Continuing our look back at the 2018 rookie class, we turn our attention to the man who scored the only touchdown of Super Bowl LIII, Sony Michel. A few eyebrows were raised when the Patriots spent a first-round draft pick on the former Georgia Bulldog, and there may still be a few long-term question marks surrounding him. We’ll take a look back at the positives, and negatives, of Michel’s first year in the NFL. We’ll also look at a few players who enjoyed a similar rookie season to Michel and see how they followed it up in Year 2 and beyond.
In order to find some comparisons for the first year from Michel, I set the RotoViz Screener
to find rookies from 2008 to 2018, and selected some basic production and usage numbers as variables. I also included the draft pick. The influence of draft pick on a player’s opportunity declines over time, but it’s still relevant heading into a player’s second season. Then I asked the Screener to find seasons comparable to my target player.
That task complete, let’s take a look at the top comparable players for Michel’s first year in the NFL.
In case it is not apparent, any player with any comps to Andre Williams sends out an immediate red flag. Williams plodded his way to 721 yards as a rookie, at a 3.3 yards per attempt clip. After 217 carries as a rookie, Williams has had 115 since. He’s also had just a single reception.
The other players, while enjoying solid rookie seasons, have all enjoyed some success in the NFL. The image below shows how they got on in their second go round.
The 1,133 yards that Jonathan Stewart rushed for in his second season would end up as a career high. He rushed for 800+ yards in three consecutive seasons, spanning 2014-2016. But his yards per attempt fell from 4.6 in 2014 to 4.1, 3.8, and 3.4 before he was released at the end of the 2017 season. He looked bloody awful in spot duty for the Giants in 2018. Stewart reeled in 47 receptions in 2011, but this accounted for 29 percent of his career receptions. He is the Panthers all-time leader in rushing yards with 7,318.
LeGarrette Blount wouldn’t eclipse the 781 yards of his sophomore season until 2016 when he delivered his second career 1,000-yard season for the Patriots. He led the NFL with 18 touchdowns that season and won the second of his three Super Bowl titles. Between 2013-2016, Blount was one of only three RBs with 30 or more rushing touchdowns.
Blount has never had more than the 15 receptions he hauled in in 2011. He wouldn’t average more than 3.6 receiving yards per game until 2018 when he managed 4.2. Still, his nose for the end zone kept him fantasy relevant.
Chris “Beanie” Wells enjoyed a breakout campaign in his third with the Cardinals, rushing for 1,047 yards and ten touchdowns in 2011. Even then, he still only managed ten receptions. He suffered a toe injury prior to the 2012 season, and as a result, did not see the field until November. He managed 234 yards on 88 carries (five touchdowns) at a pitiful 2.7 yards per attempt. He tore his Achilles tendon during the 2013 preseason as a member of the Ravens, and never played another NFL snap.
Reasons to be Cheerful
Michel could certainly not complain about not being given opportunities as a rookie. He handled at least ten carries in all but one of his 13 games. He had at least 15 in seven, and 20 or more in four. He followed this up with two more 20-carry games in the postseason, and 18 totes in the Super Bowl. The Patriots are always up amongst the league leaders in terms of total offensive plays, and this was the case again in 2018. Only the Ravens ran more plays than the Patriots last season. Michel was the beneficiary of their strong commitment to the run. The Patriots had the eighth-lowest pass-to-run ratio with 1.24, and Michel saw a big old lion’s share of the rushes.
Michel was a focal point of the Patriots red-zone offense, averaging 3.3 red zone touches per game. Only five RBs averaged more touches inside the opposition’s 20-yard lines. He had six red-zone carries in three games: both of the Patriots games against the Dolphins and their Week 5 game against the Colts.
Reasons to be Disappointed
From a fantasy perspective, Michel has one huge red flag: he was an absolute non-factor in the passing game in 2018. He had one or fewer targets in ten of his 13 games. Michel saw a career-high three targets in Week 3 against the Lions, but only once saw more than a single target in any game for the rest of the season. He was never a huge part of the passing game as a member of the Georgia Bulldogs, but he did have two seasons with at least 20 receptions.
Without a steady dose of receptions to boost his numbers, Michel was a fairly touchdown-dependent fantasy asset, and even then not exactly a game-changing one. His highest weekly finish was RB8 in Week 6 when he scored two touchdowns. His highest finish in a game in which he did not visit the end zone was RB43. Michel managed three RB1 weeks as a rookie, with another two as an RB2. As much as the Patriots trusted him with the ball when he was on the field, they didn’t go out of their way to ensure he was always out there. He played on 36.2 percent of their offensive snaps.
As a fantasy player, it can occasionally be a worrying time trusting players from the Patriots. No team in the entire NFL does a better job of deciding when it should be a certain player’s “week”, thus making it something of a lottery at times. However, there is little doubt that the Patriots intend to make use of Michel, given his volume as a rookie. Indeed, no rookie RB has had more carries or rushing yards for the Patriots in the Belichick era.
In the build-up to the Super Bowl, the Patriots talked about how managing Michel’s workload has been the main motivator behind his seeing so few opportunities in the passing game. Does this mean that he could go from 20 carries to 15 carries and three or four receptions per game? It’s possible, I suppose. But it seems unlikely.
That being said, as long as Michel continues to see a healthy dose of red-zone work, he may be able to offset his lack of receiving production by scoring touchdowns. But mock drafters are in something of a quandary with Michel at present. He is going off the board as the RB19 over at Fantasy Football Calculator. Going two spots ahead of him is James White. If there is one thing we know about White, it’s that he is going to be a factor catching the ball.
In PPR formats, White has been one of the game’s unsung heroes over the last two seasons. He’s up there with some of the biggest and best in terms of fantasy points, and he is not going away any time soon. Even if the Patriots want to get Michel more catching work, he’s going to have to wrestle the chances away from White. That’s easier said than done.