When it comes to positional depth on an NFL roster, health is always the great equalizer. As deep as a unit might be on paper, an injury can change the complexity of an entire roster. What was considered a position of strength, can quickly become a liability when a key player becomes sidelined.
The Los Angeles Rams recently learned that lesson all too well. On Tuesday, Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network reported that running back Cam Akers ruptured his Achilles while working out. As a result, he is expected to miss the entire 2021 season. Los Angeles had high hopes for Akers in the upcoming year. The Florida State product has become the Rams’ workhorse in the backfield, rushing for 625 yards and two touchdowns in his rookie campaign. In Week 14, against the New England Patriots, Akers posted a career-high 171 rushing yards. It was the most by a rookie since Nick Chubb had 176 in Week 10 of 2018, versus the Atlanta Falcons.
Per multiple reports, third-year back Darrell Henderson should get the first opportunity as the Rams’ primary running back. However, there is not much insurance behind him. Xavier Jones and Raymond Calais have yet to take a carry in an NFL regular season game. Behind them, Otis Anderson is an undrafted free agent rookie.
In short, the Rams are likely to search for alternatives in an attempt to maintain competency (at the very least) in their rushing attack.
Enter…the New England Patriots???
Not so fast.
One of the deepest positional depth charts on the Patriots roster is the running back corps. Damien Harris headlines an impressive group, which includes rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, Sony Michel, Brandon Bolden, J.J. Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and James White.
While Harris is considered the consensus feature back, it should be interesting to see if the Patriots continue to lean on Sony Michel as their second option, or if those reps could be taken by another player on the team.
Since arriving in New England as the Patriots' first-round selection in 2018, Michel has had his share of ups and downs. The former Georgia Bulldog played an integral role in New England’s run to a Super Bowl LIII victory. However, injuries and inconsistency have cast some degree of negativity on his time in New England.
When he has seen the field, Michel has been a productive player for the Patriots. In his three seasons in New England, he has rushed for 2,689 yards on 620 carries and 20 touchdowns. Still, the two sides appear to be headed for a split following the 2021 season. In addition to the team drafting another potential early-down back in Rhamondre Stevenson, the Pats then declined Michel’s fifth-year contract option. Therefore, 2021 projects as the 26-year-old’s final season in New England.
As a result, Michel has become the subject of both trade and release rumors. The team could create cap savings in either instance. With the Patriots declining his fifth-year option, Michel is set to count $3.06 million against the cap in 2021; $1.83 million of which is guaranteed. New England could unload $1.79 million of his salary off its books via trade, and $1.23 million by releasing him.
With Akers suffering his season-ending injury, some have speculated as to whether the Patriots might be wise to contact the Rams to gauge their interest in trading for Michel. After all, the Rams have a clear need at the position, and the Pats might have a palpable motive to move him before he hits free agency in 2022.
Seems like a logical solution to a potential problem, right?
Again, not so fast.
Ideally, Los Angeles would have interest in Michel’s services. Playing against the Rams, he scored the only touchdown in Super Bowl LIII, carrying 18 times for a game-leading 94 yards. Head coach Sean McVay clearly has not forgotten how effective Michel can be when healthy. However, the Rams’ cupboard is pretty bare when it comes to potential bargaining pieces. Several veterans are committed to hefty contracts, and the team has depleted much of its tradable draft capital. At best, the Rams would likely be able to offer only a minimal return. While the Patriots might consider moving Michel, they would be foolish to accept pennies on the dollar.
Perhaps the greatest cautionary tale to be told from Cam Akers’ injury might be to never take positional depth for granted. Should the Patriots choose to jettison Michel, they would find themselves in a similar situation to that of the Rams, in the event that Damien Harris suffers an injury. While James White is one of the best pass-catching backs in the NFL, he is not a feature back. Neither is J.J. Taylor, nor is Brandon Bolden. It is tempting to assume that Michel became expendable when the Patriots drafted Stevenson. The 6’0” 230-pound back has the potential to be a dual-threat rusher with the Pats. He is a physical runner, yet athletic enough to make tacklers miss in short yardage. As such, many have conjectured that the former Oklahoma Sooner, may be a factor in New England’s offense as early as this season. However, it should be noted that the Patriots usually take a temporant and planned approach to developing young running backs. It was reported that Stevenson had his share of struggles during minicamp. Should those difficulties continue into training camp, the young running back might see more of a ‘red-shirt’-type season in 2021. In that case, Michel would be far more valuable to the Patriots as an asset than as a trade piece.
In the final analysis, the injury to Cam Akers might end up having an impact on the Patriots in 2021. However, that impact may end up being more passive than active. Though a trade possibility might have presented itself, the Patriots might be wise to consider whether they should, as opposed to simply if they ‘could.’ As we saw on Tuesday, a position of strength can become a liability in an instant. It may be intriguing to consider moving a player like Sony Michel. What ought to be more intriguing is realizing that you might not know what you have until it's gone.