The New England Patriots have activated running back Sony Michel from IR, and fantasy football managers have reason to be tense.
Sony Michel was designated to return from IR with his return to practice on Nov. 5, activating a 21-day window for the New England Patriots to put him on the active roster. Saturday morning, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Media and others, Michel was taken off IR and he’s expected to play Sunday against the Houston Texans.
Michel has not played since injuring his quad in Week 3 against the Las Vegas Raiders. He had 117 yards on nine carries in that game, highlighted by 48 and 38-yard runs. He also spent time on the COVID-19 list in October, but that really didn’t impact the timeline to return from his injury.
Sony Michel creates looming fantasy conundrum in Patriots backfield
In Michel’s place, Damien Harris has run quite well. He has three 100-yard rushing games since his season debut in Week 4, with two of them coming in the last three games. He’s averaging 5.5 yards per carry overall this season.
Out of virtually nowhere (13 carries in the first two games), Rex Burkhead had 98 yards from scrimmage and three total touchdowns in that Week 3 game against the Raiders. More recently, he has three total touchdowns over the last two games with more than 60 total yards in each. In three of the last four games and five of nine overall this season, he has at least three receptions.
James White has seen a reduced role lately, with a less than 30 percent snap share in three of the last four games. The Patriots’ focus on the running game, with the third-ranked rush offense in the league entering Week 11 (161.1 yards per game) has left White will little to do in a role rooted in the passing game.
The Texans have the NFL’s worst run defense (167.4 yards per game), and they’re also ceding a league-worst 5.2 yards per carry. That ineptitude has of course translated to fantasy, as Houston is allowing the second-most fantasy points per game to running backs (Yahoo!, 0.5-point PPR).
Michel would seem to be an immediate threat to Harris’ role as the Patriots’ early down back. Assuming he’s active on Sunday, and assuming he plays enough to be noticeable. It would be a truly Bill Belichick move to activate Michel off IR, then have him inactive against the Texans.
Michel is worth keeping on a fantasy roster if you’ve been hanging onto him, and he is fairly widely available as a stash option (23 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues, 13.1 percent owned in ESPN leagues). Starting him with confidence this week is another conversation, and even that’s ideally only as a flex spot flier in a deep league.
Harris (55.9 percent owned in ESPN leagues; 76 percent in Yahoo! leagues) and Burkhead (43.6 percent owned in ESPN leagues; 45 percent in Yahoo! leagues) remain the most viable fantasy running backs for the Patriots in a great Week 11 matchup. Burkhead is the preferred option in PPR formats.
Going forward, here is how New England’s opponents entered Week 11 ranked in fantasy points allowed to running backs (Yahoo! 0.5-point PPR) and as overall run defenses. The Cardinals have already played Week 11, so for now their standing has changed compared to heading into the week (17th).
Week 12: Arizona Cardinals-12th-fewest; 20th-ranked run defense
Week 13: Los Angeles Chargers-11th-most; 16th-ranked run defense
Week 14: Los Angeles Rams-5th-fewest; 5th-ranked run defense
Week 15: Miami Dolphins-13th-most; 22nd-ranked run defense
Week 16: Buffalo Bills-15th-most; 28th-ranked run defense
So counting the Texans on Sunday, the Patriots face four of the 13 worst run defenses in the league over the next six weeks. Only the Rams in Week 14 stands as a tough matchup.
The Patriots’ running back rotation is always a bane of fantasy managers’ existence. This year, with how run heavy they’ve been, it feels a little more predictable. Harris has gotten little or no passing game work, White gets passing game work when there’s enough to go around and Burkhead (when he sees enough touches) seems to get a little of everything (goal line, passing game). Now Michel is in the mix as a looming threat to take work away from Harris (even it’s against logic).