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Sony Michel Has Been Predictably Frustrating to Own

Remember those days of August and September? Remember when the season was still a few days away and you're signing up in a bunch of leagues and drafting your season-long rosters? Remember that decision you had to make on whether drafting Sony Michel, Mark Ingram, or Derrick Henry in the third round was the best option? Good fun days those, right? Not so funny now, though, if you opted to go Michel's route.

The thing is, New England has always been labeled as a running-back-by-committee franchise. So you know what you were in for when you picked Michel, even though his 2018 rookie season was encouraging. Now, there is no solution to your problem, but you can't say you weren't warned. As we should never take statements for granted--in this case the one that says the Patriots always run multiple tailbacks--though, I'm here to actually see if that has always been the case and if indeed you should have passed on Michel on draft day.

Let's discover what has been happening in New England's backfield during the past few years, what one could expect from their tailbacks based on historical trends, and whether or not the Sony Michel headache has any solution at this point.

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New England By Committee

We all have heard it: "Hey, you're drafting a Patriots back but they usually put different rushers in the field who share the load! You better be careful with that!". But do you just take that for granted, as it is to be found everywhere, or have you actually cared about looking into the data to validate it? I had not dug too deep into it until now, I must say, but given how upsetting Michel has been through four weeks, it merited the study.

For this little analysis, I have pulled data from 2014 to 2018 (last five full seasons), leaving out the four games played in 2019 to compare them to that five-year chunk later and see if they correlate and make historical sense or not. Per Pro-Football-Reference, there have been 32 running back-seasons of Patriots tailbacks. This is how they are distributed through those seasons, and the number of games each played in:

As you can easily see, New England has always put on the field at least six running backs each year, reaching up to seven in 2014 and 2015. That is not the most important thing, though, but rather the number of games each player was featured in. Obviously, there are outliers that made the cut with just one, two, or three games, but those are the least.

Normally, the Patriots have at least four players appearing in eight or more games per season. But the number of games a player is active or plays in isn't very telling. A running back can feature in just a couple of snaps, not even get a touch, but still have that game logged in his stats as he saw the field. It's much better looking at opportunities, which can be done by the touches each of those backs got all-season long. Here is the same chart as plotted above, only now showing touches instead of games played:

Much better. Now we can really see who did what during the season, and who were the players New England coaches relied on the most all season long. And things, as we could expect, align with the idea of the running-bac-by-committee approach. Since 2014, at least three players per season have had more than 70 touches. In 2017 there were four such players! On average, New England has 486 to share in one full season, so each of those players accounts for a minimum of 15% or more of the touches the team produces every year. That is, 45% of the touches on offense go to three of the seven or eight running backs to ever touch a ball for the Patriots.

Only once in the last five years have a Patriots rusher had more than 300 touches: LeGarrette Blount in 2016. Other than him, Michel's 2018 season ranks second followed by Dion Lewis' 2017. The problem for Michel, though, is that he faced a lot of competition from James White, who racked up 181 touches himself. While Michel had a healthy 42% of the touches, White himself had 35% of them, taking a lot from Michel.

The important thing to take from this information is the fact that even leading the team in touches, Michel couldn't even reach the 50% share of touches among all running backs in 2018. Just for context, there were a few leading running backs in 2018 that had around the same touches as Michel: Marlon Mack (212), Melvin Gordon (225), and Phillip Lindsay (227). Even though they rushed the ball or were targeted almost the same amount of times as Michel, their shares among their teammates at the position were higher. Gordon saw 51% of the touches among Chargers RBs, Mack 48%, and Lindsay 59%.

So to this point, the answer is yes. Yes, New England has historically put multiple backs on the field on a clear timeshare, which obviously cuts any player's upside just by the mere fact that he will be losing snaps and touches to his teammates in the position.


Is The Patriots' Committee A Thing in 2019?

Now that we know that New England indeed tends to put a committee of rushers on the field each season--that has been the trend during the past few years--we can compare those seasons to what has happened in 2019 through four weeks. Here are three pie charts that show the distribution of touches, targets and rushing attempts by each of the five running backs to play a game for the Patriots in 2019:

It is easy to recognize three players carrying most of the load for the 2019 Patriots when it comes to their backfield. All of Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and James White already have 24 or more touches in four games. Michel, again, falls short of reaching the 50% share of touches among his teammates, staying at 47% trough Week 4. White and Burkhead combined make for another 47%. The fact that Michel is a pure rusher is evident by his lone target compared to Burkhead's 18 and White's 21. On the other hand, Michel eats from every other Patriots running back when it comes to rushing, leading the pack with 62 attempts compared to White's eight and Burkhead 24.

This makes for an instant takeaway: leave Michel out of your team in PPR format leagues, and only consider him in standard ones. Looking at the data, this is re-affirmed. Of the 23 players with at least 60 touches through the first four weeks of the season, Michel ranks dead last in PPR fantasy points with just 27.1, while the second-worst player (David Montgomery) has 40.1 already. Not only is Michel leaving chances on the table to others, but he's also very limited by his own skill set, which is null in the passing game. Every time Michel is on the field, teams know he's just a rushing threat and defenses can ease their coverage on him if Brady takes and holds onto the ball. Michel is just not a receiving option, full stop.


League-Wide, How Does Sony Michel Compare To Other Leading RBs?

To do this we can perform a study similar to the one presented at the start of this article, instead of comparing running backs of the same team split by years, comparing all 2019 running backs split by team. There have been 121 active running backs this season to see the field at least once. I've plotted the 23 with at least 60 touches in the following chart, comparing their total touches to the percentage of touches they have seen of those generated by their teams' running backs:

Unsurprisingly, both Le'Veon Bell and Christian McCaffrey lead the way in both total touches and percentage of touches in their backfields. They are used more than any player in the league, and most importantly more than anyone in their own team's backfield. Not a surprise, neither, is finding Michel at the bottom-left part of the graph. It makes sense. Neither is Michel a heavily used player nor is he the go-to guy in each and every snap. He has a share of just 47% among his teammates, while Mark Ingram (second-lowest) has a much better 54% on par with Phillip Lindsay.

This share and limited usage (only on rushing plays) have obvious fantasy implications. There are 31 running backs with at least 27 standard fantasy points in four games played (Michel has 27.1), and only seven of them have a lower team-touch share than Michel. This just shows how limited Michel's upside is compared to other running backs through the league, making him a risky proposition back when you drafted him.


How To Save Yourself From Michel's Trouble

I'm not going to lie to you. You are in a tough position, and you probably know it. Michel ranks RB34 in standard leagues and a ridiculously low RB47 in PPR format leagues. That is bad for someone who had an ADP of around 35 overall and was labeled the 15th-to-20th best running back no matter the league format. At this point, only with a quarter of the season gone, we've seen enough of both the Patriots and Michel to not expect any major improvements going forward. Even playing for a team in which leads come easy and game scripts could be favorable almost weekly for rushers, he's taking any advantage of the situation.

The best you could do is probably to hold on Michel until he has a great week and then try to get something in return on a trade. No one is going to bite hard on it, but you might get an interesting piece or two back. Forget about recouping that third-round player value though, as it is going to be hard to sell Michel as high as he was going off draft boards in August.

Four weeks have been enough for most owners to already label players as busts. Some of those running backs might be just on the verge of a rebound. Looking at RotoViz expected points (a measure of fantasy points that a player should have gotten given the situations they were used in, their targets, rushing attempts, etc.), we can easily find players under-performing. Some of them have a good track record in past seasons that calls for positive regression coming their way:

  • Chris Thompson is a catch-first running back that can be used in any PPR league. He's produced similarly to Michel but with the complete opposite profile. If he improves his running game he could turn into a much complete player than Michel.
  • Peyton Barber and LeSean McCoy are also stuck in committees at Tampa Bay and Kansas City, but both have much more upside than Michel in the receiving side of the game.
  • Devonta Freeman and David Montgomery are underperforming wildly so far. Even with that, Freeman has a 77% of the touches in Atlanta's backfield while Montgomery has 61% of Chicago's (and going up, as Mike Davis seems to be completely out of the rotation and Tarik Cohen splits time in the backfield and lined up as a receiver). Both could be a couple of buy-low options before they explode.
  • Laugh all you want, but Frank Gore is getting 66% of Buffalo's RB touches so far and could be worth exploring potential trades around him. He will lose some touches when Devin Singletary comes back from injury, but it looks like the Bills don't want to force the rookie too much.
  • Leonard Fournette is the holy grail of the potential trade targets, but his recent 200-plus yards outing could make it impossible to get him.

That last Fournette blurb probably serves as the summary for the article and more than anything this last part of it: Fournette's last game was a true explosion from an under-performing player. And the thing is that such performance could be just around the corner for any of the aforementioned players, so you should take the gamble and go for one of them. You have Sony Michel, so you can't do much worse taking another gamble as big as the one you took in draft day making the Patriot part of your team.

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