Kraft Sports Entertainment because he grudgingly understands that promoting the brand is important to the owner. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of anything he’s doing with, you know, the actual football team, he’ll scowl but bear it. 

But spending time entertaining questions about what he knew and when he knew it in the wake of a second consecutive loss to an AFC division leader? Those are brain cells suddenly occupied by something that not only has nothing to do with football, but which puts him in an awful light. 


And that’s the second reason Belichick is so angry. He understands that a huge swath of football-watching fans and commentators stand at the ready, waiting for a chance to dredge up SpyGate, the jaywalking offense that was prosecuted like a felony assault on professional football. It’s the second time in five years Belichick’s had to stand up and say, “I know nothing…” about some alleged impropriety and he knows the response from too many will be, “Sure you don’t…” 

At 66, he’s a living coaching legend. His involvement and enthusiasm in the NFL’s Top 100 Players production feels like an embrace of that. It’s obvious he’s flattered by it and he was willing to share the best side of himself in each episode. 

But this very preventable controversy in which he had no part means a dredging up of past sins, both real and imagined. Stern words from Roger Goodell about a “thorough investigation” and the inevitable penalty — whatever it is — is a scratch on a legacy that won’t be buffed out for those that want to fixate on them because they don’t like the man. 

So of course he’s livid, furious, and any other adjective you’d like to use that’s a synonym for monumentally pissed off. 

You can blame the Kraft Sports Entertainment personnel in Cleveland last Sunday for bad judgment in that instance. 

But you can’t blame ownership for trying to promote and advance its brand, which is what the “Do Your Job” videos do. With a salary cap near $200 million projected for 2020, every team needs to exhaust its revenue streams. Mini-docs on the inner workings of the famously clandestine Patriots are a layup idea. The execution on this one was … off.

How will the NFL react? It’s probably a boon for the Patriots that NFL owners were meeting this week in Dallas. That allowed Robert Kraft to explain directly to Goodell and fellow owners what precisely happened face-to-face. Maybe that minimizes the number of teams who ring up Goodell to demand the full weight of discipline land on the Patriots regardless of the details. 

The NFL doesn’t need this issue hijacking its season. The Patriots have already been in the headlines enough for off-field drama this offseason between Kraft’s incident in West Palm Beach and the Antonio Brown saga. 

The league as a whole would be best served if its investigation is quick and transparent. A reasonable punishment that hits the team with a fine and leaves football out of it would be the best way to tie it off tidily. 

But there’s no guarantee personalities involved at the league level aside from Goodell — league counsel and Patriots antagonist counsel Jeff Pash, for instance — could be looking for another pound of flesh from the Patriots' hide. 

Confiscating some of Belichick’s precious draft picks would surely make the coach apoplectic especially since it’s the business arm of the organization that did the deed. And while some of his ire would be directed at the league, most of it would probably be directed in-house. 

So there’s a lot of tiptoeing past the coach’s office going on right now. 

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Patriots' Mohamed Sanu gives huge praise to Julian Edelman's toughness

Patriots' Mohamed Sanu gives huge praise to Julian Edelman's toughness

Julian Edelman is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and you'd have a difficult time finding many offensive players who are tougher mentally and physically than the 33-year-old veteran.

Edelman arguably is the most valuable player of the New England Patriots entering Week 15. The Patriots offense has struggled mightily of late. In fact, New England is the third-lowest scoring team in the league since Week 9. The passing attack has been hampered by new additions, who lack both experience with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and a firm grasp of the offense, as well as injuries. The wide receiver corps has two rookies, N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, playing prominent roles right now. Two of the veteran wideouts, Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett, have both battled injuries in recent weeks.

Edelman has been one of the few constants for the Patriots offense, both in terms of production and availability. It hasn't been easy for Edelman to be on the field every week in 2019. He has been on the injury report most of the year, but he's battled through all of these ailments to play in every single game.

“Man, you all don’t understand how tough Jules is,” Sanu told reporters Wednesday. “That dude’s tough. He’s a tough son of a gun, and he goes out there every day. Whether there’s something aching, something biting or whatever the case might be, he gives it all he’s got. Even when they tell him not to, he’s still out there, and that’s what I love about him. I love to compete with him, man."

Sanu added: "You can see how tough he is in his play. They don’t call him ‘squirrel’ for nothing. He’s a bad man.”

Edelman has caught 90 passes for 1,010 yards and six touchdowns this season. He's on pace to set career highs in receptions and yards, and it's possible he breaks his career-high in receiving touchdowns (seven) as well.

His status for Sunday's matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals is uncertain. He missed Wednesday's practice and was listed on the injury report with knee/shoulder issues. The Patriots might be wise to give Edelman a day off against the Bengals given the importance of having him as healthy as possible for the playoffs. The Bengals have a league-worst 1-12 record, and even though the Patriots have struggled to score points over the last five weeks, they shouldn't need Edelman to leave Cincinnati with a win.

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