Sony Michel has shown promise in his career with the Patriots, but if the past is any indication, he doesn’t have long to salvage a long-term contract.
In an uncharacteristic move last year, New England drafted a first-round running back rather than picking up an underappreciated back from another team. The acquisition of Sony Michel indicated to some that the Pats were looking to weaponize a power RB that can both hit the gut and speed through defenders on the edge.
We don’t see these type of moves from the Pats often because head coach (and general manager) Bill Belichick looks at the backfield as a Swiss army knife rather than as a dagger. The team has found success using three different RBs such as Rex Burkhead, James White, and Brandon Bolden, instead of shooting for a star like Saquon Barkley.
A first-rounder out of Georgia, though, Sony Michel appeared to have star potential. He signed a four-year, $9.6 million contract with the team… a cheap rookie deal but slightly more expensive than lots of deals with previous running backs the Pats had signed. The wait was on to see if he could prove he was worth the money.
Stats-wise, his first season wasn’t tremendously impressive. Posting 931 yards and six touchdowns with a 4.5 Y/A average, he worked as a serviceable back. Part of this was due to his varying usage, but he never broke into his own the way many analysts had expected him to.
However, Michel made some headlines in the 2018 playoffs when he went on a three-game tear, putting up 336 yards and six more touchdowns. Could this be a new breed of player – a Patriots franchise running back?
In short, no.
The first three games of 2019 haven’t been kind to Michel, who’s only accrued 108 yards and two touchdowns. Slumps aren’t always a sign of concern, but the three teams New England’s faced haven’t had impressive run defenses.
Worry has been growing around Pats Nation that Michel isn’t living up to his draft value. Now, I’m not declaring him a bust or a disappointment yet. He’s still a good, young player, and I think he’s more than capable of flashing his 2018 postseason success and even salvaging a 1000-yard season out of this slow start.
Here’s the thing: as far as his future with the team goes, it hardly matters how successful he is. He won’t last.
By my count, the Patriots have fielded 19 different running backs in the last decade, and several more if you count gadget players like Cordarelle Patterson.
On paper, it seems like the team is struggling to find talent – but if you’ve been a fan of New England for long, you know how the system works. There are almost always three backs in rotation: one leaning towards power running, one that specializes in receptions, and a third that can do a bit of both. This year they have, in that order, Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead.
Let’s check out the fates of the primary backs over that time:
Laurence Maroney – ran for around 800 yards in each of three healthy years with New England, traded to Denver in 2010
BenJarvus Green-Ellis – released in 2011, a year after posting a 1000-yard season
Stevan Ridley – ran for 1200 yards in 2012, had a less impressive 2013 season, and was cut after being placed on IR
Jonas Gray – famously ran for 199 yards and four touchdowns in a 2014 matchup against the Colts, arrived late for team practice the next week, was hardly used again and got cut
LeGarrette Blount – ran for 1100 yards and 18 touchdowns in a fantastic 2016 season, was promptly let go to sign with the Eagles
Dion Lewis – ran for almost 900 yards and worked as an effective receiving back in 2017, let go to Tennessee in the offseason
James White, who the Pats have held onto for five years, is a bit of an exception. However, he’s a short, quick receiving back who thrives in the New England offense.
Sony Michel, on the other hand, fits the exact mold of the many RBs let go before him. He’s a power back first, receiver second (if at all), and he hasn’t yet brought anything extremely special to the table. Even if he breaks out of this early season slump, he’ll probably land in the 1000-yard range again, and history shows Bill Belichick sees these kinds of players as disposable.
While a player like Ezekiel Elliott is a big star, he represents the antithesis of the offense the Patriots have been working with for the past decade, one in which they never sign their running backs to big contracts, they keep several gadget players, and they usually roster one decent power back. As talented as Elliott is, his use is predictable, while New England’s backs aren’t.
Belichick will go far out of his way to avoid signing RBs to big contracts, and even if Michel blows up and posts a miraculous 1400-yard season, the team might just drop him anyway to avoid overpaying him.
There’s also the possibility that Michel could get hurt, since not only is the position very injury-prone, but Michel’s right knee is fragile for the age he’s at. One more serious injury could cut his time with the Pats very short.
This is why I expect him to leave the team in some way this offseason or the next. Perhaps Belichick will increase his trade stock by pounding him into the endzone often from the two yard-line as this season continues, giving him enough touchdowns to warrant a lucky second-round pick in a trade.
It happens every couple years: the Pats have a good-looking running back gathering touchdowns, the teams lets them walk, and lots of fans think it was the wrong choice. Then, they quickly pick up another back who can rumble for somewhere between 900-1100 yards, and one who shines brighter than the guy he replaced on their new team.
If this is how Belichick continues to operate, don’t fret when Michel is let go or traded. The team will just find another Sony Michel for cheap. In fact, they might already have him in rookie Damien Harris, who’s waiting deep in the New England RB pool for his chance at two years of fame.