Patriots

Patriots Roster Reset: Can Sony Michel provide value for RBs in passing game?

Patriots Roster Reset: Can Sony Michel provide value for RBs in passing game?

The Patriots offense is going to be different in 2020. Bill Belichick told us as much ahead of the draft.

Will it be a complete overhaul? Will it be torn down and reconstructed to fit the skill set of Jarrett Stidham? Not entirely. Tweaked, though? Yep. We just don't know to what extent. 

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What we do know is that the Patriots will rely on their running game and hence their running backs. They did in 2018 when they rode a ground-and-pound attack to a Super Bowl. They did 2019, when they finished as a top-10 team in rush attempts.

One would assume the same will hold true as the Patriots adapt to life without Tom Brady. 

Will that approach prove to be a productive one, though? A year ago the Patriots ranked 25th in the NFL, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. A healthy offensive line should help. Talent added to the tight end room in the form of two third-round draft choices should help. 

Hard-charging running backs should help, too. The Patriots have a few of those. They have several backs with experience in the system. They have a couple who are excellent receivers. The pieces are there. The question is how easy will they make life on their new young quarterback?

LOCK ‘EM IN

The Patriots haven’t had to do much tweaking to their running back room this offseason. They were set there. 

Sony Michel is coming off a sub-optimal Year 2 but back for Year 3. James White will likely be a captain and counted on as one of the team’s most dependable offensive weapons. Rex Burkhead should be in the mix as well — his versatility to run between the tackles and catch out of the backfield is unique to this unit — unless he ends up being a cap casualty. (The Patriots could save about $3 million on the cap if they part ways with him.)

Damien Harris, a third-rounder from a year ago brought in to back up Michel, should return as well; Michel’s injury history is significant enough that having a backup “big back” still makes sense. 

That’s not a bad top four. Depth here will matter, it’s safe to assume, since the Patriots will likely continue to emphasize the running game with a young quarterback behind center.

ON THE BUBBLE

The one name we didn’t mention above who spent last season on the active roster is Brandon Bolden. He was once again one of the team’s top players in the kicking game, and I’d expect he’s back.

But the reality of the NFL is that a special teamer whose release could save the team some money — the Patriots could open up about $1.5 million in cap space and eat only $500,000 in dead money if they release him in camp — is always on the bubble. 

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LONG SHOTS

Undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor measured in at 5-foot-5 at the combine this year. The Patriots have him listed at 5-foot-6. Either way, the Arizona product’s height alone qualifies him as an NFL long shot. There just ain’t many built like him in pro football.

Add in the fact that the Patriots were pretty well-stocked with backs before Taylor’s arrival, and he’s the easy choice for this category...

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

...But that’s not to say we shouldn’t be watching Taylor like hawks whenever the Patriots finally take the field. He's so damn fun to watch, we might not be able to help ourselves. 

Taylor is a pint-sized dynamo at the position with good hands and excellent change-of-direction skills. His height actually benefited him at times in college, it seemed, because he disappeared behind offensive linemen and then popped through creases where defenders weren’t looking.

There’s some Dion Lewis to his game in that Taylor left would-be tacklers at the college level weak-kneed with hesitation moves, dead-leg cuts and explosive horizontal jukes. (Maybe not-so-coincidentally, Taylor’s No. 1 height-weight-athleticism comparison on Mockdraftable.com is Lewis.) 

Because of Taylor’s size, his durability and his ability to hold up in pass protection are legitimate question marks. But with the ball in his hands, he’s electric. If there’s an injury to either Patriots pass-catching back, or if the Patriots move on from Burkhead for cap reasons, Taylor would be a logical fill-in. If the roster locks at this position hold true, Taylor could be destined for the practice squad. 

X-FACTOR

Sony Michel's hands are X-Factors No. 1 and 2 for this group. 

When he was a rookie, I made the argument that he was the most predictable individual player in the NFL. (The Patriots ran with Michel on the field 76 percent of that time that season, more than any regularly-used back in the NFL.) Last year, things got better. Not much, though. They ran with Michel on the field 66 percent of the time. (In 2016, with 250-pound bruiser LeGarrette Blount on the field, the Patriots ran 64 percent of the time.) 

That's not who we thought Michel was coming out of Georgia, though. Michel factored into the passing game there, catching 57 passes in his last three seasons. That versatility — versatility the Patriots had been lacking outside of Dion Lewis prior to Michel's arrival — seemed to make him worthy of a first-round pick. 

Perhaps in his third year, without having to deal with injury headed into the season, with an offense that'll likely be catered to allowing younger players like Jarrett Stidham and N'Keal Harry to thrive, Michel will finally find his feet in the passing game. The Patriots could use it. 

Rex Burkhead has been valuable when on the field because he's an unpredictable player for opposing defenses; you can't simply key-in on him and know whether the play will be a run or a pass. But Burkhead has missed significant time over the years due to injury. If Michel could provide just a little bit of the same uncertainty in defenders' minds when he enters the Patriots huddle, that'd go a long way in making this unit more effective. 

Bill Belichick confident in Patriots' safety protocols despite opt-outs

Bill Belichick confident in Patriots' safety protocols despite opt-outs

The New England Patriots already have had eight players opt out of the 2020 NFL season, and few would blame Bill Belichick -- the oldest head coach in the league at 68 -- if he made a similar decision.

So, did concerns about COVID-19 lead Belichick to consider not coaching in 2020? It doesn't appear so.

"I feel very good about the environment that we're in," Belichick said Friday in a video conference with reporters. "I feel fine."

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Belichick also confirmed no coaches on his staff have backed out of the 2020 season.

The Patriots are in the "acclimation period" of training camp, with players going through non-padded walk-throughs outside Gillette Stadium as they ramp up for their first padded practice on Aug. 17.

According to Belichick, the players and staff in the building feel confident in their safety so far.

"I can't speak for everybody, but I think my impression is that as an organization, as a coaching staff, the support people, the players -- there's a comfort level with what we're doing and who's doing it and how we're doing it, and we're being productive," Belichick said.

"So, if concerns or problems come up, then we'll address those. But right now, I think it's a good working environment. We're getting a lot done."

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The Patriots, like every other team, have to follow rigorous safety protocols that include frequent COVID-19 tests, temperature checks and physical distancing measures. That "new normal" will take some getting used to, but Belichick believes the protocols have helped create an environment that coaches and staff feel safe in.

"The organization has taken a lot of steps to ensure everyone's safety and opportunity to do their job and do it safely and do it productively," Belichick said. 

"Certainly there's a lot of responsibility on each one of us to do things in a way that doesn't affect others negatively, that we take the proper precautions that we can and should, so that's what we're doing."

Mohamed Sanu shouts out Cam Newton in Patriots practice Instagram post

Mohamed Sanu shouts out Cam Newton in Patriots practice Instagram post

Mohamed Sanu finally doesn't have to fly across the country to work out with his new quarterback.

The New England Patriots began Phase 1 of training camp this week by hitting the practice field as a team outside Gillette Stadium.

That means Cam Newton joined his Patriots teammates in an official capacity for the first time, and Sanu seems pretty excited about having his new quarterback in the building.

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Here's the Instagram shout-out Sanu gave Newton Thursday on Instagram via a photo of the two in Patriots gear at training camp:

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Beannnn & Ace booogie wit da hoodie

A post shared by Mohamed Sanu Sr. (@mohamedsanu) on

Sanu and Newton teamed up for informal throwing sessions in Los Angeles just days after the 31-year-old quarterback signed with the Patriots in free agency and appeared to develop a strong connection.

Like Newton, Sanu has a lot to prove this season after an ankle injury plagued his 2019 campaign with New England. The 30-year-old sprained his ankle in his second game with the Patriots last season after a midseason trade from the Atlanta Falcons and caught three passes or fewer in his final six games of the season.

Sanu projects to be the Patriots' No. 2 wide receiver this season behind Julian Edelman, so if he can stay healthy, he could go a long way in helping Newton and the Patriots finding success this season despite a wave of player opt-outs.