By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots suddenly have a running back problem.
Jeremy Hill is out for the season after tearing his ACL in the season opener. Rex Burkhead is now in the concussion protocol, looks unlikely for Week 2 against the Jaguars, and generally always seems to be banged up. So for both the short- and long-term, the Patriots are going to need others on the roster to be the proverbial "next man up" at a position that looked uncommonly deep entering the season.
Sony Michel is the logical choice. Week 2 against the Jacksonville Jaguars may be the time that the Patriots finally unleash the dynamic rookie.
There are factors that still work against Michel's chance of playing on Sunday. One, he's still practicing in a limited capacity with a knee issue that's slowed him since early August. Two, it's probably not a great idea anyway for the Patriots to roll out a rookie in his first game against the Jaguars' stout run defense.
Besides an electrifying 68-yard touchdown run by precocious Giants rookie Saquon Barkley, the Jags allowed just 46 rushing yards on 22 carries in Week 1. Other than the TD, Barkley rushed 17 times for just 38 yards (2.2 average). In January's AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots ran 39 passing plays against just 19 on the ground. This could simply be a game where you see Tom Brady sling it 50-plus times, either way.
Then again, Michel looks like the kind of talent that can still break off a big run against a tough opponent, like Barkley did. So if he's ready to go with the knee, Michel could very well get his first NFL action in Jacksonville. It's either that, or give James White all the touches. The recently signed Kenjon Barner is mostly a punt returner and isn't likely to see more than 1-2 touches on offense, if that.
Is Michel ready to take the reins in the Patriots' backfield?
“I’m doing all I can do to prepare," Michel told reporters on Wednesday. "Whatever the coaches' plan is - I don’t know what the plan is - but my mindset is to prepare as if I’m playing.”
Michel has been physically limited, so he's needed to focus more on the mental aspects of his game in order to maintain the Patriots' mantra of Getting Better Every Day™.
"Every chance I can to just watch the guys get their reps from out there, in the film room learning, coaches correcting the other guys, that’s been big for me,” said Michel.
The rookie added that he's been able to work on ball security and running at game speed, despite not making full contact. But his continued physical limitations could be why he remains sidelined for at least one more week.
However, the Patriots may not have much of a choice. It's unlikely that they take the field in Jacksonville with only White and Barner active. They just signed Kenneth Farrow to the practice squad, but he hasn't carried the ball in an NFL game since Week 16 of the 2016 season. If they just need a body to spell White on a series here and there, maybe they opt for him.
It's possible that Michel is active on Sunday as more of an emergency option, with White getting the vast majority of the touches at the position. But if his knee is good to go, Michel might have to get the football out of pure necessity.
Michel has game-breaking ability if he's at the same level of health and strength that he was in his final year at Georgia, an outstanding season that ultimately made him a first-round pick. The Pats certainly didn't take him 31st overall to redshirt him all season.
He could also be useful on passing downs. Michel isn't known as a big-time pass-catcher, but he's capable. And his pass protection has a chance to be elite. Belichick certainly recognized that when he scouted Michel before the draft.
The rookie cryptically said that he's doing "everything that they ask me to do" when asked if he's doing everything in practice as if he's healthy. It remains to be seen what the Patriots ask of Michel on Sunday, but it sure looks like they're going to have to use their prized rookie on the ground.
Or maybe Brady just throws it 60 times. There's not much in-between.
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].