When the Patriots drafted Sony Michel, it was a bit of a head scratcher. Sure, Sony Michel is a talented player, but after years of fans begging the Patriots to draft running backs and wide receivers in the early rounds of the NFL Draft from Mark Ingram to Cordarrelle Patterson to even Christian McCaffrey as recently as the 2017 NFL Draft, why have they finally decided to select one? McCaffrey of course went well before the Patriots had a chance to take him, but the Patriots chose to pass on Patterson, Ingram, and a host of other skill position players over the years. The Patriots of years past have valued early round skill position players so lowly, that Bill Belichick once reportedly told the Falcons GM that he shouldn’t draft Julio Jones and instead should trade down and draft Jonathan Baldwin because he thought Baldwin was “just as good, if not better”. Before this past offseason, the Patriots hadn’t drafted a running back or wide receiver in the first round since 2006 and they hadn’t drafted either position in the second round since 2013. When looking at those selections, it’s not hard to understand why the Patriots don’t usually spend high draft capital at those positions.
That player the Patriots drafted in 2006 was running back Laurence Maroney. Maroney was promising early on, but ultimately flamed out of the league quickly. Maroney spent only 4 seasons with the Patriots before being traded to the Denver Broncos in 2010. He spent only one season with the Broncos and hasn’t played in the NFL since. The player the Patriots drafted in the 2nd round in 2013 was wide receiver Aaron Dobson who had problems with drops and never managed to carve out a role in New England. Dobson was let go by the Patriots and hasn’t played a single NFL game since despite signing with the Lions for all of 16 days in 2016 and spending time with the Cardinals in the 2017 offseason.
For whatever reason, the Patriots can’t to seem to hit on their early round skill position picks. However, they do very well in the later rounds. Julian Edelman was a 7th round pick, James White was a 4th round pick, and the Patriots have been able to find multiple effective and affordable players at the positions in free agency over the years from Wes Welker to Rex Burkhead to Dion Lewis.
Now, none of this is to say Sony Michel won’t be good or to say that the Patriots are bad drafters. The draft is generally a 50/50 proposition for every NFL team. Even looking at the players that they’ve passed on, sure Mark Ingram is a very good running back, but Cordarrelle Patterson certainly wasn’t worth a first round pick for the Vikings. No one has a perfect draft record. All of this lead up is to simply ask a question: Why did the Patriots feel the need to draft a running back in the first round when they’ve been so adverse to the idea since draft Laurence Maroney in the first round? And why do it when you already have James White and Rex Burkhead at the position who are both seemingly capable and effective running backs in the Patriots offense?
One of the players already mentioned above is the likely answer: Dion Lewis
Drafting Michel shows just how desperate the Patriots are to find a replacement for Lewis in the offense. Calling them “desperate” might sound like an exaggeration, but a quick look at Lewis’s 2017 stats would suggest otherwise. Lewis was quietly one of the best backs in the entire NFL last year. He was 6th in the entire NFL last year in all-purpose yards with 1,680, just ahead of All-Pro Antonio Brown in 7th place and just behind rookie sensation and rookie of the year winner Kareem Hunt in 5th place. Lewis was the most utilized player on the Patriots roster last season by the likes of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. It’s no wonder the Patriots have put such a valuable resource towards trying to find a replacement at the position.
Just to put Lewis’s loss in better perspective, there have been only five Patriots players to have more all-purpose yards than Lewis in a single season in the Bill Belichick era. All five returned to the team in the season following their tremendous years and Lewis is the first to have departed. Now that Lewis’s loss has been truly put into perspective, how do the Patriots go about replacing those 1,680 yards worth of production?
Certainly Sony Michel is the Patriots first choice. It appears that the whole reason the Patriots drafted Michel was to do just that and Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears has even said that Michel is "just what we expected". However, Michel has been injured for almost all of training camp and before that he was being criticized by the coaching staff for his fumbling issues. Michel was back on the field on August 27th for the first time in 26 days, but he has a lot to catch up on. Michel certainly has potential, but he’ll likely have to brought along slowly after missing so much time and even then we’ll still have to see if he’s any good. As stated above, the draft is a 50/50 proposition and Sony Michel, along with every other rookie in his draft class, has yet to prove he was worth the selection. With that said, there is still a chance that Michel could reach those numbers. It's not unheard of for a rookie to do so, as the aforementioned Kareem Hunt reference tells us. However, not every rookie running back turns into Kareem Hunt or Alvin Kamara and there's just as much of a chance that Michel has a similar rookie season to someone like Mark Ingram, who had a much slower start to his career.
The next place you can point to would be James White and Rex Burkhead who will no doubt be heavily utilized weapons for the Patriots this season. However, each have their own production to maintain from last season and it’s worth noting that neither White nor Burkhead have ever managed to gain even half of the all-purpose yards output that Dion Lewis was able to last season with White’s career high being 745 yards and Burkhead’s being 603 yards. White and Burkhead combined for 1,135 all-purpose yards last season between them and asking them to repeat that and add another 1,600 or so yards on top of that is a bit much to request from two players at the same position group. Of course Hill and Michel will both chip in to that total to some extent, but the general point here is that it should be treated as a bigger deal that the Patriots just lost the player who gained the 6th most all-purpose yards in the NFL last year. Having the expectation that a rookie or two players who haven’t even come close to surpassing 1,000 all-purpose yards in their career to fill the void left by Dion Lewis is ridiculous.
Dion Lewis will not be easily replaced, despite what the general consensus appears to be. He had a season that will go down as one of the best ever by a Patriots running back and something only 5 other Patriots have done in the 21st century. The loss of Dion Lewis was expected and relatively glossed over in 2018 free agency, but when going back and looking at the numbers, it may be a bigger loss than everyone first thought.
Photo: (Steven Senne - AP Photo)