ALLEN PARK, Mich. — In some ways, Sony Michel is experiencing the rigors of New England Patriots training camp for the first time as an NFL sophomore.
Michel opened camp with the Patriots last summer but suffered a knee injury less than one week in that sidelined him for nearly a full month. He missed all four of New England’s preseason games — plus the regular-season opener — and did not practice from Aug. 1 to Aug. 27.
That injury didn’t derail Michel’s debut season — in fact, he wound up having one of the most productive rookie years ever by a Patriots running back — but it did prevent him from developing certain aspects of his skill set, particularly in the passing game.
Though he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games (playoffs included), Michel finished the season with just eight catches on 14 targets for 59 yards and zero scores. Because of this, the Patriots’ offense became predictable, handing the ball off on more than 75 percent of Michel’s snaps and throwing it on more than 75 percent of receiving specialist James White’s.
We might be seeing a shift in that strategy this summer.
After missing the start of training camp with another knee issue, Michel has participated in each of the Patriots’ last eight practices and has become increasingly involved as a pass-catcher.
This hasn’t translated in 11-on-11 drills as of yet — Michel has just two total catches on two targets in full-team settings — but has been evident during the more pass-focused periods. Over the last three practices, including two joint sessions with the Detroit Lions, Michel leads all Patriots players in both receptions (nine) and targets (nine) in 7-on-7s.
After Tuesday’s practice, Michel was asked whether being an active participant in training camp this year is helping him improve as a receiver.
“I think it’ll just help me overall,” he replied. “Just as a football player going into the season, being ready physically, mentally. In camp, you get to get those reps, you get to get your conditioning going. Last year, I missed those things, so it was harder for me to get going a little bit. I think this year, it can help a little bit and prepare me from the season.”
Michel becoming a more versatile player would be huge for a Patriots offense that currently is in a transitional phase following the offseason departures of tight end Rob Gronkowski and multiple wide receivers. Running back is one of the team’s deepest position groups, and the Patriots frequently have utilized two-back sets involving some combination of White, Michel and Rex Burkhead during camp.