When the New England Patriots drafted Sony Michel in the first round, they must have envisioned him as a complete back who could run, catch and block.
The 2018 first-round pick finally showed that versatility in the Patriots’ 28-14 Week 17 win over the New York Jets, when he set a career-high with 60 yards on three catches (tying a career mark) with his first career receiving touchdown. He also carried the ball 16 times for 76 yards and tied a career mark with 41 total snaps in the Patriots’ season-finale win.
Michel finished the season with 79 carries for 449 yards with one touchdown and caught seven passes for 114 yards with a score in nine games sandwiching an extended injured reserve stint. His 114 receiving yards and 5.7 yards per carry are also career highs.
Michel, Damien Harris, J.J. Taylor and Brandon Bolden are set to return to the Patriots’ running back stable next season, but pass-catchers James White and Rex Burkhead both are unrestricted free agents.
If Michel could develop into a dependable receiving threat, that could help answer some questions about New England’s running back roles in 2021 regardless of whether White and Burkhead return.
?I’ve gotten opportunities in practice to work on my ability to be in on the passing game,” Michel said Sunday. “I just kind of waited and hopefully I was able to execute when coach put me in there. That?s all you really can do. Be prepared. When your number is called, try to execute, try to do your job as best as you can.?
Michel caught seven passes for 50 yards as a rookie and 12 passes for 94 yards in 2019. Between that time is when Patriots head coach Bill Belichick noticed Michel’s progress in the passing game.
“I think Sony really probably developed more of it after his rookie year,” Belichick said. “He works hard at the passing game. Fortunately, we were able to get the ball out to him in space a couple times. Sometimes that’s a lot easier than having to block a lot of guys, get through the line of scrimmage. Passes that give the backs the ball with an opportunity to run with it, those are good opportunities. I know backs love those so they can see fewer defenders and see more space. Yeah, it was good.”
Michel was asked Sunday if he could envision himself in a role similar to James White as a third-down back. He wouldn’t pigeonhole himself.
“My role is to be the best football player,” Michel said. “I don’t want to be put in any kind of box. It’s about Coach telling me to go out there and block, I’ll go out there and block my tail off. If he tells me to catch the ball, I’ll catch the ball the best that I can. That goes for running the ball. If he wants me to run the ball, then that’s what I have to do. Try to be the best football player that I can be.”
Michel, Harris and Taylor all showed the ability to catch the ball in college. Bolden, who opted out for the 202 season but wants to return in 2021, has 59 career receptions.
The Patriots should hope to retain at least one of White or Burkhead. But if they can’t, then they’ll hope for more progress out of Michel, Harris or Taylor next season.