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Sony Michel Just Terrell Davis'd the NFL Playoffs -- And He's Still a Buy in Dynasty

Much of the post-Super Bowl talk has been about Julian Edelman's potential candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, largely based on his Super Bowl MVP and his career resumé of clutch playoff performances. It's a discussion I find a little silly for multiple reasons, but it's overshadowed what I think is an even more impressive stretch of games this postseason by Edelman's teammate Sony Michel.


What Sony Michel did during this playoff stretch -- running for 336 yards and 6 touchdowns in three games, including the only touchdown in the Super Bowl -- is something we haven't seen since prime Terrell Davis in 1997 and 1998. The greatest playoff performances in the last two decades include Eddie George's 1999, where he rushed for 449 yards and 3 TDs in 4 games for the Titans, Marshall Faulk's 3-game stretch for the Greatest Show Rams in 2001 in which he totaled 3 TDs and 431 yards from scrimmage, Frank Gore's 2012 run for the Niners that included 319 rushing yards and 4 TDs in 3 games, and Thomas Jones' 3 games for the '06 Bears with 301 yards and 4 TDs on the ground. None of these match the per game half-PPR output of Sony Michel's 2018 playoffs. 

It isn't until you reach the postseasons of the '97 and '98 seasons that you find a RB performance better than Michel's 2018. In 1997, Terrell Davis ran through the AFC playoff bracket and the Packers in the Super Bowl to the tune of 619 yards from scrimmage and 8 total TDs, averaging a superhuman 28.5 half-PPR points per game. In 1998, he followed that up with "only" 24.6 points per game on 537 yards from scrimmage and 3 TDs, making it all Georgia Bulldogs on the top 3 spots of best playoff RB performances of the last 20 odd years. 

Sony Michel's 2018 playoff run obviously puts him in rare company. Terrell Davis is a former league MVP. You have to go back to Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas in 1993 and 1990 to find another postseason RB performance that beats Michel's, and Michel's 2018 was a more impressive playoff run than other Hall of Famers Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, and Franco Harris ever put together (for those wondering, the best postseason I found was Marcus Allen's 3-game stretch in 1983, where he posted 584 scrimmage yards and 5 TDs in 3 games for an insane 31.8 points per game). 
via NFL on giphy
So what does this historic stretch mean for Michel's future, particularly in fantasy football? At least through his rookie contract, he will presumably be tied to a Tom Brady/Josh McDaniels/Bill Belichick-led system where he should enjoy good opportunities for efficient play and scoring looks. The mere fact that he was drafted in the first round along with college teammate and offensive guard Isaiah Wynn portends a philosophical commitment to balance on offense by the Patriots (at least when situation and opponent call for that approach). Michel's usage during his rookie year is evidence of that: he totaled at least 13 carries in all but two of his healthy games. This postseason of rushing dominance comes on the tail end of a regular season that saw Sony Michel fill a similar role for the Patriots: go-to 2-down pounder and goal-line RB. It's a prolific role, but it has also meant that 91.4% of Michel's 220 career opportunities (carries and targets) so far have come on first or second down, a rate that ranks in the 84th percentile of all RBs drafted since 2007. That's a higher rate of early down work than prototypical grinders Jonathan Stewart, Trent Richardson, Jeremy Hill, and Alfred Morris have seen in their careers. That role also saw Michel garner only 11 targets in the passing game during his rookie year.

So maybe this great playoff stretch means Sony Michel is a sell in dynasty. That's the temptation -- to cash in now on an effective but one-dimensional player on a Patriots offense that, while annually prolific and efficient, has a reputation for churning through ho-hum RBs that they turn into RB1s for half a season at a time before casting them off for the next shiny Rex Burkhead-type in free agency. Michel has a history of knee injuries going back to college that again troubled him this preseason, and there are (perhaps unfounded?) reports of his knee being "bone on bone." Then there is the presence of James White on the Patriots roster, one of the premier receiving backs of the NFL's last decade, with a Satellite Score of 91.7 coming out of college that is second to only one player drafted as a RB since 2007. With such a strong receiver sharing the backfield with him, maybe there is little chance that Michel ever transcends his 2-down role and reaches his full potential.

As it stands now, Sony Michel is the biggest outlier in our entire database in terms of college receiving production translating to NFL passing game workload. Targets have so far made up just 5% of his career opportunities, the 6th lowest percentage in the entire database of 228 RBs. That number is a riddle when appreciated next to Michel's college production profile. Michel posted two 20+ reception seasons at Georgia and, using Dominator Rating and target share numbers from, entered the NFL with a 68th-percentile 37.8 Satellite Score (for more on Satellite Score, visit this recent article). While Michel has workhorse size, he did not profile as a between-the-tackles grinder as a prospect -- he has 3-down ability. RBs with Satellite Scores in Michel's range (between 35 and 40) have targets make up an average of 21.8% of their total opportunities -- Michel is at less than a quarter of that mark -- and Kerwynn Williams, Josh Adams, and Marshawn Lynch are the only other players with Satellite Scores in that range that have had targets make up less than even 15% of their opportunities. In short, players with Sony Michel's college production profile simply don't see the kind of rushing/receiving workload split in the pros that Michel saw in 2018. In Michel's case, that means one of two things: a prospect profile that lied, or untapped potential. I'm betting on the latter.

For Michel to reach that untapped potential, he will necessarily have to garner some passing game work with the Patriots. With James White on the team, he will likely never become the go-to receiving option out of the backfield, nor should he. According to Spotrac, White is signed through 2020, so the prospects of Michel outlasting him and absorbing the entirety of that receiving role are not good; RB primes don't last long in the NFL anyway, but the idea of buying what you think is low on Sony Michel in hopes of a bellcow pay-off in 2021 isn't great process. But it's not James White that Michel needs to cannibalize. He is also competing for touches with Rex Burkhead, a player whose skillset is a virtual carbon copy of Michel's according to their prospect profiles.

According to my model, they are a virtually identical 99.6% 3-Down Profile match, a comparison that takes into account size, strength, and receiving ability in order to better understand a player's potential role in the NFL. Rex Burkhead is essentially slow Sony Michel, and over his two years in New England, on offenses that included James White and Dion Lewis, he filled a role that siphoned away receiving work at a 49.8 targets per 16-game pace. Burkhead himself has an out in his contract after 2019, potentially paving the way for Sony Michel to step into more receiving work, but it's not unreasonable to expect the younger, more explosive Michel to chip away at the Burkhead role as soon as this season. Running the ball is a skill that translates directly from college football to the NFL -- given the requisite athletic ability, dual-threat QBs, rookie RBs, YAC-monster WRs, premier kick and punt returners -- these guys all step right onto professional football fields and are able to make things happen with the ball in their hands just like they have since they were kids. It's the more technical, less instinctual parts of football  -- like contributing in the passing game -- that often take some time to adjust to. Maybe Michel wasn't where he needed to be as a pass-blocker during his rookie year. Maybe he dropped some passes in practice (he certainly dropped some in games) and failed to gain the trust of Tom Brady and play-caller Josh McDaniels. Rex Burkhead is a steady, veteran player that doesn't make mistakes. It's easy to see how a guy like that could wrench playing time away from a rookie in a place like New England. But I'm betting on talent to win out in the long run.

If talent does indeed win out and Sony Michel adds "backfield receiving weapon" to his NFL resumé, his fantasy value could skyrocket. Assuming health, if Michel absorbed just half of the Rex Burkhead receiving role in 2019, he would finish the year with 40 targets (50% of Burkhead's 16-game pace + Michel's own 16-game pace). That would put him in the Lamar Miller/Tevin Coleman/Buck Allen range of targets and would solidify an already high-floor fantasy outlook. Projecting his 2018 rushing and receiving numbers plus the additional target share over 16 games would have Michel finish with a stat line of 1390 yards from scrimmage, 25 receptions, and 8 total TDs. That would have given him 199.5 half-PPR points, meeting 10-year thresholds for an RB1 season and placing him at RB13 based on 2018 finishes.

Scott Varley, Daily Breeze/SCNG

I'm projecting more for Michel in 2019. The Patriots have spent first-round draft capital on a RB just one other time in the Brady-Belichick era, selecting Laurence Maroney out of Minnesota 21st overall in 2006. Maroney was a disappointment, struggling through four injury-riddled seasons in New England before flaming out of the league after a single season in Denver. I don't bring up Maroney as a point of comparison for Michel, but as a point of reference: to state what should be the obvious, Sony Michel is a different beast compared to the typical no-name Patriots RB product. There have been 14 New England runners who have seen at least 100 touches in a season since the Brady era began in 2001. Their profiles run the gamut, from JAG-level talents like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Stevan Ridley, prototypical satellite backs like Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk, and late-career stars like Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Only Michel from that group has been an athletic, ideal-sized, full skill-set talent in the prime of his career. Bill Belichick is not going to throw a Sony Michel aside in favor of some yet-to-be-discovered flavor-of-the-month cast-off from the Miami Dolphins or Detroit Lions. Michel is a legitimate top-end RB talent and the Patriots know how to get the most out of the talent on their roster. With a full professional offseason under his belt and in an offense built for protecting a late-career Tom Brady with balance, I expect a Melvin Gordon-level sophomore season and corresponding spike in value for Michel (even Gordon has done his damage while conceding touches to complementary backs like Austin Ekeler). A 1500 scrimmage yard, 40 reception, 10 TD campaign is well within the realm of possibility for him. Don't trick yourself into thinking Sony Michel is a postseason hype-fueled sell candidate in dynasty -- he's barely scratched the surface. Buy him for 2 first round picks and change now, before he's worth 3+.

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