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Can Sony Michel Rise to the Top of a Crowded Backfield? (2019 Fantasy Football)

by Zachary Hanshew | @ZaktheMonster | Featured Writer
Jul 20, 2019

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Sony Michel had a great run in his first season out of Georgia, capturing a Super Bowl title with the New England Patriots and compiling nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage as a rookie. His NFL career is off to a great start, but injury concerns and a likely RBBC have fantasy owners wondering what Michel’s value is for the coming season. A fantasy profile digging a little deeper below the surface may help to uncover that value.

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A GREAT ROOKIE SEASON AND PLAYOFF DOMINANCE

Michel was drafted in the first round out of Georgia in a move that raised some eyebrows, as the Patriots are not known to take skill position players early in the draft. He missed the first three games of the season with a knee injury, but he performed admirably, rushing for 209/931/6 in 13 regular season games. Michel was one of the best backs of the 2018 playoffs, going for 71/336/6 in the Patriots’ three games en route to a Super Bowl win. Incredibly, he set the NFL’s all-time record for TDs scored in a single postseason by a rookie. Recency bias affects everyone, so it’s understandable to be bullish on Michel. Heck, the last time we saw him, he went for 94 yards and scored the Patriots’ lone TD in the NFL’s biggest game.

Despite his postseason heroics, there are some red flags to be aware of when drafting New England’s second-year back. His lack of work in the passing game is a huge problem, considering he caught just seven passes in the regular season for 50 scoreless yards. In three playoff appearances, he caught one pass for nine yards, bringing his full year stat line to 8/59/0 in 16 total games. He’s a much better value in standard leagues, and fantasy managers playing with any kind of PPR scoring should be aware of the minuscule production Michel will bring in that facet of the game.

A CROWDED BACKFIELD?

Bill Belichick rarely employs a workhorse back, and the Patriots almost always utilize an entire stable of backs to get the job done. Pass-catching dynamo James White should keep his role as a receiving back moving forward, as Michel’s value in that role is almost nonexistent. Rex Burkhead is a versatile back who can do some work as a receiver and pound the rock in short-yardage situations. He was New England’s preferred goal-line back who should cap Michel’s TD upside. Damien Harris was selected in the third round of this year’s draft out of Alabama to provide yet another body and skillset to a crowded backfield situation.

Historically, the Patriots have utilized an RBBC. Michel became the fourth back in the last five years to lead the Patriots in total touches, with LeGarrette Blount the only one to do it twice. Except for the 2016 season, the distribution of touches in New England’s backfield has been pretty even, with enough work given to the the second and third leading backs to eat significantly into the production of the number one:

2018

RB Total touches
Sony Michel 216
James White 181
Cordarrelle Patterson 63

 
2017

RB Total touches
Dion Lewis 212
Mike Gillislee 105
James White 99

 
2016

RB Total touches
LeGarrette Blount 306
James White 99
Dion Lewis 81

 
2015

RB Total touches
LeGarrette Blount 171
Dion Lewis 85
Brandon Bolden 82

 
2014 

RB Total touches
Shane Vereen 148
Stevan Ridley 98
Jonas Gray 90

 
It’s apparent from the touch distributions listed above that the Patriots do not typically lean on just one back. In fact, no back averaged 20 touches per game in the five-year period examined. The 2019 backfield is as talented as it’s ever been, and it would be a stretch to project Michel for 200 touches.

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INJURY CONCERNS

He didn’t appear until Week 4 of his rookie season while dealing with a knee injury. Michel dealt with the issue all year and ultimately had a knee scope performed this offseason. He’s reportedly recovering well from the scope and should be good to go at training camp, but injuries early in a career are rarely a one-off, especially when they linger and require surgery. Taking Damien Harris in the third round of the draft was likely an insurance policy in case Michel has  injury flare-ups this season.

WHAT TO EXPECT

Assuming Michel doesn’t miss any games (a pretty big assumption), his workload will likely be scaled back compared to last season. Rex Burkhead played only eight games last season, but he averaged seven rush attempts per contest when on the field. He should be available for the season opener and will cut into Michel’s playing time. Rookie Damien Harris figures to mix in due to his versatility, and James White (an RB1 last season), will soak up a lot of passing-down snaps. That all points to a reduction in opportunity in 2019. Michel’s injury concerns, a crowded backfield, and a clear deficiency in the passing game caps the second-year back’s ceiling, leaving him primed for a disappointing season relative to ADP (RB21, Overall 43). An RB3 finish seems like a realistic expectation for Sony Michel this season in half-PPR formats, but he could push for an RB2 finish in standard formats.

2019 Projections: 158 carries, 760 rush yards, 14 receptions, 80 receiving yards, 7 total TDs, RB3 finish

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Zachary Hanshew is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Zachary, check out his archive and follow him @zakthemonster.

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