Is offense through the air the answer for Sony Michel in 2019?

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Sony Michel #26 of the New England Patriots is tackled by Lamarcus Joyner #20 of the Los Angeles Rams in the first half of the Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Sony Michel #26 of the New England Patriots is tackled by Lamarcus Joyner #20 of the Los Angeles Rams in the first half of the Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Patriots running back Sony Michel had a terrific debut season in 2018, but he’ll have to expand his game even further this year to fend off competition.

It’s almost unfair.

After breaking out in his rookie season to the tune of 1,267 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 16 games (including the postseason), Sony Michel faces even greater adversity now than he did as an unknown commodity coming out of college.

Sure, any first-round draft pick is going to encounter his share of immediate pressure upon entering the league. It’s the added weight and responsibility that accompanies all the glory and fanfare of being selected on Thursday as opposed to Friday or Saturday. One need look no further than the intensive scrutiny on Michel and fellow blue-chip draftee Isaiah Wynn – or on receiver N’Keal Harry this year – to see concrete examples of just how high the bar is set for these young men when they’re drafted in the first round.

Wynn was lost for the year during the 2018 preseason with a torn Achilles, and now finds himself under the same microscope and with the same expectation to tangibly produce as Harry does. Both were selected in part because the Patriots are precariously thin at those positions, left tackle and wide receiver, respectively, and because both are seen as instant starters and contributors from Day One.

Michel doesn’t quite deserve to be lumped in with the likes of Wynn and Harry, and yet somehow the narrative of this offseason has placed him decidedly in their company. He’s the only one of the three who has an NFL resume already in the books that establishes him as being worthy of his draft position, and yet the cards are somehow still stacked against him.

First of all, his health isn’t doing him any favors. After suffering a knee injury in training camp this time last year, Michel missed the 2018 preseason and the home opener before finally making his debut in Week 2. He injured his knee again in Week 7 against the Bears and missed another two weeks before returning once more in Week 10 against the Titans.

While he managed to finish the remainder of last season intact, he had a minor knee scope this past spring and opened up training camp on the PUP list – though he returned to limited work on Saturday.

Michel claims he feels just fine and that the team is simply being cautious in working him slowly back into the fold. All the same, it’s never good to see a player develop so much of an early injury history, especially when that history all revolves around one specific area of the body.

Secondly, New England drafted Alabama’s Damien Harris in the third round of the 2019 Draft. The selection was widely perceived as a smart value pick by Bill Belichick when it occurred; in other words, the general consensus was that Harris was simply too talented to pass up when he found himself still available and the Patriots were on the clock.

Running back was far from an area of need, though, with the position already an assured strength for the team entering the new season. Aside from Michel, New England also had and has James White, Rex Burkhead, and Brandon Bolden at running back, all talented players with experience in the Patriots’ scheme who seem destined for major roles in 2019 (with Bolden’s coming on special teams, most likely).

Harris’ drafting most immediately impacts Michel. Whereas White is the premier pass-catching back and Burkhead is the change-of-pace utility man who threatens as both a runner and a receiver, Michel and Harris are cut from the same cloth. Though Harris may be considered more of a traditional bruiser, both are up-the-gut, run-through-the-tackles types of power runners with limited abilities in the passing game.

And therein lies the third obstacle standing in the way between Michel and an even greater workload in his sophomore season.

Despite all the gaudy statistics and highlight-reel footage the ex-Georgia Bulldog put up in 2018, he still was nearly invisible when his number was called upon through the air. Michel caught just seven passes on 11 targets for 50 yards through 13 games in the regular season. In the Patriots’ three playoff games, he had just one reception for nine yards.

The best backs in the NFL today have some degree of versatility when it comes both running and receiving. Alvin Kamara, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson… all three have carved out sparkling reputations for themselves largely through their ability to also do as much damage through the air and they can on the ground. Even Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, as powerful and straight-ahead of a traditional running back as they come, had 77 receptions for 567 yards and three touchdowns last season.

The New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley won Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl in 2018 not just because he rumbled his way to 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground; it was also because he chipped in with 91 catches for 721 yards and four more touchdowns through the air. Barkley’s well-roundedness and multi-dimensionality is what’s made him the No. 1 pick in so many fantasy football drafts this summer.

For Michel, improving his route-running and practicing as much (or more) as a receiver this training camp seems like a no-brainer. Especially with coaches and trainers taking it easy on him in light of all his knee procedures, it might be on Michel himself to find the extra time outside of the Patriots’ scheduled activities to develop his skills catching passes.

Tom Brady has long been known and well-regarded by his teammates as a player of incredible work ethic, the kind of quarterback who will happily stay on the field long after the team is dismissed to keep working on fine-tuning mechanics and building chemistry with his comrades if they ask him to. Just as he’s already been spotted several times throwing with Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, and Josh Gordon outside the boundaries of New England’s regimented operations, it would surely behoove Michel as a player to try and find some one-on-one time with Brady for himself.

Next. Maurice Harris looks like a star-in-the-making so far. dark

If he does just that – or finds other creative ways to improve his abilities as a receiver – then Michel might just make himself indispensable enough on offense to fend off the very real threat of losing snaps and opportunities to Harris, White, and Burkhead in 2019.