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A Sony Disposition in the Backfield? Make or Break Season for the Patriots' Running Game

As the NFL prepares to begin its 2020 season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of its premier teams, the New England Patriots, will have a very different outlook for the first time in 20 years. As you surely know by now, future Hall of Fame Quarterback Tom Brady decided to leave the team this past March to join the Buccaneers alongside another future Hall of Famer, Tight End Rob Gronkowski, who came out of retirement specifically to join Brady. Second year Quarterback Jarrett Stidham is the likely starter heading into training camp, but he's unlikely to be the focal point of the team's offense like Brady's been in years past. So, if this is the case...who will be? Who will take the load off the young QB's shoulders?

Look no further than the team's two 2018 first round picks. Two years ago, the Patriots surprised many of their fans by selecting a pair of Georgia Bulldogs in Tackle Isaiah Wynn and Running Back Sony Michel. Like most Bill Belichick draft picks, these choices were instantly scrutinized, as Wynn was seen as more of an interior lineman, which, like Michel's running back position, was not considered by most to be a team need. However, fans have been shown flashes of both players' potential since the start of the 2018 season, as the Patriots have gradually shifted to more of a run-heavy offense, with Michel being New England’s workhorse. After dealing with injuries to start the 2018 regular season, Michel wound up starting 13 games and finished with 931 rushing yards, along with 6 touchdowns. It's worth noting that Wynn missed his rookie season due to an injury suffered in preseason.

During New England’s Super Bowl run in 2018, both Michel and his offensive line produced at an outstandingly high level, leading the charge as the team first knocked off the 12-4 Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Round and subsequently defeated NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and his Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead. The Patriots, of course, then went on to defeat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII by a score of 13-3; Michel was the only player with a touchdown in that game, diving into the end zone from 2 yards out with 7 minutes remaining in regulation. Through stellar play from both himself and the offensive line, Michel finished the playoffs with 242 rushing yards on 53 carries, along with 5 touchdowns.

However, the following season saw a slight regression from Michel, due largely to frequent shuffling on the offensive line. Injuries to both Isaiah Wynn, who missed about half the season after securing the starting Left Tackle job out of camp, and Center David Andrews, who missed the entire season due to blood clots in his lungs, played a huge factor in the team's run game struggles. To further complicate things, Fullback James Develin, one of New England's unsung contributors over the years and a tremendous lead blocker, suffered what wound up amounting to a career ending neck injury. Despite all this chaos, the Patriots still attempted to implement a run-heavy scheme in 2019. yet never found a level of production on par with their Super Bowl run the season before. Michel finished the season with fewer rushing yards than in 2018 (912) despite playing in all 16 games; he also scored only one more touchdown than the year before and his yards per carry dropped by almost a full yard.

With the aforementioned departure of Tom Brady and likely appointment of young, inexperienced Jarrett Stidham as the team's starting Quarterback, it's entirely possible that Belichick and Josh McDaniels will once again look to employ a run-heavy scheme to take some pressure off of the young signal caller. This means that, in addition to renewed health on the offensive line, Michel will be one of the focal points of the Patriots offense this season and will most definitely need to step up after a disappointing 2019. While the shortcomings that New England experienced in the run game a year ago cannot be fully pinned on Sony himself, it is more than fair to expect a former first rounder entering his third NFL season to continue to progress in his development.

Following the 2020 NFL season, the Patriots will need to make a decision regarding whether to pick up the fifth-year option on Michel’s contract. For those who may be unfamiliar with this process, any player selected in the 1st round signs a 4 year contract with a team-controlled fifth year option; if this option is exercised, that player’s contract then becomes fully guaranteed (this does not apply to the contracts of players selected in rounds 2-7). This is why the 2020 season is so pivotal for Michel and why he should be motivated to perform, as he will have to prove himself in order to persuade the Patriots organization to commit to him for a fifth season at a higher salary than in any of his previous four.

As every Patriots fan knows by now, Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio are master manipulators of the salary cap, with this being one of the most prominent reasons for their 20 year reign over the NFL. Most offseasons, the team has enough cap space to maintain excellent depth and field a contender year after year. After the 2020 season, however, the Patriots will have nearly $90-100 million in cap space, which is unprecedented for them during Belichick's tenure. With this being the case, the team could easily pick up Michel’s fifth-year option if he were to have a breakout year; History isn’t on Michel’s side in this case, however, as New England has only picked up a fifth-year option on four occasions in the Belichick era (Nate Solder, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Brandin Cooks). Of this group, Hightower is the only player remaining on the Patriots, while Solder, Jones, and Cooks wound up getting their paydays elsewhere. Long story short: this team is comfortable letting just about anyone walk.

So, what exactly are the expectations for Sony Michel this year? Is he expected to carry the ball 300+ times and rush for 1,500 yards with 12 touchdowns? No - but expecting to see some measured improvement is more than reasonable, and he certainly can’t afford to regress again this season. Michel’s role in the offense will be to take the pressure off of Jarrett Stidham and to be able to break the kind of "chunk" run plays to help get the offense into good field position. Now, this isn't me trying to discredit Jarrett Stidham in any way, it’s just me pointing out that he won’t be expected to throw the ball 30-35 times a game like we've grown accustomed to seeing from Tom Brady. Bill Belichick will want to make the transition much easier for Stidham and to do that, you'll need to have Michel and a healthy offensive line help carry the offense when the going gets tough.

The good news for Michel is that, unlike last season, David Andrews has been cleared to play in 2020, having fully recovered from blood clots. Isaiah Wynn, the other half of that 2018 first round Patriots draft class, is also healthy for the moment. Joe Thuney, who was franchise tagged earlier this offseason, hasn’t been traded to this point and all signs point to him returning to play Left Guard for at least one more season. Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon should be good to go on the right side, as well. The bad news? As I mentioned earlier, James Develin retired earlier this offseason due to his serious neck injury. While Fullbacks are largely a thing of the past in today’s NFL, Develin played a crucial role as a blocker and opened up big holes for Michel to run through. Hopefully someone like Dalton Keene, the team's 4th round pick out of Virginia Tech, can step into a lead blocking role, as he has experience playing both Tight End and H-Back; that blocking Tight End role that Gronk used to execute to perfection would go a long way, and Keene was known for his blocking at Virginia Tech.

Meanwhile, James White is still the team's primary pass-catching Running Back, with Rex Burkhead being in the mix as well (while also being a potential surprise cut candidate before the season starts). As Brandon Bolden is mainly a special teams player, the player who could surprise some fans out of the Patriots backfield could be second year Running Back Damien Harris, from Alabama. Like some other prominent backs before him, Harris barely saw the field for the Patriots as a rookie last season, with 2019 being somewhat of a redshirt season for him. Harris could wind up seeing more playing time if Burkhead winds up being cut, or if he simply turns some heads in camp. Additionally, if Michel starts off slow at all, Harris could begin to take some of his carries, which would obviously hurt Sony’s market value.

To sum things up here, there are a lot of what if’s surrounding Sony Michel heading into the 2020 season regarding his future with the Patriots. For now, if Michel thrives in the run-heavy scheme designed by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, he could be around in New England for a while. But if he struggles to find explosiveness, which is something both fans and media have criticized him for in the past, or if he simply regresses in any way, he could find himself out of Foxborough and on a new team fairly soon. This season will most definitely set the bar for what Michel is capable of, which is why this truly is a make or break season for Sony, as well as a sign of whether he will be a part of the Patriots' future plans.

- Corey


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