By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
In an uncommonly deep year for roster battles in Foxboro, the New England Patriots have a competition at running back that rivals them all as the most intriguing to watch this summer. And that discussion begins and ends with one of their most polarizing draft picks in recent years, former Georgia Bulldog Sony Michel.
Bill Belichick surely doesn't care how his selection of Michel with the 31st pick in the 2018 draft was covered, how people reacted. Responses ranged from excitement to see a weapon like Michel utilized in the Patriots offense, to dumbfounded frustration over why they would spend such a valuable pick on a position that they didn't necessarily need. Michel's performance with the Patriots will always be inextricably linked to his draft status, and some may even believe it doesn't matter. Michel could be Walter Payton and not be worth pick No. 31.
But the reality is that Michel is here, and Belichick didn't take him 31st overall to keep the bench warm. Michel is going to be squarely in the mix as a rookie, and has a chance to take a big step forward in training camp when it opens on Thursday, July 26 at the Gillette Stadium practice fields.
What To Expect From Sony Michel
Another reality for the Patriots is that Belichick isn't a safe bet to grant a rookie to get the majority of the touches, or put the ball in his hands in pivotal game situations - certainly not early on. Michel's various roles in individual and team drills at mandatory minicamp suggest that he will be depended on more than most rookies, just not necessarily as the lead runner. That could most certainly change over the course of Michel's rookie year, but it's fair to expect a gradual progression for him as he transitions to the NFL game and gains more of Belichick's trust.
If Michel can realize his full potential in a Patriots uniform, he does have bell cow potential. That's because of a combination of his talent and his fit for the Patriots offense. Belichick has never needed a shifty kind of back to bounce and shimmy around defenders. In New England, you can find success simply following the lead of the blocking scheme and taking what the defense gives you.
Welp, that's pretty much exactly what Michel does, and when he was at his best in Georgia he did it at an incredibly high level. He's an instinctive and decisive runner with the power and explosiveness to make him very hard to tackle if he can get rolling. It's the reason why Michel won't always wow you with jukes and cuts, but can rip off massive runs just by seeing the field better than the defenders around him. He'll be a big-play threat every time the Patriots O-line can create openings for him. He's also proven able to catch passes and has the potential to be an elite pass protector at the running back position, which undoubtedly helped make him an attractive pick and will get him on the field quicker than usual.
All that being said, Michel wasn't even a full-time participant with the running backs during mandatory minicamp. He spent some time as a blocker in kickoffs while the backs ran through running drills - which did show the team's confidence in his ability to contribute in those situations, but also kept him away from the main running back group. He caught the occasional pass in team drills, but has yet to really grab people's attention on the field. It's extremely early, though, and he has plenty of time to change that. Worth noting is that Michel avoided any notable fumbles at mandatory minicamp, and that's something he'll need to continue doing throughout his first summer in Foxboro.
In The Lead...
Based on June, however, Michel will start July's training camp third (at best) in the pecking order. There were two clear lead dogs at running back during those sessions, James White and Rex Burkhead.
White is clearly the most established of the Patriots' running backs, and the one who's earned by far the most trust from Tom Brady. He set new career highs in 2017 with four catches per game and 43 rushing attempts. White has made exactly 99 touches in the past two seasons, and could very well be in line for a healthy bump in that department. The fifth-year back out of Wisconsin isn't the biggest, fastest, or most explosive back in the world, but has long proven to be reliable in the passing game and should continue to be so.
Burkhead, meanwhile, didn't get quite as many reps as White in passing drills. But he got plenty as a runner, and appears to be entering training camp with the best chance to snag early-down duties to start the regular season. Burkhead got only five fewer touches (94) than White in 2017, and did it in four fewer games. The key will be staying healthy for 2018, but Burkhead made the most of his opportunities with eight total touchdowns (five rushing, three receiving) in 2017.
Both White and Burkhead, along with Michel, are locks to make the 53-man roster. The question is how they will ultimately divvy up the carries, and how the depth chart will look in December and January. Belichick has also been known to constantly mix up the reps based on his gameplan for a given week, so that may not stay the same throughout the season, either.
If Michel ends up in the lead in this equation, that can only mean good things for him and the Patriots. It just doesn't appear likely to happen right away, and could be a source of exasperation for those who expect the first-round pick to immediately take on a major role. For the sake of sanity, it's probably best to assume that Michel will need some time to develop.
Burkhead will begin the season as the early-down back, while Michel gradually gains touches as the season goes along - if he doesn't get an opportunity due to injury. ... White will be one of the most targeted receivers for Brady early on and, if healthy, be as consistent as ever in his role catching passes out of the backfield. ... Michel will have some big games and flash game-breaking ability at times, but may not have the consistency as a rookie that someone more established would have with the Patriots. ... Jeremy Hill will beat out Mike Gillislee as the fourth running back on the depth chart, while undrafted rookie Ralph Webb could end up on the practice squad. ... Brandon Bolden will again stick around as a special teams mainstay, after becoming the Patriots' first signing of 2018 with a one-year extension in February.
Michel may ultimately earn the trust of the coaching staff quicker than most backs, but he's entering camp clearly behind Burkhead and White. The rookie will need to make a bit of a leap forward in July and August in order to make the kind of impact that his draft spot promises early in his first season. Patience is recommended with him. But the aforementioned two backs look like they'll be the same solid targets for Brady that they have been. The quarterback will especially need that pair in the first four games of the season as Julian Edelman sits out.
With the additions of Michel and Hill, the running back group is as deep as any position on the Patriots entering training camp. The next two months will be more about who doesn't make the roster than who does, because they're going to end up cutting someone who could easily end up on another NFL squad. And as he looks to make a rapid climb up the depth chart, Michel will be the most important player to watch.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].