FOXBOROUGH — Sony Michel had a great rookie year last fall, but the first-round running back had one notable flaw in his game.
He couldn't catch the ball.
Though he rushed for 931 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games, Michel only made seven catches for 50 yards all season, and his presence on the field was a major tell to opposing defenses that a running play was coming. The Patriots rushed the ball 80% of the time Michel was on the field, and by contrast, the team passed the ball on 80% of fellow running back James White's snaps.
That likely won't be the case again this year, however, as running backs coach Ivan Fears said Monday that Michel has made significant strides in the passing game this offseason.
"Much much improved, much better than he was last year," Fears said. "Last year I thought it was a lot for him, this year he's pretty good at it, he's going to be very good at it."
Michel has shown off an improved set of hands throughout training camp, catching all 13 passes thrown his way during practices open to the media. His growth will go a long way towards helping the Patriots address their predictability in the backfield, which has been a major focus for the team this offseason.
"The whole key to make it so we're interchangeable, everybody looks at us saying they can do both. We like to be in that kind of mode, they got to worry about Sony catching the ball as well as running the ball," Fears said. "I think you'll find Sony is going to do very well in the passing game, and I bet you'll find James White and the rest of the guys doing very well in the running game also. We're going to try to keep that going."
That extends beyond just Michel and White, as Fears said the team is also expecting big things from Rex Burkhead and rookie Damien Harris. Harris in particular, he said, has come along quickly despite being limited by injury in the preseason.
"He's done exactly what we've asked him to do in the passing game, and as he learns the offense we can throw some more on his shoulders," Fears said. "He seems to catch the ball very easily, he has good vision as far as seeing things, he's a smart guy, so all of that will lend itself to him being more involved in the passing game. He's a tough guy too, he does well in blitz pickup, so we'll see."
The Patriots have long sought to have a full complement of four reliable running backs, but last year the plans were derailed by injury almost immediately. Jeremy Hill was lost to a torn ACL in Week 1 and Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel both missed time with their own injuries, leaving James White and for a while even receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as the lead guys in the running game.
This year, Fears is confident he has the guys to get the job done. With Michel leading a group who can all run and catch, it will allow the offense to run at all cylinders without wearing any one particular player down.
"We just have to keep [Michel] out there but we've got to use him wisely, not overuse any one of the guys and put out a nice crew out there that gets us through the year."