By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You can’t WASTE a first-round draft pick on a running back. You already have Jeremy Hill signed, and you’ve got James White under contract. You’ve got gaping holes at linebacker, you just lost three crucial starting players, you just got carved up by Nick Bleeping Foles in the Super Bowl, and you spend a first-round pick on a running back?! Ridiculous!
That may not be exactly how everybody felt last April, but the gist is not far off from what you heard loudly and clearly after the Patriots drafted Sony Michel in the first round, with the 31st overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. And sure enough, when Michel got hurt early and reports of a “bone-on-bone” situation in his knee began to surface, those doubters appeared to have been prescient.
Yet after missing training camp and the preseason, and after missing the season opener against Houston, and after getting off to a slow start in his first two NFL games, AND when he suffered another knee injury in Week 7, you can bet all of those critics were having their time in the sun. They did all appear to have been correct, at least at the time.
But after the Patriots’ Week 11 bye, Michel turned in a 133-yard performance against the Jets. His fourth-quarter touchdown put the game out of reach for New York. In Week 16, he went for 116 yards and another touchdown against the Bills in a game that showed that the Patriots could dominate on the ground when needed.
And all of that, of course, was just the prelude to a historically outstanding postseason performance.
Against the Chargers: 24 carries, 129 yards, three touchdowns.
On the road, against the Chiefs: 29 carries, 113 yards, two touchdowns.
In the Super Bowl, against the Rams: 18 carries, 94 yards, and the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
All told, Michel rushed for 336 yards while reaching the end zone six times — a record for a rookie. He came six yards shy of setting a rookie record for postseason rushing yards.
Despite only playing in three playoff games, he’s already tied for 20th all time in postseason rushing touchdowns — tied with Hall of Famers LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk, as well as Edgerrin James and … Tom Brady, among others.
All told, with the regular season and postseason combined, Michel played in 16 games this season. The 16-game sample size gives us this: 280 carries, 1,267 yards, 12 touchdowns. That’s a 4.53-yard average per carry and a tick over 79 yards per game.
Obviously, combining the regular and postseason does not result in an apples-to-apples comparison, but for the sake of perspective: Michel’s 1,267 yards would have ranked third in the NFL this season, behind only Ezekiel Elliott (1,434 yards) and Saquon Barkley (1,307).
In Patriots history, only three players — Corey Dillon in 2004, Curtis Martin in 1995, and Jim Nance in 1965 — have ever run for more than 1,267 yards in a single season.
Again, Michel didn’t gain those yards in the regular season, so it’s a bit of a flawed comparison. But considering Michel’s best games of the year came in the playoffs, that’s hardly a bad thing for the rookie.
Michel also overcame one knock on him from the draft, which was a concern about ball security. After fumbling 12 times in college at Georgia, Michel fumbled just once in his first NFL season. That lone fumble came on a play where his knee was twisted in a way that sent him out of the game and kept him out of action for two weeks.
On top of that, despite the overwhelming flood of success that’s come Michel’s way over the past month, the 23-year-old has managed to keep his head on his shoulders.
“Obviously [credit] goes out to the guys that it starts with, and that’s the offensive line and receivers that gotta go crack block, and fullback James Develin,” Michel said on his and Kyle Van Noy’s victory lap on “First Take” on Thursday. “I think those guys need more credit than I do, because you can see that play, it was a wide open hole. You could put any running back back there, he’s gonna score. So I’m excited to be a part of an offense like this, and it’s just a pleasure to play with the guys.”
Despite the success of Michel, those who believe that a team should never invest a first-round pick in a running back will remain adamant in that philosophy. When the likes of Phillip Lindsay can rush for over 1,000 yards and gain over 1,200 yards from scrimmage as an undrafted rookie, there’s certainly a case to be made in that regard.
But as far as the Patriots are concerned, the goal every April is simple: draft good players who can help the football team win games. Michel, after a slow start, certainly did that in the regular season. The Patriots went 6-0 in his six games with his highest rushing totals, and they won every time he scored a touchdown.
Then came the playoffs, when he scored six of the team’s 11 total touchdowns, and when he rushed for 336 of the team’s 485 rushing yards before scoring the lone touchdown of the entire Super Bowl. That touchdown received the most attention, but Michel’s 26-yard run — a run that came when there was no fullback on the field — to kick off the putaway drive with 3:38 left in a seven-point game helped elevate his performance to borderline MVP level.
This was a game that began with Michel breaking a 13-yard run, and it more or less ended with him carrying the Patriots out of trouble deep in their own end en route to a field goal that iced the game.
Michel’s was a tenure that began with some questions and doubt. It ended with a Lombardi Trophy, and with him playing one of the most significant roles in earning it. Suffice it to say, first-round pick or seventh-round pick, the Patriots are happy with their addition at running back.