“With the 31st pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots select Sony Michel, running back, Georgia.”
Boom. The fantasy world was still collectively reeling at Seattle’s selection of Rashaad Penny four picks earlier when this next bomb dropped. Industry expert analysts and casual fantasy players alike were split on what this meant for Michel’s 2018 fantasy outlook.
In recent years, betting on New England running backs in fantasy football has been a fool’s errand. Many will recall Jonas Gray rushing for over 200 yards and scoring four touchdowns in a single game against the Colts back in 2014. Countless fantasy owners dumped all of their free agent bidding dollars to acquire Gray through waivers, only to see him promptly benched the following week for oversleeping and missing practice. Or how about the short-lived Mike Gillislee craze after he scored four touchdowns in the first two weeks last season before being quickly phased out of the offense?
I recently discussed my optimism for Michel’s fantasy success as a rookie this coming season here, but I’ve found that many disagree with my selection of Michel at 1.04 in rookie drafts. Over the course of discussions and debates with fellow fantasy football enthusiasts, I opted to re-evaluate my projections for Michel to see whether I’d mistakenly ranked him too highly. But upon an in-depth review, I stand behind my call to draft Michel with the 1.04 rookie pick. To break down my 2018 projection for Michel, we must first dissect how the 2017 season played out for both the Patriots as a whole, and Dion Lewis.
New England’s defense was a sieve to start the season last year, allowing an average of 32.0 points per game (PPG) to opponents through the first four weeks. Newly signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore, earning nearly $18 million for the season, wasn’t on the same page yet with the rest of the secondary. Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler was struggling. Dont’a Hightower, their defensive leader, missed Weeks 2 and 3 with a knee injury and played only situational snaps from Week 4 onward before suffering a torn pectoral muscle in Week 7 that would sideline him for the rest of the season. And as for Lewis? He barely touched the ball in those first four games. During that stretch, he averaged just 3.0 carries and 1.3 receptions per game for a paltry 4.7 fantasy PPG in PPR formats.
Now let’s examine New England’s performance as a team from Weeks 5 through 17. After the first quarter of the season, the defense was much improved. Gilmore and Butler were still inconsistent at times, but at least they began limiting opponents from making big plays. Despite a poor run defense and an all but nonexistent pass rush with the absence of Hightower, the Patriots were somehow giving up a lot of yards but not a lot of points. To highlight the stark contrast between New England’s poor overall defense and excellent scoring defense, consider this next statistic. In 2017, the Patriots were the second worst team regarding defensive DVOA per Football Outsiders, yet they somehow managed to be the fifth-best team in scoring defense. New England allowed opponents only 14.0 PPG from Week 5 onward despite having given up 32.0 PPG over the first four weeks! And what about Lewis? During that same period, his fantasy PPG jumped from 4.7 over the first four games to 14.9 over the last 12, ultimately finishing the season as fantasy’s RB15.
Of course, a lot changes from season to season in the NFL, but fortunately for the Patriots, these changes are mostly positive. On offense, they may have traded away Brandin Cooks to the Rams and lost elite left tackle Nate Solder in free agency to the Giants. However, New England still has plenty of weapons who can stretch the field in receivers Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson, who arrived via trade with the Raiders may also play a role in certain offensive packages. The Patriots then drafted left tackle Isaiah Wynn out of Georgia in the first round to replace Solder, and overall their offensive line is still quite good, with ESPN’s Mike Clay grading them among the best in the league.
The defensive outlook is also positive. While New England lost Butler to free agency, they replaced him by trading for Jason McCourty from the Browns. While Butler is a bigger name, McCourty outplayed him in 2017, with Pro Football Focus scoring McCourty higher with a grade of 83.9 (27th-best cornerback) versus Butler’s grade of 79.2 (51st-best cornerback). The Patriots also added some rookies on defense via the Draft and are getting Hightower back from injured reserve as well. While generating a consistent pass rush may still be a concern in 2018, overall, the defensive starters and depth have been upgraded since last season.
Given the state of New England’s roster and the moribund state of the rest of the AFC East, it’s no wonder that Vegas has set the line at 11 for the Patriots’ 2018 win total. In fact, per Warren Sharp at Sharp Football Analysis, New England has the second easiest strength of schedule this coming season. Why is all of this important in evaluating Michel’s 2018 fantasy outlook? It’s because running back fantasy scoring is often tied to game flow, and running backs on bad teams with lower projected win totals inevitably see fewer carries, which results in fewer fantasy points scored. Fortunately for Michel, he should see plenty of opportunities to run the ball in 2018.
Michel’s strengths are an excellent fit for him to slide into a role like the one Lewis played on this offense last year. He has good vision and runs with discipline behind his blockers. Michel is smart enough to take the yards the defense offers him but also has enough burst and agility to exploit holes for big gains at times, making him the best back on first and second downs. His above average pass protection for a rookie running back entering the league (13th-best pass protecting back in this draft class per Pro Football Focus) also allows the coaching staff to use him on third downs, as protecting Tom Brady at this point in his career is of utmost importance for any Patriots running back. He should immediately be the 1A to Rex Burkhead’s 1B in this backfield.
But you can’t trust Bill Belichick to use Michel consistently! Well, you’ve got me there. One of the concerns with Michel is that an early season fumble or missed blitz pickup could send the rookie to the bench. Yes, there’s the fact that Burkhead and James White will take away some of Michel’s snaps in the red zone or on passing downs. And yes, there’s the risk that Gillislee or Jeremy Hill will vulture some of Michel’s touchdowns. There’s risk involved anytime you invest in a Patriots running back, but my response is this: Belichick wouldn’t have drafted Michel in the first round if he didn’t have a high degree of confidence in the rookie running back’s ability to immediately step into a starting role.
Here’s the rub. While mistakes could demote Michel down the depth chart, there is a high chance that he will win the lead role in the Patriots backfield and finish the 2018 season as an RB2 in PPR formats. With a bit of luck this year, there’s a small chance Michel could even produce a fantasy RB1 season depending on how many times he can find his way into the end zone. I stand by my initial ranking. Michel’s reward outweighs his risk enough for me to take him in rookie drafts with the 1.04 pick.
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