After missing the last six games due to a quadriceps injury, New England Patriots RB Sony Michel was activated from injured reserve on Saturday, paving the way for his return in Week 11, impacting his fantasy outlook for the rest of the season. A lot has changed about the Patriots since Michel’s last game, including the emergence of second-year running back Damien Harris. Along with Harris, Rex Burkhead has stepped up as of late in both the run and pass game, with James White continuing his usual third-down role. So how does Michel fit in the new dynamic amongst the Patriots running backs for Week 11 and beyond? What does this mean for his fantasy football value?
Sunday, 22 November Update: Despite being activated from the IR ahead of Week 11, Sony Michel is inactive for the Patriots Week 11 game against the Houston Texans.
Patriots RB Sony Michel’s fantasy performance is full of inconsistency
During the first three games of the season, Sony Michel had occupied his normal early-down role as the main ball-carrier for the Patriots. Instead of Tom Brady under center, it was Cam Newton, who proved to be quite different than Brady, especially when it came to the run game.
Newton would make an immediate impact as a mobile quarterback during Sony Michel’s first three games of the season with 149 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries. Michel saw an immediate dropoff in workload and production, especially over his first two games, with a paltry 56 yards on 17 carries (3.29 yards per carry) and a touchdown.
However, Michel showed well in the Patriots’ Week 3 victory against the Las Vegas Raiders with 117 rushing yards on only nine carries plus 23 receiving yards on two catches. Things appeared to be looking up for Michel as Newton only had 27 scoreless rushing yards in Week 3.
Unfortunately, Michel picked up an injury that would eventually land him on injured reserve in advance of Week 4. On top of that, Michel was placed on IR due to an illness in addition to his injury. While dealing with a serious injury and being placed on IR is bad enough, having it happen right after your best game of the season made it that much more deflating for Michel.
After a disappointing 2019 season where we saw Sony Michel average only 3.7 yards per carry on 247 carries (912 yards) and seven touchdowns, Michel appeared to potentially turn a corner and showcase what we saw during his strong 2018 rookie season. But in true Patriots fashion, Harris may have swooped in and sealed up the top running back spot in Michel’s absence.
The other Patriots RB Damien Harris has played extremely well in Michel’s absence
Harris would make his 2020 debut in Week 4, the first game Sony Michel missed. Over the course of the next six games, Harris had only one game where he finished with less than five yards per carry (Week 5 vs. Broncos). Harris has accumulated 471 rushing yards and one touchdown on 85 carries (5.54 yards per carry) in Michel’s absence and has shown why the Patriots invested a third-round pick in him during the 2019 NFL Draft.
Between his emergence and Newton’s improved play as of late, the Patriots running game has become much improved to the point where they are second in the NFL with 161.0 rushing yards per game and fourth with 14 touchdowns.
Harris, like Michel, hasn’t contributed much in the receiving game with only two receptions for 26 yards this season. He has helped breathe new life into the Patriots offense that is now the winners of two straight games, including an upset victory in Week 10 against the Baltimore Ravens. Harris’ season-high 22 carries and 121 yards helped lead the way in that nail-biter of a victory for New England.
Another side-effect of Harris’ emergence is the lack of a need to heavily rely on Newton in the run game. After averaging 56.25 rushing yards per game through his first four games of the season, Newton has averaged nearly half of that over his last four, with 27.5 yards per game during that span.
Harris’ one rushing touchdown speaks more to Newton’s involvement in the red-zone/goal-line offense than Harris’ performance. Newton’s nine rushing touchdowns are tied for third-most in the NFL and the second-most for a quarterback behind Kyler Murray (10).
Among qualified players, Harris’ 5.5 yards per carry this season is tied for fifth-best in the NFL and third-best amongst running backs. So with Michel’s return, it would be hard to believe that he will suddenly come in and take back the workload that Harris has worked to accumulate in Michel’s absence. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Harris retain the majority of his workload and the starting role.
What is the fantasy football implications of Sony Michel’s return to the lineup?
Since Week 4, Harris has been the RB25 in half-PPR fantasy football leagues. He is just outside of the top 25 despite only scoring one rushing touchdown, speaking volumes about his ability to consistently pick up solid rushing yard totals week-in and week-out.
Burkhead ranks behind him as the RB31 during that span, and White ranks as RB51. It’s fair to say that the Patriots’ running back would be scoring more points for fantasy football owners had it not been for Newton’s six rushing touchdowns over the last six games. However, therein lies a concern for those who may expect Sony Michel to pick up a role on this offense right away.
The Patriots don’t struggle at the goal line with Newton scoring as often as he does. They don’t struggle to move the ball effectively on the ground between Harris and Burkhead, continuing to consistently make plays between the two of them. With White and Burkhead continuing to be reliable receiving options out of the backfield, there clearly won’t be room for Michel there (even though he’s an extremely unlikely candidate for any third-down work regardless). So Sony Michel may find himself active on gamedays most of the time with little to do and without much of an impact on the Patriots’ RB dynamic.
An argument could be made that Michel isn’t even worth rostering in 12-team leagues at the moment. The Patriots aren’t in any need of someone like Michel to come in and see sizable rushing volume. Harris should continue to be the team’s main early-down running back and teetering between low-end RB2 and high-end RB3 value, while Burkhead will continue to be a dart-throw RB3/FLEX option due to his inconsistent volume.
Patriots RB Sony Michel’s return will be one to monitor, but nothing indicates that fantasy football managers should scramble to the waiver wire to pick up Michel. As we saw with Drew Bledsoe once Tom Brady stepped in for him, Michel may have lost his starting job permanently to Harris.
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Doug Moore is a fantasy football writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @DMooreNFL.