Sony Michel led the Patriots with 912 yards rushing last season, but he now is on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list after foot surgery in May. AP Photo/Steven Senne

Heading into training camp, the New England Patriots’ running back group, an established cast of versatile performers, appeared to be a team strength in the post-Tom Brady era. It was practically a given.


Let’s just say that box can’t be checked off just yet.

The position collectively has morphed into a question mark. Actually, it might better be described as a bit worrisome, which is not ideal with the team breaking in a new quarterback, be it Cam Newton or Jarrett Stidham.

Along with a top offensive line, an effective running game is essential to any team’s offensive equation and its success. Recent events, however, make it easy to wonder if the group can deliver in New England.

For starters, lead back Sony Michel is on the active PUP (physically unable to perform) list at this juncture. He had foot surgery in May – that alone should have raised eyebrows given the timing.


Beyond waiting four months after the season ended to have the procedure, common sense says foot surgery for a running back is never a good thing. All the elements associated with being an effective back rely on the feet – cutting, planting, bursting free, and breaking away.

As it is, Michel also has two suspect knees that have required multiple surgeries and given him trouble on and off ever since the Patriots drafted him in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft.

He tore the ACL in one of his knees in high school, and had problems throughout college. The Athletic’s Michael Lombardi reported that prior to the draft teams had concerns about a “bone-on-bone condition,” which a Herald source confirmed.

And even with knee trouble in college, watching highlight reels from his days at Georgia, it’s almost night and day comparing the type of burst he had then with what he displayed last season.

The combination of knee and foot problems doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in terms of how soon Michel will be ready, or just how effective he’ll be once he returns.

Maybe second-year back Damien Harris, who took part in the Patriots’ opening practice Wednesday, will pick up the slack and bust out after a redshirt first year. That’s the hope, at least.


But that theory took a bit of a hit when agent Drew Rosenhaus broke the news the Patriots had agreed to terms with free agent Lamar Miller on a 1-year deal earlier this week. With Miller coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL, it’s likely the Patriots are taking a flier on an established veteran, and a darn good one when healthy.

With the pandemic, and much of the offseason work being done virtually, it’s easy to see how Belichick might want to rely a little more on players who have been there, done that.

Perhaps Harris, a third-round pick out of Alabama, will blossom if given more of a chance. And if Miller returns to some semblance of form, the Patriots are back in business.

“I think you need just to know that Damien is a doggone good runner. He’s a real good runner. He’s done a hell of a job improving his all-around game,” running backs coach Ivan Fears said last week. “When he came out of ‘Bama he was an excellent runner. He is an excellent runner. I think that’s what he’s going to show you when he gets a chance to play.

“I think you’re gonna like what you see and I think combining him with the other SEC runner that we have in Sony. You have a hell of a pack there.”

That scenario qualifies as a big “if” given Michel’s health, and Harris’ inexperience.


That said, if Miller and or Harris are effective during Michel’s absence, both Rex Burkhead and third-down wiz James White can maintain their primary roles, which is catching the football out of the backfield. While both can help in the running game – particularly Burkhead – their strength lies in providing a reliable outlet for the quarterback on passing downs.

Burkhead, speaking via video call Wednesday, was excited to finally be back on the field, put a helmet on and see how the unit will come together and progress going forward.

Naturally, he still believes the current running back committee has enough in the stable to make an impact.

“We’re all a super-competitive bunch. We all want to play to the best of our abilities, but yet, we’re pushing each other every single day,” he said. “We want what’s best for one another. I think that’s been the greatest thing about being in this room, being in this backfield ever since I’ve been here – it’s such an unselfish group. I think Coach Fears does a great job preaching that to us, and understanding we each have a role, we each have something we bring different to the team.”

As odd as it may sound, Miller might be the key to that room coming to life. The former Texans back, who is 29, suffered his ACL injury in a preseason game a year ago.

When healthy, Miller was considered one of the better two-way backs in the league. He’s rushed for over 1,000 yards in two seasons (2014, 2016). He also has a reputation as a top pass protector.

At the very least, it will be interesting to see how he looks, and how much he can push the needle.

The Patriots needed to add someone given Michel’s situation, Harris being an unknown, and the departure of depth piece Brandon Bolden, who opted out.

By the beginning of the season, the group may ultimately check off as a strength. Right now, not so much.

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