After some relative clarity in 2018, the New England Patriots backfield is once again a nightmare for fantasy football. Sony Michel has struggled early in the season, while Rex Burkhead has been the more successful and efficient back. Burkhead saw the majority of the work in Week 3, and that usage should continue moving forward. Smart fantasy football owners will pivot away from Sony Michel and pick up Rex Burkhead if they need a quick start.
Start Rex Burkhead Over Sony Michel in Fantasy Football
Rex Burkhead Increased Usage
Rex Burkhead spent the majority of 2018 battling injury and was something of a forgotten man in New England. James White had a well-defined role, Sony Michel was coming off a solid rookie season, and the Patriots invested a third-round pick in Damien Harris. From the outside looking in, Burkhead appeared to be the odd man out.
However, Burkhead has steadily increased his role through the first three weeks of the season. In Week 3, Burkhead recorded 11 carries for 47 yards and a touchdown to go along with six receptions for 22 yards and a score. Sony Michel, meanwhile, recorded just 11 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. This is the first game where Burkhead saw more work than Michel, but it’s not the first time Burkhead played better than the former first-round pick. In each of New England’s first three games, Burkhead looked like the best all-around back on the roster. Bill Belichick won’t stick with an inferior player based on draft status, so Burkhead could very well earn a bigger role moving forward.
Additionally, Burkhead is the only proven running back on the roster capable of making plays in both the passing and running game. James White is a giveaway for a pass play, while Sony Michel is an easy tell for a run. Burkhead’s presence allows New England to be more unpredictable on offense, which is obviously a good thing.
James White missed Week 3, and his absence obviously affected the running back usage. However, even with White back in the picture, there is every reason to believe that Burkhead will continue to see a larger role in the offense. Based on New England’s current injury situation, it’s hard to imagine Michel being anything more than the third running back in the rotation.
Rex Burkhead vs Sony Michel Running Style
Sony Michel is not the most gifted runner. While he’s good at following blocks and reading open lanes, he’s not the type of player who can make guys miss in open space or break tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Michel ranks dead last in elusiveness and only has one broken tackle on his 45 carries.
This limited elusiveness isn’t a product of a small sample. Even when Michel was “good” last year, most of his success was due to New England’s ridiculously talented offensive line. Last year, Michel ended the regular season with 933 rushing yards. According to Football Outsiders, a league-average running back given Michel’s workload and offensive line would have recorded 938 yards. Put simply, Michel isn’t capable of making plays on his own and can only take what his blocking gives him.
This wasn’t an issue in 2018, as New England had one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the league. However, the 2019 Patriots offensive line has been depleted by a series of injuries. David Andrews is done for the year, Isaiah Wynn is on the injured reserve, and trusty fullback James Develin recently suffered a neck injury and might not return this season. The blocking won’t be able to create wide-open running lanes, which means New England is going to need a running back capable of making guys miss.
Rex Burkhead is the most elusive running back on the roster. While he’s no Saquon Barkley, Burkhead is a shifty runner who can stop of a dime, make guys miss, and accelerate for quick yardage. Basically, he’s capable of creating something out of nothing, a trait which Sony Michel has yet to demonstrate on the NFL level.
This was the only positive run from Rex, who likes to spin and juke to elude defenders, that I'm not sure Sony, who prefers running guys over, would've made.
Think Izzo misses his block. Rex sees the free defender in the hole, so he and spins away from contact for extra yards. pic.twitter.com/9J2VlhmLtY
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 23, 2019
Passing Game Work
Plenty of running backs can overcome inefficient running with receiving production, but Sony Michel offers absolutely nothing as a pass-catcher. After an entire offseason of hype, it’s clear that the New England Patriots do not view Michel as a weapon out of the backfield. So far this season, Michel hasn’t received a single target or ran even one route.
It’s admittedly difficult to get passes when James White is ahead of you on the depth chart, but Sony has no excuse for not being a part of the passing attack in Week 3. As previously mentioned, White missed the game and Michel had an opportunity to impress as a receiver. Instead, Burkhead received most of the targets, and Brandon Bolden even recorded two receptions on three targets. If you can’t beat out Brandon Bolden for targets, something is horribly wrong.
Not every running back is capable of lining up wide and beating coverage, but it’s pretty telling that the Patriots won’t even use Michel as a dump-off option in the flat. This shows that the team doesn’t view him as an explosive or dangerous player in the open field. It’s hard to disagree with New England’s assessment, as Michel hasn’t done much to disprove that notion throughout his young NFL career.
This is still going to be a backfield by committee, but Rex Burkhead and James White will be the leaders of the committee. The offensive line injuries have torpedoed Michel’s value, as his running style doesn’t mesh with average or subpar blocking. Burkhead and White are going to see most of the touches, with Michel coming in for short-yardage work.
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