When Nick Chubb arrived as a freshman at the University of Georgia, he was the talk of the town. Viral photos of Chubb as a high schooler swept the college football world, largely due to the fact that this 17-year-old track star looked like a 26-year-old Olympic weightlifting champion.
Chubb did not disappoint in his first college football season, rushing for 1,547 yards with 14 rushing touchdowns. Going into the next season, Chubb ended up tying Hershel Walker’s record for 13 consecutive 100-yard rushing games, and it appeared there was no stopping this man from being one of the best college football backs of all time. But a severe foot injury in October of 2015 sidelined Chubb for the remainder of the season.
That meant it was “next man up” for Georgia, and that next man was Sony Michel—a name college football was about to get to know very well.
In Chubb’s absence, Michel rushed for 1,136 yards with eight rushing touchdowns. From then on, even when Chubb returned the next season, it was no longer just a one-man show at UGA.
Over the next two seasons, Chubb and Michel became a nearly unstoppable one-two punch as one of the best (if not the best) rushing duos in the country. In their final season together in 2017, both Chubb and Michel had more than 1,200 rushing yards each with 15 rushing touchdowns from Chubb and 16 from Michel. In their penultimate game together, Chubb and Michel rushed for a combined 326 yards in the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma to put them at 8,259 career rushing yards, surpassing Eric Dickerson and Craig James' FBS record of 8,192.
It was over those three seasons of notoriety that Michel made a name for himself, not just as Chubb’s sidekick (the narrative that was given to him back in 2014), but rather, a talented back of his own fully capable of impacting an offense as a feature player. The NFL agreed with this new perception of Michel, so much so that the New England Patriots selected him at the back end of the first round in 2018 (before his running mate Chubb).
In his first season with the Patriots, Michel played a key role in New England’s Super Bowl run. After missing the first game of the season due to a minor knee injury, Michel went on to lead the Patriots in rushing attempts (209), rushing yards (931), and rushing touchdowns (6). When the Patriots needed to pick up yards on the ground, Michel was their man.
In 2019 Michel was once again slated as the primary rusher for the Patriots. He once again led the Patriots in attempts (247), rushing yards (912), and rushing touchdowns (7), but his average yards per carry was much lower compared to the previous season (3.7 in 2019 as opposed to 4.5 in 2018).
Michel also has not been used much as a receiver out of the backfield. During his time with the Patriots, he has just 31 targets with 14 catches and 144 receiving yards. He was the third-most targeted back in each of the last two seasons behind James White and Rex Burkhead.
With Michel once again poised to be the top rusher on the Patriots, as well as knowing that he isn’t their top priority in the passing game, the question for 2020 is: what does a successful season look like for Michel?
To me, the answer to this question is less about stats and more about the surrounding.
For one, a goal for Michel would be to have another fully healthy season. Michel played in all 16 games last season, which was great. But Michel has a lengthy injury history, even though most ailments haven’t forced him to miss too much time.
In high school and in college, Michel had surgeries to repair his ACL. He also had other minor injuries at Georgia (broken shoulder blade and sprained ankle). As a rookie, Michel missed the first game for a minor knee procedure. He then suffered a knee strain in October and missed two more games. Then he had another minor knee surgery during the summer between 2018 and 2019, but didn’t miss any time because of it. Going into this season, Michel once again had surgery during the offseason, this time to alleviate discomfort in his foot. The report is that he shouldn’t miss much time in camp, if at all, but that’s not certain yet.
Staying healthy is also important beyond the obvious due to how crowded the Patriots’ running back room has become. We already mentioned how there are two more proven pass-catchers in White and Burkhead, who are still on the roster, but now Michel has competition for that top rushing spot from Damien Harris.
Harris was drafted in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft and essentially redshirted his first season in the league after recording just four carries. This year, you figure the team is more willing to trust him with the ball. If Michel were to miss any time, that could open the door for Harris to prove himself, and that could mean trouble for Michel.
Michel was good in his first season but is yet to be the dynamic back the Patriots are likely looking for. In his two seasons, he has yet to break off a run of more than 40 yards, despite having more than 450 carries. He cannot afford another season with fewer than 4.0 yards per carry.
Breaking the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career would certainly be a great year for Michel. Such a season would likely gain the Patriots’ favor throughout his rookie contract, maybe even in the form of them picking up his fifth-year option next summer. It would also be to Michel’s advantage to be more useful in the passing game—he needs to become the second-most targeted back in the Patriots system. You cannot be just a rusher and expect to stick around, even if the system is built for split roles in the backfield. Your top guy has to do more of both than Michel does right now.
A successful season for Michel would be to stay healthy—not allowing Harris to get any ground on him in the minds of the depth chart decision-makers—break off a couple of big runs, and to have career highs in both targets and receptions. If he can do that, he can be the man the Patriots lean on in that crowded room this season and likely the immediate future.