New England Patriots fans had a lot of high hopes for the 2019 season, and a lot of those hopes fell on the shoulders of second-year running back Sony Michel, and the Patriots 2019 NFL first round draft pick wide receiver N'Keal Harry.
I'd be lying if I said that the season went exactly as we hoped. Harry unfortunately suffered an injury in training camp, and then picked up another injury during the preseason. Because of this, he was forced to miss half of his rookie year on the injured reserve list. By the time he returned to the Patriots lineup he had a lot of catching up to do, and the Patriots didn't have the time or the patience to wait for him to learn. He never really made the impact that a lot of us hoped he would when Bill Belichick drafted him.
For Michel's part, he was coming off a fantastic rookie year where he was able to accumulate 931 rushing yards on 209 carries, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, and pounding in six touchdowns. Michel was also one of the catalysts on the Patriots Super Bowl run. He racked up 336 yards on 71 carries, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Michel also tacked on six touchdowns, including the game winning, and the only touchdown scored in Super Bowl 53.
The 2020 season didn't go quite as planned for Sony Michel. He seemed to go through the dreaded sophomore slump, and we saw a slight decline it is play. But Michell was also a victim of circumstance with all the injuries the Patriots had on their offensive line and with both of their fullbacks ending up on injured reserve.
That's not to say that Michel couldn't have performed better. His decision-making came into question a lot throughout the season, and even the Patriots running back coach Ivan fears mentioned that Michel needed to make better decisions when he's hitting the open holes on the line.
When Harry was drafted in the first round, the media and Patriots fans set the bar very high for nN'Keal. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect your first round draft pick to be NFL ready and make an instant impact to the team. I fully admit I was one of the people who was pumping Harry's tires, and like a lot of people I truly believed that Harry was going to be an explosive playmaker for the Patriots right away.
Expectations should have been made much lower after Harry ended up on the injured reserve list to start the season. As the Patriots offense fluttered, and Pat's nation was hoping and praying for somebody to come along and fix the offense and give Tom Brady a legitimate weapon to throw to. People were anticipating N'Keal Harry's return and I think that a lot of us believed the Patriots were going to be Super Bowl-bound as soon as the rookie took the field.
Of course that's not how things worked out. Harry needed to acclimatize himself to the NFL, and that's a slow process. Missing the first 8 weeks of the season,and also missing a majority of the preseason, it really put Harry behind the 8-ball, and the Patriots were never really able to get him fully engrained into the offense. Some of that falls on N'keal Harry, and some of that falls on the Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Even he admitted that there were times that he wasn't getting the best out of Harry, and he needed to find a way to get him more involved in the offense. We saw flashes from Harry that tell us he's very capable of making big plays, we just didn't see it consistently throughout 2019.
Sony Michel set his own expectations with his play in 2018, and unfortunately he didn't live up to the expectations that he's set at all. Again not all of that is on Michel, but he needs to take accountability for not playing smart football, and it'll be imperative that he uses this offseason not just getting himself physically ready for the 2020 season, but also getting himself mentally ready.
Studying game film and making sure that he starts seeing the field with better vision. Looking at the current makeup of the Patriots roster it's difficult to tell if the Patriots offensive line will be improved next season. There have been rumours that James Devlin is considering retirement, so Sony Michel may need to take on some of the load on his own. He's also going to have to physically get ready to start breaking tackles. There were too many times last year he was stopped by one defender. When you see other players around the league like Nick Chubb and Joe Mixon who are able to just run over the defense, that's what Michel needs to start doing.
For Harry, he needs to use this offseason working on his route running and ensuring that he's playing smart football. He also he needs to figure out a way to create separation from his defenders. Harry doesn't have overwhelming speed, so he needs to be able to use his size and his strength to create the separation in order for Tom Brady, or whoever is playing quarterback for the Patriots to have a clean target to throw to.
Harry has the opportunity to take on a big part of Rob Gronkowski's old roll especially inside the red zone. It'll be up to him and the Patriots coaching staff to ensure that he's putting in the work to improve his overall game.
Both Sony Michel and N'keal Harry are first round draft picks. Going into the 2020 season it is going to be vital that they play like first round draft picks. One of the reasons that the Patriots are in such a tight salary-cap situation right now is because Harry did not turn into the explosive weapon that the Patriots were hoping for, and Michel is not playing like a top 10 running back. That's not to say that they both can't play at those levels, but they didn't in 2019.
If both of them can step up, it could alleviate some of the pressure that Bill Belichick will have in 2021 when trying to restructure the roster. When you spend a first-round draft pick on skilled positions you expect them to perform at very high levels, unfortunately for both of those players and the Patriots that just didn't happen in 2020.
If you were to ask me what we should expect out of Harry and Michel in 2020? I would say that I'm about 80% on N'Keal Harry bouncing back and having a better season. I'm not sure if he'll ever live up to the expectations we originally had for him, but if Bill Belichick is able to go out and find an explosive receiver, either in free agency or through this year's draft, I believe Harry could be a great number two or three for the Patriots.
When it comes to Sony MicheI, I have all the faith in the world that he will return back to the form that we saw on 2018, even if the Patriots offensive line isn't as good as it was back then. We started seeing some spark out of Michel deep into the season. He started seeing the field better, and making better decisions. We actually saw him starting to shed some tackles, and I think as long as Josh McDaniels stays with their strengths and gives Michel the opportunity to run the ball we'll see a lot of success coming out of the Patriots backfield.