Sony Michel: Sophomore slump or second-year jump?

FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 04: Sony Michel #26 of the New England Patriots rushes for a 34-yard touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on October 4, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 04: Sony Michel #26 of the New England Patriots rushes for a 34-yard touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on October 4, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

Some experts are predicting big things for Patriots running back Sony Michel in 2019, while others aren’t so sure… so which is more likely in Year 2?

The outlook for second-year Patriots running back Sony Michel this season is anything but clear and conclusive.

He missed all of New England’s voluntary OTAs and then their three-day mandatory minicamp while having a knee scope procedure completed. Although he isn’t expected to miss training camp next month – and a new report suggests he’s already back to running “full tilt” in his recovery process – it’s still not exactly the kind of news anyone wants to hear about a running back who previously missed all of training camp, the preseason, and Week 1 of 2018… with a knee injury.

Still, Michel shrugged off that early adversity last year to finish strong down the stretch. He nearly ran for 1,000 yards in just 13 games of regular season action; and he was absolutely electric in the playoffs, bulldozing his way to another 336 yards and a rookie postseason record six touchdowns scored.

So is it fair to say that barring injury, Michel is a surefire lock for even greater achievements in Year 2?

Not necessarily. The jury of public opinion remains rather undecided currently on Michel’s most-likely 2019 outcome.

Some analysts have gone on the record to suggest his “second-year jump” as a player could be downright historic in nature. NFL Media’s Rich Eisen recently opined that Michel is due for “a monster season” with the Pats, especially now that Rob Gronkowski is gone. Eisen contends that based off volume and opportunity alone, Michel has a strong chance to break Corey Dillon’s franchise record for the most rushing yards in a season (Dillon had 1,645 yards on 345 carries in 2004).

Others aren’t so sure. NESN’s Mike Cole brings up good counterpoints to Eisen’s prediction, reminding Michel-optimists that the 345 carries Dillon received that year “would be absurd in today’s NFL,” as even the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott only got 304 handoffs last season, and that paced the league by a country mile.

Moreover, Cole points out that the Patriots’ backfield is even more crowded in 2019 than it was in 2018 – thanks to the addition of third-round pick Damien Harris out of Alabama – which could contribute to a lightened workload for Michel (and another season of frustration for fantasy football enthusiasts trying to make sense of Bill Belichick’s running back rotation).

The truth of the matter with regards to Michel’s fortunes this season probably lies somewhere in between both perspectives. Eisen’s maybe drinking a bit too heavily from the Sony Michel 2018 postseason performance Kool-Aid, and Cole could be undervaluing the odds that Michel becomes the primary workhorse and driving engine of the Patriot offense in 2019.

Make no mistake, Harris is by all accounts spectacular. He was the leading rusher for a prolific Crimson Tide team last season, and Belichick didn’t burn a third-round pick on him just so he could keep the bench warm for Michel. It would also be foolish to forget about James White, who quietly and consistently kept the Patriots’ offense afloat for the first nine weeks of the season last year while Michel and Julian Edelman both missed time.

Even in a deep and dangerous running back platoon, though, Michel stands head-and-shoulders above his teammates. The 2018 Patriots really became a force to be reckoned with once they fully-manifested their new identity as a power-running team.

People forget that prior to standout swan song performances in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl 53, Gronkowski was largely nonexistent for long stretches of time. They forget that there still isn’t a clear-cut solution to Gronkowski’s retirement at the tight end position. They also forget that New England’s wide receiver corps is about as mysterious and unproven as it’s been in years.

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Most importantly, those people lost in offseason storylines revolving around Robert Kraft, Rob Gronkowski, and Tom Brady tend to lose sight of the fact that the New England offensive line was flat-out phenomenal in 2018. Both in pass-protection and in run-blocking, the Patriots’ O-line made a strong case to be the collective MVP of last season’s Super Bowl championship squad.

Even with Trent Brown playing for the Raiders now and the left tackle spot a bit up in the air because of Isaiah Wynn’s continuing recovery from a torn Achilles, this is a group that should once again dominate opposing defensive lines and open up massive holes for New England’s runners to plunge through.

No one benefits more from that than Sony Michel.