New England Patriots running back Sony Michel has been solid if not spectacular his first two years in the league — but that might not be enough.
One of the difficulties of playing on a team that’s as accustomed to consistent success as the New England Patriots have been these past 20 years is the bar gets set freakishly high for any new players brought onboard.
That’s exactly what’s happened with running back Sony Michel at this point.
Michel has two seasons under his belt now after Bill Belichick and the Pats surprised many draft pundits around the world when they took the former Georgia Bulldog in the first round at No. 31 overall.
Michel was only the second running back Belichick chose to take on Day 1 of the NFL Draft in his Patriots tenure, with the first being Minnesota’s Laurence Maroney (No. 21 overall) back in 2006.
Of course, Maroney lasted just four seasons with the Pats, despite the fact that he averaged an even 4.0 yards per carry and went over 700 yards rushing in three of his four seasons. Maroney never played a full 16-game season, it should be noted, and never started more than six games a year for the Pats.
Over his first two seasons, Michel has also averaged exactly 4.0 yards per carry. He’s piled up more yardage both years than Maroney — 931 yards as a rookie in 2018 and 912 yards in 2019 — though he’s also had the benefit of playing in more games (13 appearances with eight starts in 2018, and 16 appearances with 14 starts in 2019).
Maroney had 12 rushing touchdowns in his first two seasons with the Pats. Michel had 13.
Are you starting to sense the parallels here?
The fact of the matter is, unless you’re a pass-catching back like Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen, or James White, there really isn’t that much long-term job security in Foxborough as a Patriots running back under Belichick.
Consider just how many of the New England traditional power backs have come and gone over the years (LeGarrette Blount, Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, Stevan Ridley, etc.).
That’s not to say you can’t be a valuable contributor for a time in this offense, but the Patriots haven’t made a habit of signing their power backs or first two downs types of guys to lengthy contract extensions.
Rather, they choose to go cheap year after year when it comes time to pony up the cash — and they usually look very intelligent for doing so.
So all this leads back to the question: Is this a make-or-break year for Michel already?
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Conventional wisdom says that an NFL running back who averages 4.0 yards per carry and comes close to 1,000 yards rushing per season should have a firm place on a team. Especially given Michel’s postseason prowess — he was good in the one game last year but simply phenomenal during all three playoff games as a rookie — you’d think he’s bought himself an extended stay on this Patriots team.
I wouldn’t be so sure though.
Consider some of the other names who have come out these past two seasons around the same part of the draft Michel was taken and the success they’ve had with their current teams.
The Giants’ Saquon Barkley was taken 29 picks before Michel, and he had over 2,000 scrimmage yards and 15 touchdowns as a rookie before having over 1,400 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns last year.
The Browns’ Nick Chubb was taken four picks after Michel, and he had over 1,100 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie before having over 1,700 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns last year.
The Raiders’ Josh Jacobs was taken No. 24 overall last year and had over 1,300 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie.
The Eagles’ Miles Sanders was taken No. 53 overall last year and had over 1,300 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns as a rookie.
While it might still be too early to say definitively whether all of those guys are better — or are going to have better careers — than Michel in the long run, the early returns don’t look promising if you’re a Patriots fan.
You’d be hard-pressed to find many analysts, fans, or fantasy football aficionados who’d prefer Michel over Barkley, Chubb, Jacobs, or Sanders at this point in time — particularly the first three guys.
This year should be telling for Michel. Especially with Tom Brady no longer running the show, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is likely going to need to lean on Michel early and often in order to take some pressure off first-time starter Jarrett Stidham (who’s only in Year 2).
It will be up to Michel in Year 3 to prove he can deliver and be the engine of this offense that the Patriots drafted him to be two years ago.
If he can’t do it, then don’t be surprised if Damien Harris, who was selected in the third round of last year’s draft (No. 87 overall), ends up slowly siphoning carries and perhaps even starts away from Michel. If and when that occurs, it won’t be long before the Pats try to shop Michel.