FOXBORO -- A running back? A running back in the first round?
That's what the Patriots decided to do with the No. 31 overall pick on Thursday night, taking Georgia's Sony Michel.
Why? Why did Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio feel as though they absolutely could not pass on a player who plays a position that, across the league, has been largely devalued?
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- Pats take Wynn at No. 23 - is he their next left tackle?
- Patriots select Georgia RB Sony Michel at No. 31
Let's pick our way through this . . .
UNIQUE SKILL SET
Michel seems like a rare talent. He's explosive. For the Bulldogs, Michel hit holes aggressively and showed against SEC competition that he had the speed to outrun defenders in the open field.
But in the passing game is probably where Michel's true value will be at the next level. He may be the best pass-protector at the position in this year's class of backs (two hurries on 52 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus), and he's a capable receiver (64 catches, 621 yards receiving in his career).
Michel fumbled 12 times in his career (six as a freshman, and two in each of the last three years), and he didn't test as an athletic freak (4.54-second 40-yard dash, 4.21-second short-shuttle). But he showed in college that he could run through contact (3.3 yards after contact, 127 broken tackles on 592 carries) and create yards on his own with his downhill style.
You can see why the Patriots would like him because he's an all-purpose player. Though he doesn't run like Dion Lewis -- there's not much water-bug in his game -- they are similar in that they can both play on all three downs. Like Lewis, Michel can make it hard on defenses to decipher what the offense is doing because he'll be dangerous between the tackles, but also as a receiver.
PLAYING THE DRAFT-POSITION GAME
Still . . . why that position at No. 31? Especially when this was considered a loaded draft class at running back? Why not wait until the second round, or even the third, to get the next piece for Josh McDaniels' backfield?
The Patriots must've felt as though everything Michel brings to the table -- including two years as a captain at Georgia and strong intangibles -- made him a clear-cut choice over other backs available. And given where they pick next, at No. 43 overall, there was no guarantee the Patriots would have another chance to snag him.
The Browns, Colts, Bucs, Broncos and Raiders all pick ahead of the Patriots at the top of the second round -- the Browns and Colts pick twice -- and they all could use a running back. So even though LSU's Derrius Guice, USC's Ronald Jones, Georgia's Nick Chubb, Oregon's Royce Freeman and Auburn's Kerryon Johnson are all on the board, if the Patriots liked Michel significantly more than the rest, they knew they'd have to get him before those teams popped up in the draft order.
The Patriots' willingness to invest at a position that the league has deemed one of the least valuable in the sport (the franchise tag number for running backs is $11.866 million in 2018, the fourth-lowest behind safety, tight end and kicker/punter) is curious. But it may be an indication that they feel as though they've found a market inefficiency.
Ever the Wesleyan economics major, Belichick has made a living by zigging when the rest of the league zags. He won the Patriots head-coaching gig, in part, because of the way in which he explained to the Kraft family how he would maximize the team's talent under the league's salary cap. When there's groupthink around the league that might incorrectly peg a player's value, there are opportunities to capitalize.Maybe the Patriots feel as though drafting Michel was one of those opportunities.
When you look at the Patriots roster as a whole, they've been anything but reluctant to invest at running back -- probably in part because good players there come relatively cheaply these days. It looks like running backs coach Ivan Fears will be leading a room that will include Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White, Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill during training camp. Will all those players be on the roster come September? Maybe not. But the Patriots must feel good about the competition they'll get at that spot, and they ramped it up to another level Thursday night.
Plus, if the NFL is becoming a game of "positionless football," where labels matter less than having enough athleticism to beat the athlete across from you, Michel may in some ways be a nod to that reality. As a runner, as a receiver, as a pass-protector, he'll help the Patriots create successful offensive plays, which is more important than the two capital letters "RB" next to his name.
THE OPPORTUNITY COST
The Patriots could've traded down and out of the first round to pick up a selection on Day 3 if they found a partner. They could've landed a pass-rusher in Harold Landry, or an edge-setter in Sam Hubbard. They could've gone with an interior disruptor in Maurice Hurst, or a freakishly athletic linebacker in Lorenzo Carter. They could've gone with a safety like Justin Reid, or Rob Gronkowski insurance at tight end with Dallas Goedert.
Instead, they went with Michel. A running back. A running back with an injury history that includes an ACL tear in 2011, a shoulder-blade fracture in 2014, a forearm fracture from an ATV accident in 2016 and a knee injury last year.
Was it the right choice? If Michel is the next Alvin Kamara, who Michel has drawn some comparisons to, of course. If he's the next Laurence Maroney, Belichick's last first-round running back, maybe not.
But clearly the Patriots felt like -- because of Michel's skill set, because of where they had to draft him to ensure the marriage, and because of a potentially-fruitful market inefficiency -- the choice was a worthwhile one.
Even if it didn't address a glaring need, and even if off-the-scrap-heap players have filled the job ably in the past.
As Caserio put it late Thursday night, "our need is to draft good players." You could argue about when Patriots drafted him and why, but in Michel, it looks like they got a good one.