Eyebrows were raised when running back Sony Michel missed the New England Patriots‘ spring minicamp and missed what many viewed as an opportunity to better integrate himself into the team’s passing offense going into his second NFL season.
Michel’s absence led to speculation that he was being held out from drills and practices to reduce the workload on a left knee that sidelined him for last year’s preseason and three regular season games. As it turns out, Michel sat out because he had arthroscopic surgery on his knee. He’s expected to be ready for training camp in late July but for a running back with past knee problems (Michel tore his ACL in college), any procedure has to raise concern.
That may have been an influence in where Michel placed in Maurice Jones-Drew’s ranking of the NFL’s No. 1 running backs. Writing for NFL.com, Jones-Drew slotted Michel just outside his top 10, ranked at No. 11. That’s probably a fair ranking when looking at the backs ahead of him, such as Saquon Barkley (who ranked No. 1), Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, and Michel’s former Georgia teammate Nick Chubb.
When discussing the best running backs in the NFL, Michel likely isn’t a name that will be mentioned. Patriots fans certainly appreciate him providing a legitimate rushing threat as a rookie, but his 931 yards were the 15th-highest total in the league. NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott ran for 500 more yards while playing in 15 games.
Jones-Drew did give Michel credit for his strong postseason performance, which included 336 yards and six touchdowns. But at this point in his career, it’s difficult to consider Michel a complete player, especially when compared to his peers.
Besides durability concerns, Michel doesn’t pose much of a receiving threat from the backfield. He caught only seven passes for 50 yards last season. Missing the preseason is surely a factor in that, depriving Michel of a chance to learn more about the Patriots’ passing game. Pass protection was also a concern, requiring him to come out of the game when throwing the ball is necessary.
One curious observation from Jones-Drew is that he believes offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to show more creativity with the running game in light of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. Yet it’s not clear what Jones-Drew means by that.
Will the Patriots offense become more dependent on the running game until McDaniels and Tom Brady know if their receivers are reliable? Might fullback James Develin be utilized more as a blocker, thus opening more holes for Michel? Should more two-tight end sets be expected, though neither of the tight ends on the roster are known for their run blocking? Could Michel and rookie Damien Harris line up in the backfield together, making defenses uncertain as to who will get the ball?
That No. 11 ranking shouldn’t be perceived as disrespect, though Patriots fans, coaches, and Michel himself may use it as motivation. It’s more of an indication that Michel has improvements to make despite a strong rookie season.
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