Stock Watch: New England Backfield

Stock Watch: New England Backfield

This article is part of our Dynasty Watch series.

News broke Friday morning that Sony Michel underwent a foot surgery in May, the official line being that the procedure was done to 'relieve discomfort.' The prognosis/diagnosis are both unavailable until someone finds out what procedure was done and when, but a foot injury is never good news, and it's especially problematic for a player with Michel's prior injury history. He had his knee drained in August of 2018, a knee scope in April of 2019, and an ACL tear in high school.

It might be getting to the point where it's unfair to say that Michel has underperformed thus far in his NFL career, because it's possible that he's just somewhat broken down physically. That's no solace to fantasy football investors, but it basically took bad luck for Michel to accumulate this injury history, so there's nothing much that could have been figured differently at the time of purchase. All the same, there's more reason than ever to wonder if Michel is losing his grip on the New England backfield. If he is, then who stands to benefit?

James White is likely locked into his particular role, the application of which may as well be thought of as an entirely different position than the one Michel plays. Playing as the pass-catching specialist, White draws roughly five times the targets per snap that Michel does, while Michel draws roughly four times as many carries per snap as White. Michel's presence or absence shouldn't mean much difference for White's projection. With an average of about 35.25 snaps per game logged over the past two years, we might expect White to play something like 550 snaps over a 16-game sample.

With the Patriots logging 2,405 snaps from scrimmage over the last two regular seasons, we might project the Patriots to snap the ball between 1,100 and 1,200 times in 2020 – a high figure and predictable byproduct of the Patriots' uptempo offense. Even after White is well fed, something like 600 running back snaps might still be up for grabs in this offense. The players fighting for those snaps are Michel, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden, and J.J. Taylor. At 5-foot-5, 185 pounds, Taylor probably isn't a serious consideration. Bolden will likely make the team and has flashed some productivity over his nine-year, special teams-oriented career, but he hasn't logged 100 offensive snaps in a season since 2015 and will be 31 in January. Again, likely not a serious consideration beyond five or six snaps per game.

When we get to Michel, Burkhead, and Harris we're probably down to about 500 snaps. Michel played a 16-game pace of about 410 snaps over the last two years, so the player who comes in third here basically won't play. That was the outcome Harris was stuck with last year, and he faces the same risk in 2020. The other side of the coin is that it might be safe also to say that either Harris will displace Michel, or no new useful fantasy contributor will emerge from this backfield even if Michel is subtracted. Burkhead does not seem like a serious candidate to single-handedly fill the carry void if Michel is out of the equation – whereas Michel averaged 0.615 carries per snap over the last two years, Burkhead's application was sort of halfway between Michel's and White's, averaging .294 carries per snap.

If Michel is hurt or otherwise toast, is Harris good enough to take Michel's prior carry workload, or will the Patriots instead fall into a committee in the run game? Perhaps it's the latter case, but I think a person would be wrong to assume that based on Harris' disappointing rookie season. Harris was a healthy scratch for all but two games, playing just five snaps and taking four carries for 12 yards. That's a bad rookie season, but it's also inconclusive. After all, in White's 2014 rookie season he was a healthy scratch for all but three games. We can either reason that the threshold of NFL viability exists at the point between the two games Harris played and the three White played, or we can reason that Harris' rookie season does not in itself present any final meaning.

Based on all known prospect precedent, there is reason to err toward optimism regarding Harris' NFL viability. Harris is precisely one year older than Josh Jacobs, who he started ahead of and outproduced as a runner at Alabama, both in the volume and efficiency senses. Jacobs ran for 1,491 yards (5.9 YPC) and 16 touchdowns in his three-year Alabama career, while Harris ran for 3,070 yards (6.4 YPC) and 23 touchdowns in his time with the Tide. Jacobs was awfully convincing as a runner for the Raiders last year, totaling 1,150 yards (4.8 YPC) in 13 games, so what are the chances that Jacobs can run at a standout NFL level but Harris can't run at all? Michel only averaged 3.7 yards per carry last year, and Burkhead will turn 30 in July, so Harris doesn't even necessarily need to reach a high bar to force the issue, even if Michel stays perfectly healthy. Although rushing was Harris' primary calling card at Alabama he was no slouch as a receiver either, catching 48 receptions for 394 yards on 58 targets in his final three years (82.8 percent catch rate, 6.8 YPT).

While Harris' college production alone doesn't guarantee him NFL viability, it's still a great start, and there's reason to believe Harris is an above average athlete otherwise. Harris ran a 4.57-second 40 at the combine, which is slightly slower than Michel's 4.54, but the difference is negated by the fact that Harris ran his at a half an inch shorter and two pounds heavier. With roughly the same density-adjusted speed, I think Harris takes the lead in composite athleticism thanks to his 37-inch vertical and 121-inch broad jump, both safely above the average even without adjusting for density.

Now, zoom out and take the full inventory. It's doubtless that Harris is starting from the bottom and Michel is starting at the top, but what better kind of candidate to fall than an injury-prone one-dimensional back like Michel, and what better kind of candidate to displace him than a more athletic player who outproduced proven NFL standout Josh Jacobs when the two were on the same college team?

I think it's both true to say that Harris' route to fantasy viability is quite narrow yet plenty suited to his abilities. White's presence precludes the chance of a three-down workload, which certainly lowers both the floor and ceiling. Even so, Michel's running specialty role seems similarly rigidly defined, and no other Patriots running back other than Harris would profile well for Michel's per-snap application, which entails carrying the ball roughly four times as often per snap as White, and more than twice as often per snap as Burkhead. If so, then that previously mentioned narrow route might be a route only Harris is capable of traversing. To put it another way: Harris might need Michel to fail in order to produce, but if Michel does fail then Harris will almost necessarily become the lead runner for New England. It's also worth considering the possibility that Harris steals a handful of Burkhead's dual-threat snaps – not only has Burkhead's production been mediocre in his three years with the Patriots (4.0 YPC, 75.5 percent catch rate at 7.1 YPT), but he turns 30 in July and is in the last year of his contract. Burkhead is also a bit of a fumbler, dropping the ball once per 63 touches in his NFL career, which gives further reason to consider his usage capped in the event of a Michel absence or demotion.

Harris was arguably worth a 20th-round pick even before the news of Michel's foot surgery – I certainly argued as much, at least – so the news of the procedure might spark some significant inflation with Harris' market. When considering Harris in this new developing market, we'll need to keep in mind that his floor is truly zero. That detail makes it too risky to buy Harris before the latest rounds, so even as a Harris truther I won't be chasing Harris any sooner than probably the 16th round at the very earliest. I would probably prefer Harris over players like Anthony McFarland, Justin Jackson, and Jamaal Williams, who in the past week respectively hold NFFC ADPs of 156.12, 160.28, and 195.28, but I also would generally prefer players like Darrynton Evans (164.56), Joshua Kelley (168.08), and Carlos Hyde (185.96) over Harris.

Michel's NFFC ADP in the same sample is 93.12 – just after White (87.72) and Marlon Mack (88.28), and just before Tarik Cohen (100.32), Jordan Howard (101.92), Tevin Coleman (102.4), and Matt Breida (103.88). Even as he slides, I'll probably hold off on considering Michel until we get more information about the condition of his foot, especially since he wasn't a target of mine to start with. I would generally expect to still take him ahead of the likes of Kerryon Johnson (109.0), Phillip Lindsay (114.8), and Latavius Murray (120.4), however, barring the release of any additional bad news.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mario Puig
Mario is a Senior Writer at RotoWire who primarily writes and projects for the NFL and college football sections.
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