There is no denying Georgia’s run offense was one for the record books in 2017. In fact, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel formed arguably the most explosive rushing unit college football has ever seen, as the two backs combined for over 8,200 career rushing yards — surpassing all-time great Eric Dickerson and Craig James‘ record (8,192) that stood since the early-1980s.
While Chubb is fantastic in his own right, the other half of the ‘Dawgs duo caught my attention with his stellar Yards Created data across the board. Saquon Barkley is worthy of all the praise while Derrius Guice moves like the Tasmanian Devil, but Sony Michel is worthy of being in the same conversation as the consensus top-two running backs in the draft.
Yards Created Standout
Sony Michel won’t end up being the first running back drafted. Barring something unforeseen surrounding Saquon Barkley, the former Nittany Lion will be the No. 1 back off of the NFL Draft board.
Still, every facet of Sony Michel‘s Yards Created data screams that he is a standout player.
While all of the deserved attention is on Barkley, Guice, and even his teammate Nick Chubb — it appears Sony Michel is flying slightly under the radar. With above-average figures in Yards Created/Attempt on both carries with the quarterback in shotgun (5.23) and under center (5.27), it’s hard to find any initial qualms with Michel’s ability as a runner.
To be fair, Michel did benefit from an all-world offensive line for collegiate standards. With 1.73 Yards Blocked per carry (79 attempts), the ‘Dawgs offensive line opened up more space for Michel than any back in Yards Created’s three-year history. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t besmirch Michel’s incredible profile.
With rare balance, speed, and power for a back his size (5-11, 215lbs), Sony Michel is explosive both in tight lanes and in the wide-open field. Not only is Michel a homerun hitter, but he’s also consistently creative, too. Staggeringly, Michel can hit his sixth-gear in a heartbeat but what stands out most is not just his speed, but his balance through initial contact and agility behind the line of scrimmage. He’s a fantastic sustaining runner.
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. In fact, 60.5% of Michel’s total missed tackles forced were via power or elusiveness. Michel is far from just a speed-based, one-trick pony.
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.
While Michel’s receiving profile (0.64 final-year receptions per game) doesn’t hold a candle to Saquon Barkley (4.1 receptions, 48.6 yards per game) or Alvin Kamara (3.6 receptions, 35.6 yards per game in his final year at Tennessee), a back he’s often compared to, Michel is inarguably one of the best pass protectors in Yards Created history. In fact, Michel tied Barkley for No. 2 all-time in Pass Protection Execution Rate (93%) only slightly behind Ezekiel Elliott (94%).
Michel can make defenders miss in all three phases (power, elusiveness, speed), he’s an incredibly consistent runner both from shotgun and under center, and Michel has some of the best pass pro chops to enter the draft since 2016 — but his effectiveness relative to teammate Nick Chubb is astounding.
Stacked Box Success
First and foremost, 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.
Furthermore, Michel also bested Chubb in Yards Created by personnel grouping.
When there were at least three receivers on the field (10- or 11-personnel), Michel surpassed Chubb in Yards Created per Attempt (YC/A):
|NAME||CARRIES IN 10- OR 11-PERSONNEL (%)||
YC/A IN 10 OR 11-PERSONNEL
And, Michel had the edge over Chubb in heavier formations like 12-personnel (2WR, 2TE), 21-personnel (1FB, 1TE, 2WR), and 22-personnel (1FB, 2TE, 1WR):
|NAME||CARRIES IN 12-, 21- OR 22 PERSONNEL (%)||
YC/A IN 12-, 21- OR 22 PERSONNEL
Georgia’s rush attack was furiously productive last year, and a great deal of credit is due to their offensive line that ranked well above-average in Yards Blocked per Attempt, but Sony Michel‘s edge over Nick Chubb in Yards Created per Attempt in the ‘Dawgs vast playbook of run designs was astounding.
The only qualm in Michel’s game is his fumble rate. At Georgia, Michel fumbled once every 55 times he touched the ball (credit: Dane Brugler) — astronomically higher than the collegiate average (125). However, when fumbling is emphasized, and a players ability when he doesn’t fumble or drop the ball is de-emphasized, it’s easy to ignore the big picture.
Fumbles should be a small part of evaluations, but over-stating their importance on a backs’ overall game is a fruitless endeavor. Chronic fumbling can be fixed with proper coaching and technique; plus, at the NFL-level, fumbles are not a “sticky” stat year-over-year, meaning they are essentially just random events.
Sony Michel‘s fumble problems are correctable, but focusing too much effort on negative plays can cloud our outlooks. Ball-security aside, Michel’s exemplary Yards Created data shows that he is a standout running back. Several standout traits will always outweigh a handful of poor plays.
(Originally posted February 2018).