Will the Patriots Rely on Rookie Sony Michel? - Footballguys

A detailed look at Sony Michel's fantasy prospects for 2018. 

In a world full of pundits, few predicted Sony Michel would be a first-round draft pick, going ahead of his teammate at Georgia, Nick Chubb. But that’s exactly what happened as the Super Bowl runners-up Patriots selected the dynamic runner with the 31st overall selection.

Reasons to Be Excited

  • Sony Michel is an exceptional running back, with the versatility to play a three-down role
  • The Patriots offense routinely finishes at or near the top of the league standings
  • Michel is only the second running back taken in the first round by Belichick
  • Dion Lewis – arguably the team’s most dynamic runner last year – signed with Tennessee

Reasons to Be Skeptical

  • Very few Patriots running backs deliver consistent, top-20 fantasy value
  • No rookie Patriots running back under Belichick has ever done so
  • The offensive line is highly questionable
  • Michel has major fumbling concerns

Michel is a difficult prospect to handicap because he’s landed on a team with the least predictable play-calling and system. As much as Michel’s talent and the Patriots offense are enticing, the crushing weight of historical context argues strongly in favor of passing on the rookie at his current average draft position.


The Better Bulldog?

Google sleuthing around the internet before this year’s NFL draft would’ve had you believing Nick Chubb was the best running back at the University of Georgia. Most expected Chubb to be an early pick, perhaps in the first round, and have the opportunity to be an instant NFL starter. Michel, Chubb’s teammate and backfield partner was also considered a potential NFL starter, but most viewed him in a tier below Chubb and Saquon Barkley. Bill Belichick disagreed.

Why did most draft analysts view Chubb as superior? Mainly because of first impressions. When Michel and Chubb were freshmen, Chubb was the star. He ran 219 times for 1,547 yards (7.1 per rush) with 14 touchdowns while Michel only carried the ball 64 times for 410 yards (6.4 per rush) and 5 touchdowns. Chubb hurt his knee in their sophomore year but was outplaying Michel beforehand (8.1 yards per rush versus 5.2 yards per rush). When Chubb returned junior year, he out-carried Michel and did so again in their final season. If Michel was better, why did the Bulldogs continue giving Chubb the heavier workload in spite of his less-than-100% return to pre-injury form?

Nick Chubb, Georgia Statistics

Year
Class
Gms
Rush
RuYds
Y/Rush
RuTDs
Recs
RecYds
Y/Rec
RecTDs
2014
FR
13
219
1547
7.1
14
18
213
11.8
2
2015
SO
6
92
747
8.1
7
4
32
8
1
2016
JR
13
224
1130
5
8
5
86
17.2
1
2017
SR
15
223
1345
6
15
4
30
7.5
0
Career
47
758
4769
6.3
44
31
361
11.6
4

Sony Michel, Georgia Statistics

Year
Class
Gms
Rush
RuYds
Y/Rush
RuTDs
Recs
RecYds
Y/Rec
RecTDs
2014
FR
8
64
410
6.4
5
7
106
15.1
1
2015
SO
13
218
1136
5.2
8
26
270
10.4
3
2016
JR
12
152
840
5.5
4
22
149
6.8
1
2017
SR
14
156
1227
7.9
16
9
96
10.7
1
Career
47
590
3613
6.1
33
64
621
9.7
6

Regardless of Chubb’s abilities, what’s important is whether Michel showed enough in college to project success at the NFL level. His film shows a patient runner with an explosive first step, good vision, and breakaway speed. He’s well-built (5-foot-11, 222 pounds), and dominated as a senior (1,227 yards rushing, 16 rushing touchdowns, 7.9 yards per rush). Michel stands apart from Chubb as a receiver. He caught twice as many passes in college, and he’s not merely a dump-off option at the line of scrimmage. Michel is already a capable route runner.

The Patriots Way

The Patriots have finished in the Top 5 in points scored for eight consecutive years, and have been in the Top 3 in seven of those seasons; finishing second last year with 458 points. Although Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been constants, few others have persisted. The team’s success has been in many ways a revolving cast of supporting players and assistant coaches. Yet, the running game is as predictable as a Swiss watch.

Cohort
Rushes
RuYds
Y/Rush
1stDns
RuTDs
2000-2017
457.3
1,819
4.0
110.1
16.2
Non Super Bowl Years
453.7
1,818
4.0
112.8
17.0
Super Bowl Years
461.9
1,820
3.9
106.8
15.3
Super Bowl Winning Years
474.2
1,819
3.8
103.6
14.2

It doesn’t matter whether the Patriots are Super Bowl bound or not. The best and worst versions of Belichick’s Patriots have nearly identical rushing metrics.

The Dream Scenario – Michel replaces Dion Lewis

If you’re looking for a way to justify Sony Michel as an early round selection, it comes down to whether he can slide right into Dion Lewis’ vacated role. Last year, Lewis ran 180 times for 896 yards (5.0 per carry), caught 32 receptions for 214 yards, and scored 9 touchdowns; he finishes as the 13th best fantasy running back.

Reasons to Believe Michel Can Fill That Role:

  1. Michel’s skill set evokes Lewis’
  2. Michel is the first first-round running back drafted by Belichick since Laurence Maroney
  3. Michel is bigger than Lewis, but just as fast

Plausible? Yes.

Likely? No.

Rex Burkhead’s Health is an X-Factor

Burkhead missed six games last year, and his absence was mostly responsible for Dion Lewis’ success.

Dion Lewis, Per-Game Fantasy Points, 2017

Status
Snaps
Rush
RuYds
RuTDs
Targets
Recs
RecYds
RecTDs
6 Games Without Burkhead
29.3
12.3
58.3
0.7
3.0
2.8
15.8
0.3
10 Games With Burkhead
22.8
10.6
54.6
0.2
1.7
1.5
11.9
0.1

Dion Lewis, Per-Game Fantasy Points, Projected over a Full 16-Game Season, 2017

Status
Snaps
Rush
RuYds
RuTDs
Targets
Recs
RecYds
RecTDs
FanPts
Rank
Without Burkhead
469
197
933
11
48
45
253
5
260
RB8
With Burkhead
365
170
874
3
27
24
190
2
159
RB25

Lewis was a low-end fantasy RB2 when Burkhead played, and a top-10 player when Burkhead was hurt. Even if you think Belichick will give Michel a full complement of carries this year, you have to also count on Burkhead missing a chunk of games to expect low-end RB1 production realistically.

History Warrants Caution

In 18 seasons in New England, Bill Belichick has rarely given a single running back enough work to justify an early fantasy pick. Over the last five years, it took approximately 13 fantasy points per game to finish the season as a top-12 player (RB1). 13 points per game times 16 games equals 208 fantasy points. How many running backs have accomplished that feat in Belichick’s history?

TWO.

In 18 years, only two running backs have averaged 13 fantasy points per game: Corey Dillon and Rex Burkhead.

Top-25 Patriots Running Backs, Fantasy Points per Game (PPR) -- Belichick Patriots Era (2000-2017)

First
Last
Years
Games
Rush
RuYds
RuTDs
Recs
RecYd
RecTDs
PPR-FPTs
FPTs/Gm
Corey
Dillon
2004--2006
43
753
3,180
37
52
431
2
647.1
15.0
Rex
Burkhead
2017--2017
10
64
264
5
30
254
3
129.8
13.0
Antowain
Smith
2001--2003
45
721
2,781
21
64
527
3
538.8
12.0
Dion
Lewis
2015--2017
34
293
1,413
8
85
696
5
373.9
11.0
LeGarrette
Blount
2013--2016
49
677
2,917
34
19
137
1
534.4
10.9
Laurence
Maroney
2006--2009
45
582
2,430
21
40
409
1
455.9
10.1
Shane
Vereen
2011--2014
42
217
907
7
108
1,023
7
385.0
9.2
James
White
2014--2017
47
113
431
2
161
1,413
12
429.4
9.1
Jonas
Gray
2014--2014
8
89
412
5
1
7
0
72.9
9.1
Stevan
Ridley
2011--2014
50
649
2,817
22
23
146
0
451.3
9.0
Danny
Woodhead
2010--2012
45
250
1,199
10
92
982
4
394.1
8.8
Kevin
Faulk
2000--2011
150
797
3,380
15
419
3,603
14
1,291.3
8.6
BenJarvus
Green-Ellis
2008--2011
53
510
2,064
29
26
292
0
435.6
8.2
Mike
Gillislee
2017--2017
9
104
383
5
1
15
0
70.8
7.9
LaMont
Jordan
2008--2008
8
80
363
4
0
-
0
60.3
7.5
Steven
Jackson
2015--2015
2
21
50
1
1
20
0
14.0
7.0
Sammy
Morris
2007--2010
47
334
1,486
12
49
453
0
314.9
6.7
Fred
Taylor
2009--2010
13
106
424
4
4
23
0
72.7
5.6
Larry
Centers
2003--2003
9
21
82
0
19
106
1
43.8
4.9
Mike
Cloud
2003--2005
11
50
177
5
1
8
0
49.5
4.5
J.R.
Redmond
2000--2002
32
164
527
1
35
263
2
132.0
4.1
Marc
Edwards
2001--2002
32
82
237
1
48
362
2
125.9
3.9
Raymont
Harris
2000--2000
1
3
14
0
2
1
0
3.5
3.5
Brandon
Bolden
2012--2017
83
216
912
6
47
373
2
223.5
2.7
Patrick
Pass
2000--2006
78
128
526
3
66
570
1
199.6
2.6

Observations:

  • Corey Dillon averaged 15.0 fantasy points per game (PPR) during his Patriots tenure, which projects as a RB1 (threshold, 13 points per game to finish as a PPR RB1)
  • Rex Burkhead is the only other Patriots back to average 13 or more fantasy points, and he's only played 10 games for the team
  • Four other running backs: Antowain Smith, Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, and Laurence Maroney averaged 10+ points per game in New England

Even if we look at individual seasons, rather than career averages, the data is damning. Over that same 18-year span, only six running back seasons were RB1-caliber.

Top-25 Patriots Running Backs, Single-Seasons, Fantasy Points per Game (PPR) -- Belichick Era (2000-2017)

First
Last
Year
Age
Games
FPT-PPR
FPT/Game
16gmAvg
PPR-Rk (5YrAvg)
Corey
Dillon
2004
30
15
266.8
17.8
285
5.0
Dion
Lewis
2015
25
7
122.2
17.5
279
5.2
Shane
Vereen
2013
24
8
134.5
16.8
269
5.8
Corey
Dillon
2005
31
12
191.4
16.0
255
6.6
LeGarrette
Blount
2016
30
16
234.9
14.7
235
8.6
Antowain
Smith
2001
29
16
231.9
14.5
232
9.6
Stevan
Ridley
2012
23
16
209.4
13.1
209
13.4
Rex
Burkhead
2017
27
10
129.8
13.0
208
13.4
Kevin
Faulk
2008
32
15
193.3
12.9
206
14.0
Antowain
Smith
2002
30
16
201.5
12.6
202
14.6
BenJarvus
Green-Ellis
2010
25
16
199.3
12.5
199
15.8
Dion
Lewis
2017
27
16
197.0
12.3
197
16.0
Corey
Dillon
2006
32
16
188.9
11.8
189
17.8
Danny
Woodhead
2010
25
14
162.6
11.6
186
18.8
Kevin
Faulk
2000
24
16
184.5
11.5
185
19.2
Sammy
Morris
2008
31
13
147.8
11.4
182
19.4
Laurence
Maroney
2006
21
14
157.9
11.3
180
20.6
Sammy
Morris
2007
30
6
65.9
11.0
176
21.0
Shane
Vereen
2014
25
16
166.8
10.4
167
23.2
Laurence
Maroney
2007
22
13
135.1
10.4
166
24.0
Kevin
Faulk
2003
27
15
155.8
10.4
166
24.0
LeGarrette
Blount
2014
28
5
51.9
10.4
166
24.0
Laurence
Maroney
2009
24
15
153.6
10.2
164
24.4
LeGarrette
Blount
2015
29
12
122.6
10.2
163
24.6
James
White
2016
24
16
161.7
10.1
162
25.0

Observations:

  • Corey Dillon scored 266.8 fantasy points (PPR) in 2004 in 15 games. That equates to 285 points over 16 games -- which would've ranked RB5 on average over the last five seasons
  • Dion Lewis has a similar per-game value in 2015, he would've finished slightly below RB5
  • Shane Vereen (2013), Corey Dillon (2005), LeGarrette Blount (2016), and Antowain Smith (2001) were the only other single-seasons that projected as top-12 fantasy performances
  • The full chart shows the only 25 single seasons that project as top-25 finishes on a per-game basis

Fumbling Is Another Major Risk

Turnovers are the death knell of opportunity, particularly for young players. Bill Belichick, in particular, has been viciously punitive to running backs who turn the ball over. Mike Gillislee started last season with three touchdowns in Week One but fumbled his way out of the rotation. Given how toxic early turnovers can be in New England, drafting Sony Michel requires a leap of faith. Michel’s one significant red flag as a prospect is his propensity to lose the ball. NFL running backs fumble once ever 125 touches, on average. Michel lost the ball once every 54.6 touches at Georgia. In other words, Michel turned the ball over nearly 2.5x as often as an average NFL runner.

  • Average fumble rate, NFL – Once every 125 touches
  • Average fumble rate, Sony Michel at Georgia – Once every 54.6 touches

PROJECTIONS

Year
Projector
Games
Rush
Yards
TDs
Recs
Yards
TDs
Fumbles
2018
15.3
158.0
662
5.1
32.0
262
1.1
2.0
2018
16.0
175.0
850
6.0
35.0
380
2.0
0.0
2018
16.0
145.0
650
5.0
38.0
340
1.0
2.0
2018
16.0
162.0
673
5.1
18.0
143
0.6
2.0

FINAL THOUGHTS

Sony Michel is an elite talent and belongs in the same tier as more hyped rookie prospects Saquon Barkley and Nick Chubb. The Patriots rarely spend draft capital on running backs but took Michel in the first round. They have a need for a versatile, three-down player to replace Dion Lewis. Michel is bigger and stronger than Lewis, but just as explosive. It seems like a perfect fit for fantasy stardom. Unfortunately, talent is only one part of the equation. Does Michel have the opportunity to be a star in 2018? Historically speaking, even if Michel earns an early role, his upside is capped. Only Corey Dillon produced RB1 numbers in multiple seasons for the Patriots, and only Dillon and Rex Burkhead have been RB1-caliber players on a per game basis. New England is a deep a versatile team and while we may remember specific games when the likes of Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, James White, Antowain Smith, and Laurence Maroney put up big numbers, it was rarely for more than a few weeks at a time. If Michel can shake off fumbling concerns, he should become part of a committee with Rex Burkhead. Dion Lewis was RB25 last year when Burkhead played, which serves as Michel's baseline outlook in PPR formats. Had Michel landed on most other teams, he would have the same kind of top-10 upside we saw from Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, and Alvin Kamara last year. But as a Patriot, he's got a lower ceiling and a cavernous floor. Caveat emptor at current ADP.


OTHER THOUGHTS

CBS Sports Jamey Eisenberg views Michel as a bust:

"While Michel does have the chance for most of Lewis' 212 touches from last year (180 carries and 32 catches), the Patriots will also lean on Rex Burkhead, James White and likely one of Mike Gillislee or Jeremy Hill, depending on who makes the final roster. Burkhead missed six games due to injury in 2017, and Lewis had three of his seven games with double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league in those outings."

NFL.com's Adam Rank highlights Michel as one of his 11 sleepers:

"I know, everyone acts like the Patriots are some unsolvable riddle. But Patriots running backs are like Easter Eggs planted in movies. They are there, you just have to be paying attention. I anticipate a huge role for Michel this year."

Viewpoints from the Footballguys Shark Pool Message Board

TripItUp sees top-5 upside:

"Top 5 RB upside with a 5th round price tag, yes please. Watch Michel's college game tape and you'll see a back with the total package. If the Pats spend a high pick on a RB, they're going to use him. Burkhead and White are not in the same class of talent. Only real concern is fumbles, but reward far outweighs the risk in this instance."

Anarchy99 disagrees:

"I disagree on Michel. The Pats have drafted early round RBs before and rookies have not taken over and were always in a time share.

They still have White, Burkhead, Gillisee, and Hill ( at least for now). Between salaries and bonuses, NE is in it for over $10 million for those guys this year. If B.B. really had plans to make Michel the bell cow, they would not keep all those guys and pay out that kind of money.

There is nothing over the past decade that shows NE wants to use a primary back. They have utilized specialists time and time again. Sure, they COULD change, but I am not sure they will change with a first year player.

Michel could emerge and get more touches if the other backs get hurt ( which happens a lot in NE), but I don’t see his usage as worthy as him having Top 5 potential."

TheDirtyWord is concerned:

"I think the issue with Michel (or any NE RB) is as follows:

1) Belichick uses the first 4 games as an extended pre-season. He knows he has the talent/QB/pedigree/division weakness to be patient.

2) As such, roles get carved out/established in September. It's a different situation, but Gillislee looked like decent RB2 value through first 4 games last year. 2015 was another example of the fluid nature of Pats RB's.

3) To be fair, Michel does have the standing of 1st rounder so he's going to have a role. He won't be inactive. But will it be fantasy worthy/predictable? That's the question and many have tried to read Hoodie's tendencies here to frustrating levels of success/failure."