The Titans are likely going to be in the market for a young, dynamic running back this offseason. As I’ve begun to familiarize myself with the plethora of options available in this year’s draft, the player that has stood out to me the most is Sony Michel.
The Titans already met informally with Michel at the combine, so we know Jon Robinson is at least intrigued by the talented back.
Sony Michel meets with the Patriots, Panthers and Titans at the Combine - https://t.co/O2UhokPsmJ— Walter Cherepinsky (@walterfootball) March 2, 2018
I won’t be coy here; Michel is (currently) my favorite player in the 2018 draft class (within reason, obviously the Titans won’t be in play for Saquon Barkley or Quenton Nelson).
I’ve watched film from each of his four years at Georgia, and I want to share my findings with you all here. This is going to be a very thorough breakdown with plenty of GIFs to supplement my analysis. In fact, this piece became so long during the writing of it that I had no choice but to break it up into multiple articles.
Anyway, without further ado, here is my first scouting report for the 2018 NFL draft, breaking down Georgia running back prospect Sony Michel (part 1).
Straight from the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine...
Sony Michel, Running Back, Georgia, Senior
- Height: 5-10 5/8
- Weight: 214
- Hand: 9 1/8
- Arm: 31 2/8
- Wingspan: 73 5/8
- 40-yard dash: 4.54
- 20-yard shuttle: 4.21
- Bench press: 22 reps
Michel elected not to participate in the vertical jump, broad jump, 3-cone drill, and 60-yard shuttle.
His combine wasn’t as impressive as many were expecting. His 4.54-40 is not a problem, but it is a hair slower than some were anticipating, and it may be enough to drop Michel out of the first round.
Overall, I don’t think we learned anything new about Michel from his combine performance, other than the confirmation that teams are viewing him as a dual-threat runner/receiver.
RBs running WR routes after others are done: Edmonds, Hines, Kelly, Michel.— Chad Reuter (@chad_reuter) March 2, 2018
The “J-Rob Fit”
Let’s start by getting to know a bit about Sony Michel.
We all know by now that Jon Robinson has a certain criteria he’s looking for in a prospect that considers their attitude, mentality, background, and production.
Robinson has his sights set on tough, dependable, team-first players who love football. Sony Michel penned a heart-felt “Thank you, Georgia” piece (that I encourage everyone to read) in which he attributed the Bulldogs’ massive comeback win in the Rose Bowl over Oklahoma to each of his teammates fighting for each other and having each others’ backs.
As he writes in his thank-you letter:
“‘I got your back.’ We meant it — all of us, to a man — and we came out of halftime determined and focused. The rest is… well you know what happened from there. But those four words have stuck with me ever since.”
Michel clearly buys in to the team-first aspect of the locker room culture the Titans have created.
As far as background goes, JRob has shown a propensity to draft players who weren’t heavily recruited and had to fight and claw their way into prominent roles with their team.
As a top recruit out of high school, Sony Michel doesn’t quite fit that mold, but the presence of other great running backs on Georgia’s roster, such as 2018 NFL Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley and fellow high-ranking prospect Nick Chubb forced Michel to work hard to carve out a role in Georgia’s offense. He never was the team’s feature back outside of a stretch in his sophomore season when Nick Chubb suffered a gruesome leg injury.
And to be clear, Jon Robinson will also target big-time recruits, as evidenced by his selection of Florida’s all-time leading high school rusher, Derrick Henry.
JRob has shown a propensity to value those scrappy players who had to claw their way from humble beginnings. Michel grew up in a struggling family, the son of Haitian immigrants. When he started playing competitive football, Michel’s parents were unemployed, and the young teenager’s status on his high school team allowed his parents to get jobs with the school; Michel’s mother was hired in the cafeteria and his father performed various maintenance jobs, each working 12-hour days to provide for their family.
It wasn’t long before Michel was inundated with college scholarship offers, and he decided to continue his football career at Georgia.
Despite never really operating as Georgia’s “feature back,” Michel still racked up impressive numbers, actually accumulating more career rushing yards than Todd Gurley.
Which brings me to my notes about production... We are all aware of the kind of production each of Robinson’s draft picks thus far have accomplished at the college ranks. JRob has also shown a propensity to value NCAA award-winners higher than other players.
Sony Michel produced workhouse-back-like numbers despite splitting carries with Nick Chubb for the majority of his time at Georgia, piling up 3,638 rushing yards on 591 attempts and scoring 33 touchdowns on the ground, a career average of 6.3 yards per carry, to go along with 64 receptions for 621 receiving yards (9.7 YPC) and 6 more touchdowns through the air.
His senior season alone saw him run for over 1200 yards on 7.9 yards per carry with 16 rushing touchdowns, including an incredible performance against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl in which Michel gained 181 yards on just 11 carries and 4 receptions for 41 receiving yards with 4 total touchdowns, including a 75-yard scamper and the final score, a walk-off 27-yard run off a direct snap in double-overtime.
One of the biggest concerns you hear about when studying Michel is the evaluation of his vision as a running back thanks to Georgia’s incredible offensive line.
The good news is Sony Michel has four years of tape to study, and only his final season came behind that dominant group of lineman. With three new starters in 2017, the team was able to take what was considered a preseason position of weakness and turn it into a powerful unit.
Michel just so happens to have excellent vision (more on that later), especially in the open field, and while it is evident when watching his senior season, it’s more obvious in the tape from his first three years of school.
When looking at some advanced metrics, we can try to eliminate the bias created by Michel’s offensive line. This excerpt from a piece about Michel’s ability to “create yards” is very impressive:
Not only did Michel force at least one missed tackle on 45.6% of his carries in his Yards Created sample (77th percentile), he did so with a recipe of power and elusiveness to get around defenders.
Michel faced a “stacked box” -- the percentage of carries with at least one extra defender in the box -- on 59.5% of his sampled carries. Nick Chubb faced a stacked box on just 40.5% of his attempts, but his Yards Created figures (4.78 Yards Created/Attempt) were nearly a half-yard behind Michel’s (5.26 YC/A). So, not only did Michel outpace his teammate in Yards Created on a per carry basis -- he did so by facing a stacked box nearly 60 percent of the time.
“Yards created” is a great statistic when trying to dive deeper into the evaluation of a player with a fantastic offensive line. The above numbers are from his senior year alone.
Here’s another excerpt from that article discussing more than just 2017:
What’s more, even though Georgia’s line is top-notch, Michel routinely creates on his own on a per-carry basis. Over the last three years, Michel ranks only second (39%) to Joe Mixon (41%) in the percentage of carries to create five or more yards. Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, and Kareem Hunt round out the top-five while Leonard Fournette (33% in 2015; tied-sixth), Ezekiel Elliott (32%; ninth), and Dalvin Cook (31.9%; tenth) close the top-ten.
That’s pretty good company for Michel.
As far as NCAA awards go, Michel isn’t as decorated as some of Robinson’s past picks, but he has his fair share of accolades, including:
- 2015 George Bulldogs team Offensive MVP
- 2015 Charley Trippi award winner for Most Versatile Player (as a sophomore)
- 2016 Liberty Bowl Offensive MVP
- 2018 Rose Bowl Offensive MVP
There’s no question that Michel will check off JRob’s required production benchmarks. He also seems to be a team fit from an attitude and culture standpoint.
Blah, blah, blah... where are the GIFs, am I right? Okay, let’s get to the film breakdown!
I will take you through my assessment of Michel’s strengths one-by-one by looking at many (probably too many) examples of plays. We will start in this article with vision, and then in subsequent articles we will move on to other traits...
In my opinion, the most important trait for a running back is vision, which is comprised of a few different factors.
To have great vision, a running back needs to be able to understand plays as they develop in an instant so that they can find creases in the line and get upfield as soon as the hole is open. This involves (obviously) reading your own blockers and in what direction they are moving. It also involves diagnosing the defenders and how they are filling their run lanes. And then having that ability to “get skinny” through small openings.
Michel is great at maximizing his blocking by sticking close to his blockers’ hips and backs to get through small running lanes and keep defenders away from him. He also displays his outstanding balance through contact in the above clip. It’s an inside zone run, where Michel quickly scans and reads the defense in an instant, hits the cut back lane, and protects the ball through the gap.
Michel frequently shows off this ability to shoot through small holes and get upfield, and he finishes runs strong through contact, falling forward to squeeze out extra yards.
This play shows off Michel’s ability to understand how his teammates are moving. He knows #77 Isaiah Wynn is going to turn his man out to the left after coming off the double-team and sneaks through the gap to get upfield.
In addition to being able to find the creases at the line of scrimmage, players with great vision are able to set up their blocks when they get in space. More than just seeing your teammates and opponents, this requires the ability to quickly determine the relationship between players on both sides of the ball.
Running backs who can quickly process all the movement in front of them are able to maneuver in such a way that allows their teammates to reach potential tacklers. These ballcarriers can keep their blockers between them and the defenders.
In the above play, Michel hesitates slightly to allow his blockers to get in front of him. This ability to set up blocks at the line of scrimmage is important, and he has the burst to explode through the hole when it opens (and of course, as always, he pounds his way forward for yards after contact).
The blocking is good enough to open a lane in the above play, but it’s Michel’s vision to see the lane develop and then his speed in the open field that makes this play possible and ultimately results in a touchdown. Note that Michel again runs right off the hip of his receiver to help make the block easier for his teammate.
The vision to see where the blockers will engage and the ability to run on their hips allows Michel to get downfield and gives him the opportunity to juke one defender and run through another for a touchdown. This is what they mean by “yards created.” Michel forces three or four missed tackles on this play (depending on how you count it).
Michel in the above play sees the intended gap is covered by the talented Alabama defense, so he bounces it outside and uses his speed to get the edge, exhibits his incredible balance to stay in bounds (more on that later), and converts a first down on a 3rd-and-20.
This play is really impressive. Never mind the guy that Michel completely trucks at the field goal target marker... The fact that Michel sees the other safety coming downfield and registers his blocker approaching on his right quickly enough to make the jump-cut outside requires a combination of elite vision and lateral agility and allows MIchel to pick up about 18 extra yards on this run.
Michel’s baseline vision is outstanding, but there’s a secondary element to vision that separates the great backs from the truly elite. Michel has the innate football understanding to know the gap responsibilities of linebackers and safeties coming downhill and then use that understanding against them.
Thus, Michel will feint like he’s running through one gap to draw the defender in, and then he’ll jump cut sideways, change direction and take a different path, creating a running lane for himself. It’s similar to how Mariota moves linebackers with his eyes; Michel manipulates defenders with his body language and creates open running lanes. Derrick Henry fooled Jalen Ramsey with this technique in his rookie year to score a touchdown.
Here are two examples of Michel doing it.
It’s kind of hard to tell unless you’re watching closely. The best way to see Michel’s effect on the defender is to watch the defender himself, in this case, the safety #24. Michel takes one false step up the hash marks, which draws #24 into that lane. Then Michel quickly cuts upfield towards the sidelines, where his teammates are blocking, and is able to turn the corner and maintain his balance enough to get in the end zone.
Here’s another one:
In this one, Michel fools the blitzing safety (#29), who initially goes to the correct spot to contain the run in the C Gap. However, #29 slides to his left when he sees Michel press the inside B gap and abandons his run fit. Michel cuts back outside off-tackle and takes the ball to the house.
So what does it look like when you put it all together? Combines all of the things we talked about above, patiently reading the relationship of his blockers to his opponents, setting up blocks to explode through a crease, manipulating defenders to create running lanes with angles, and finishing the run tough and strong - that’s the elite vision Sony Michel possesses that will translate to the NFL level.
Let’s take one more look at it in super slow-motion to see what Sony sees (except he processes all of this information in the blink of an eye without the benefit of slo-mo). With a defender staring down every gap, Michel has to instantly determine which lane to run through. He waits for the tight end to clear the hole and follows his pulling right guard. Then, seeing his left guard coming from his right, Michel makes the necessary jump cut back inside, but he knows that move will push him in the direction of the safety.
So he angles back to his left (watch his bend and lower body flexibility), but there’s yet another defender to avoid. Cutting back again to his right, Michel outruns the safety (who over-pursued) and finishes the carry by driving his shoulder into the defender and picking up yards after contact with the forward progress ruling.
Michel’s dominant offensive line blew plenty of holes wide open for him in 2017, but Michel still had his fair share of opportunities to showcase his elite vision, his ability to set up blocks and sneak through creases, and his propensity for finding running lanes and creating big plays.
That’ll do it for Part 1. In the next article(s), we’ll cover the following traits:
- Burst / Explosiveness and Speed
- Balance / Balance through Contact
- Route-Running and Receiving
- Pass Protection
Then we will go over the (few) concerns I have with Michel as a prospect, including the most glaring issue, his fumbling problem.
Finally, I’ll wrap things up with an overall assessment including a discussion of where Michel is likely to be drafted and how he may actually somehow end up in Tennessee.
Stay tuned for more...