By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — From essentially the very moment that reports hit Twitter regarding Cam Akers’ torn Achilles, seemingly everybody in New England immediately penciled in a trade of Sony Michel to the Los Angeles Rams. On Wednesday morning, the premonitions came to fruition.
The Patriots, with a crowded running back room, sent Michel to the Rams. In exchange they’ll receive — essentially — a fourth-round pick. (There’s a moderately complicated mechanism to that.)
Considering the Patriots opted to not pick up Michel’s fifth-year option for 2022, this departure was always going to happen. Now, it’s just been moved up a few months.
In that sense, the trade is not at all shocking. On the Bill Belichick Scale Of Stunning Bombshells, this one ranks at about a 1.5 out of 10.
Still, the Patriots traded a well-known player — a name player, if you will — who contributed to a Super Bowl victory. So it’s certainly not not a big deal.
With that in mind, let’s run through some of the obvious pros, cons, and risks of the deal, while also addressing the question that’s hung over Michel since April of 2018: Was he worth a first-round pick?
Immediately, the trade tells you one thing: The Patriots like what they have in Rhamondre Stevenson. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, we weren’t sure that was the case.
Running back coach Ivan Fears may have just been applying some tough love, but he nevertheless said that Stevenson need to improve on “everything.”
“Everything. What do I like about him? He’s here. I like that he’s here. Other than that, everything’s got to improve,” Fears said. “He’s got a lot to learn. He’s talented. We’ll see what he can do in the games, but right now, he’s got a lot to learn — a lot to learn.”
It seems Stevenson may have taken that to heart. In the Patriots’ two preseason games thus far, he’s run for 193 yards on 25 carries, with four touchdowns. While the 91-yard rumble late against Washington skews his average to 7.7 yards per carry, he’s still averaging a solid 4.3 yards per carry on all of his other rushes.
It’s left a lot of people impressed — Fears included.
“Yes, he’s definitely taken to the coaching points, and he’s improved his status tremendously from where he was,” Fears said on Sunday. “If you remember, he couldn’t even get started on the right day. He couldn’t quite finish the conditioning test. So he started out definitely in the tank, and he has made great improvement and has climbed out of there. So he’s definitely listened, and tried to do the right thing.”
Those words spoke volumes about how the coaching staff feels about Stevenson. The trade says a lot more.
Another positive can be found if you’re a fan of watching J.J. Taylor fly around the field in multiple roles, as his odds of making the roster just increased greatly. A lesser advantage is the advancement, essentially, of the return on Michel. Instead of his departure next offseason factoring in to the compensatory pick formula, the Patriots have themselves a fourth-round pick in the 2022 draft to utilize. Considering Belichick is 69 years old and won’t coach forever (we think?), fast-forwarding the timeline for such matters figures to be helpful.
In the NFL, at a position as punishing as running back, a point of depth can turn into an area of weakness rather quickly.
The Patriots, obviously, are banking on that not happening. But maintaining a healthy and productive running back room did just get harder with Michel’s departure.
Damien Harris is a good running back, no doubt. He rushed for 691 yards and two touchdowns last year on 137 carries, averaging five yards every time he was handed the football. He also caught five passes for 52 yards, picking up four first downs in the process. He figures to be even better in year three. There’s no question about this.
But Harris started last season injured (finger) and ended last season injured (ankle). That ankle injury made him questionable for four games in the middle of the season, forced him out of action in Weeks 15 and 16, and then led to his placement on IR before Week 17.
Harris is notably bigger this year, and he admitted to reporters this week that he’s added strength. He’s going to need it. He certainly had a heavy workload at Alabama, but he always shared reps, and some of those SEC hits just don’t compare to NFL hits. And even with the added strength, the position itself lends itself to injury risk on every snap. So if the Patriots lose Harris — for a half, for a week, for a month, for the season — it’ll throw off the balance of the plan in the run game, which figures to be where the Patriots lean most heavily on offense this year.
The team also can’t afford to lose James White for any stretch of time, though that may have applied even without a Michel trade. Rex Burkhead is no longer around to fill that dual-threat role out of the backfield.
SO — WAS MICHEL WORTH A FIRST-ROUND PICK?
This is the question that’s hung over Michel from the very moment he was drafted. Well, that, and these ones:
–Shouldn’t they have taken Lamar Jackson?
–Didn’t they draft the wrong Georgia running back if Nick Chubb was still there?
–Didn’t they really want Rashaan Evans, only to get outfoxed by the ever-devious Mike Vrabel?
There may be more. But those are stories for another day, perhaps.
On the question of whether or not Michel was worth it, there should be only one answer: A resounding yes.
The answer can be summed up in one photo:
That answer may upset some, but the only thing that mattered in New England for a long time was winning. Not draft position, not salary, not statistical achievements, not Pro Bowls, not All-Pros. All that mattered was winning the game. And in 2018, Sony Michel played a massive role in winning the three most important games of the year.
In the divisional round against the Chargers: 24 carries, 129 yards, 3 TDs, 0 fumbles.
In the conference championship in frigid Kansas City: 29 carries, 113 yards, 2 TDs, 0 fumbles.
And in Super Bowl LIII vs. the Rams: 18 carries, 94 yards, 1 TD, 0 fumbles.
His postseason performance of 336 yards and six touchdowns was one of the best in history. He ranks 14th all time for rushing yards in a single postseason and is tied for second-most rushing touchdowns in a single postseason in NFL history.
Against the Rams, he scored the Super Bowl’s lone touchdown, and he helped make sure that Stephon Gilmore’s fourth-quarter interception matted by breaking a 26-yard run two plays later to get the Patriots out of trouble.
On that final drive that led to the field goal which put the score out of reach for L.A., the Patriots gave the ball to Michel seven times in their eight plays, showing just how reliable he was at that point in time. He rushed for 41 yards on the seven carries, setting up Stephen Gostkowski for a 41-yard field goal to give New England a 10-point lead with 72 seconds left in the game.
Michel was certainly not great, and he may never be great at the NFL. (That being said, don’t be surprised to see Sean McVay utilize him in some exciting ways as a pass catcher.) But he was certainly very good. And while the work of the offensive line, tight ends, and fullback in the 2018 postseason was a symphony of perfection, Michel was able to make the most of it.
Overall, in 42 career games (reg. season and playoffs), he’s rushed for 2,689 yards and 20 touchdowns on 620 carries, averaging 4.3 yards per rush. That’s not Barry Sanders-type stuff, and it doesn’t put him on a level with current stars like Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, etc. But for an organization whose only other first-round pick at running back this millennium was Laurence Maroney at 21st overall, and for an organization whose previous first-round pick at running back was Robert Edwards, the Patriots know all too well that nothing can ever be guaranteed when picking at that position in the first round.
Whether that cost a first-round pick or not, the price was worth paying. The banner will now hang forever in Gillette Stadium, and Michel’s 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns from that postseason run will forever be a part of it.