Rex Burkhead’s three-touchdown performance against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday may have further written the epitaph of Sony Michel’s time in New England, at least in the eyes of knee jerk prone Patriots fans and hot take prone sports radio hosts (two groups which I somewhat belong to and for whom I carry some amount of fluctuating disdain at all times).
Did you know Michel was drafted ahead of Nick Chubb? No one ever brings it up.
All Michel had in the Patriots’ win over the Raiders was 117 yards on the ground. But Burkhead’s big day, J.J. Taylor literally just being an undrafted free agent, and the prospect of Damien Harris stepping on the field only continue to overshadow Michel’s play. But here’s the catch: Sony Michel has been the best running back on the Patriots through three games.
NFL.com’s Next-Gen Stats provides much more context than any bland box score or phantom touchdown total ever will. Here are the key categories Sony Michel stands out in:
League ranks in parentheses are out of running backs with at least 15 rushing attempts, hence James White’s absence from the rankings.
Average rush yards: 6.7 (3rd)
Percentage of runs with eight or more defenders in the box: 30.77 percent (8th)
Rush Yards Over Expected (RYOE): 73 (4th behind only Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and Dalvin Cook)
RYOE per attempt: 2.79 (3rd)
What is RYOE? Long story short, some Australian nerds used player tracking data to determine how many yards a runner is expected to gain on a given rush. Then Next-Gen Stats improved it. RYOE is the difference between that and how many yards the runner actually gained.
Here are where Burkhead and Taylor rank in the same categories:
Average rush yards - Burkhead: 4.4 (T-2nd) ; Taylor: 4.4 (T-22nd)
Percentage of runs with eight or more defenders in the box: Burkhead: 21.05 percent (21st in the NFL); Taylor: 25 percent (17th in the NFL)
Rush Yards Over Expected (RYOE): Burkhead: +7 (27); Taylor: -11 (39th)
RYOE per attempt: Burkhead: 0.37 (24th); Taylor: -0.67 (45th)
Due to the threat of Cam Newton’s legs, being on the field more often in obvious running situations, and being an unproven pass-catcher, Michel is facing an incredibly high amount of eight-plus man boxes. Despite this, Michel is one of the most successful rushers in this infant NFL season.
It’s worth noting that through three games, the Patriots offensive line is tied with the Rams for 3rd-best run block win rate in the NFL. Michel is getting the blocking he needs to be successful on the ground, almost as if rushing success has way more to do with a ball carrier’s blocking advantage than anything else. Case and point: Ryan Izzo and then Devin Asiasi missed blocks on the first and the second plays of the game which resulted in four and zero yard gains for Michel. The other backs are receiving the same blocking as Michel, into consistently lighter boxes, but Michel is out-performing and out-producing his backfield cohorts.
Three games isn’t a massive sample size so it’ll be interested to see how these figures progress throughout the season. But for right now, Michel should be viewed as the top rusher on the Patriots.