The Patriots shocked everyone when they selected UG bulldog Sony Michel running back in the first round. But you don’t let your lead running back leave in free agency without a backup plan. Nearly 900 yards on the ground, and another 200 in the air.
Dion Lewis was an atypical lead back. His cutting style and small frame powering through the line of scrimmage. What’s more is that he played the part well. In the 2017 season he looked like a lead back. This production was bittersweet when he signed a free agent contract with the Tennessee Titans. Replacing the yards from his snaps would not be easy. The team did resign Rex Burkhead and looked for free agent options. Eventually deciding on Jeremy Hill as a low risk, veteran gamble.
One only has to look at the Dallas Cowboys as a recent lesson. They did not properly plan for a succession at that position. DeMarco Murray’s production was not immediately replaced when he left in free agency. The Cowboys scrambled with a group that produced a thousand yard rusher in Darren McFadden and little else. In response to this, the Cowboys scrambled and drafted Ezekiel Elliott the next year. This ensured that the position was set. The Patriots have made one thing clear. It’s that they won’t allow that sequence of poor performance to sink a chance at a championship.
The selection of a running back in the first round is in defiance of current mode for thinking for NFL draft strategy. A common line of thought is to get multiple talented individuals and rotate them. The Patriots have themselves been a primary proponent of this philosophy. This year, however, they swam against the current of this method. With pick 31 they got Michel, an offensive weapon that could rival some of the best in the NFL.
How best can the Patriots utilize Michel talents? Ideally, he could come in and replace every one of Dion Lewis’s snaps and provide a home run threat at running back. The teams haven’t had a threat in the backfield like that since the early promise of Laurence Maroney, or even as far back as prime Corey Dillon years.
Michel’s skill set is ideally suited for today’s NFL running game. His pass-catching skills and route running are very developed for a soon to be rookie. He is falling forward or getting those extra yards after contact. Michel’s biggest need for improvement will be in pass blocking. In film study he made read errors such as staying in when he should’ve been running a route for a hot read or getting caught up in traffic and not able to make a clean block. When he was able to square up and put everything into it, I saw a blocker that looks like they will be able to learn and grow as an NFL blocker.
The Application Part II
His running style reminds me the most of a more upright Devonta Freeman. His offense at Georgia utilized a lot of the cutback and outlet passes. He commits decisively and does not waste too much time dancing in the backfield. When he sees daylight his second and third gear are activated very quickly. Michel is at his best when he’s trying to let a hole develop he is very patient and almost looks Le’veon Bell-esque. Allows the blocks to open up and keeps his feet moving and eyes up until he sees what he wants and then goes.
At the very worst, the Patriots have drafted for themselves a contributor that will learn from the veterans on the roster. Michel will hone the weaker parts of his game and be ready to steal all the snaps in future seasons. At best they may have drafted a complete running back in today’s NFL that can have his name read with the games great. An exciting future for sure.