Fantasy Football Outlook: Sony Michel

Ryan Cearfoss
@fntsyfbconnect

The New England Patriots shocked the draft community this season taking a running back at pick 31 in the first round with Sony Michel.  The highly talented runner from Georgia comes into an already jam-packed backfield in New England that includes Rex Burkhead, James White, and Mike Gillislee. Last year I wrote a piece for DomiNate Fantasy Football on why you can’t trust Patriots running backs which proved to be right. In 2017, four different guys had over 80 touches. Does spending this type of draft capital change that for the Patriots giving them an every down back? Sony Michel brings a very intriguing skill set to the Patriots with the prototypical size of an early-down runner with the receiving ability of a player much smaller.

Patriots’ rushing offense

The Patriots rushing offense has a reputation for being highly role dependent. The separation between the early down role and receiving back role has been significant throughout the years. The last time a running back led the Patriots in rushing yards and receptions was 2003 when Kevin Faulk had 638 rushing yards and 43 receptions and this is mainly because there was a lack of talent at the position. Since then the Patriots have deployed two or three backs to share the role, stay fresh and bring different elements to the game.  

Early Down Back

Since 2002 the Patriots have had only a running back reach a thousand yards four times and it was done by four different backs.  This makes this a truly rare occurrence and the chances of this happening multiple times by one guy almost non-existent.

Player Year Attempts Yards Receptions Yards
Corey Dillon 2004 345 1635 15 103
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 2010 229 1008 12 85
Steven Ridley 2012 290 1263 6 51
LeGarrette Blount 2016 299 1161 7 38

All four of these backs share a few things in common with their roles and profiles.  All of them played an early down role having almost no usage in the passing game what so ever with only Corey Dillon hitting 100 receiving yards in a season. In fact, since 2004 last season was the most receptions by a Patriots leading rusher with Dion Lewis having 32. With Lewis, he was expected to have a receiving back role and Gillislee was expected to be the lead back but underperformed forcing Lewis to take over.  Before Lewis last season the most receptions was 22 by the leading rusher being almost a non-factor completely in the receiving game.

Each of the thousand yard rushers fit a fairly specific profile for the Patriots with their size and speed all being over 5’11” and 225 pounds and around a 4.6 forty yard dash time (Dillon isn’t listed anywhere) which is about ten more pounds the Michel but all about a tenth of a second slower.  Lawrence Maroney who the Patriots also drafted in the first round and are their other back to hit the top ten rushing season for them also fits a similar profile.

Player Height Weight Forty
Ridley 5’11” 225 4.66
Blount 6.0″ 241 4.7
Green-Ellis 5’11 224 4.6
Dillon 6’1″ 225 n/a
Maroney 5’11” 220 4.48
Michel 5’11 214 4.54
Receiving Back Role

One of the things the Patriots offense is the most recognizable for is the way they revolutionized the receiving back role. The role made famous by Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead and James White have been a staple of the Patriots’ offense and part of what makes it so dangerous. In the past 15 season, a Patriots running back has hit 40+ receptions 10 times and 50 receptions four times. In the same way, the lead rushers have used exclusively in that role the receiving back is the same. Out of the ten times, a Patriots running back has had over 40 receptions only one time has the back had over 100 carries.

Player Receptions Rec Yards Attempts Rush Yards
James White 60 551 39 166
Kevin Faulk 58 486 83 507
James White 56 429 43 171
Shane Vereen 53 447 96 391

In the same way, the Patriots typecast the build of their early-down rushers as they do the same with their receiving back. They focus on backs who are smaller and quick causing mismatches in their offense.  

Player Height Weight Forty time
Lewis 5’7″ 193 4.57
Faulk 5’6″ 205 4.57
Woodhead 5’8″ 195 4.43
Vereen 5’10” 203 4.5
White 5’9 204 4.57
Michel 5’11 214 4.54

Just like with the lead back all of the receiving backs are under 205 pounds and Michel is on the outside looking in from a size standpoint being at least ten pounds more than any receiving back in the Patriots’ offense.

What separated Michel from the competition?

Sony Michel does not fit the mold for a Patriots running back at all. With such a decisive separation in the early down and receiving roles, Michel not only doesn’t fit the mold of either but lands right in the middle.  Coming out of Georgia, Michel was questioned due to his role as the secondary back behind Nick Chubb who went five picks later in the draft. This isn’t something that should be used against him because he was with such a talented back.

While Michel only rushed for a thousand yards is a sophomore year, proved to be extremely effective averaging over 5.3 yards per carry every year of his career and 7.2 as a senior. In the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma this year he showed what was fully capable of as an all-purpose back with 11 carries for 181 yards adding 4 receptions for 41 yards and 2 total touchdowns.

This type of all-around ability is something the Patriots have never had in their offense, Michel has more speed than almost every early-down back that came ahead of him and more size than most of the receiving backs. In all reality, he brings more to the speed department than the majority of the scat backs as well.

Not only is the ability there but the Patriots proved that he was important to the future of the offense by drafting him at pick 31 in the first round which is higher than every back they’ve taken in the past 15 years minus Maroney who went 21st.  Compared to the other backs on the roster the Patriots have far more invested in Michel then the other back with White, Burkhead and Gillislee all being backs taken after the fourth round. With this type of investment, it proves belief in the talent and commitment to the running game.

What to make of Michel’s fantasy value

Right now, Sony Michel has a dynasty startup ADP value of 8.06 which is a fantastic value for a running back who has a good chance to be a starting running back this season. This places him behind running backs like Marlon Mack, the pair of Packers running backs and Chris Thompson. All of these backs have are in shared backfields and nowhere of near the potential Michel has.

If Michel can live up to his lofty draft position in the NFL draft and talent he has the opportunity to be a great fantasy asset. Being in a highly potent offense if ups his ability to get in the end zone. As a receiver, he has the ability to catch 30 plus balls which makes him extremely valuable. This season I wouldn’t be surprised if Michel ended the season as a top 24 running back in fantasy with the upside to be even more in the future.

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