Georgia RB Sony Michel went from Alvin Kamara-like sleeper to NFL draft first-rounder

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

MOBILE, Ala. – A month ago, if NFL evaluators had been putting together a mental list of guys who might linger on draft boards longer than they should, Georgia running back Sony Michel might have qualified. Like Alvin Kamara in 2017, maybe teams would outsmart themselves and pass repeatedly, ignoring area scouts who were white-knuckling under the table as they tried to finesse general managers or head coaches into seeing value.

In late December, that might have been the case, a scenario where Michel slid more than he should. Maybe even into the top of the third round, where Kamara was inexplicably sitting on the board for the New Orleans Saints in 2017. But early this month, that possibility evaporated on a college football playoff stage that Kamara never reached while at Tennessee. In a span of eight days, encompassing playoff games against Oklahoma and Alabama, Michel went from a split-carry curiosity with high potential to being seen a centerpiece running back for some NFL team.

“His two college football playoff games blew him up,” one scout said of Michel.

Sony Michel’s performance in two playoff games erased any thoughts of him becoming a sleeper pick in the NFL draft. (AP)

Blew him up in the best kind of way, mind you. Almost to the point of lament for some evaluators, who had the faint hope that maybe Michel could be stolen the way Kamara was last year. And while Michel isn’t at the Senior Bowl this week, he is definitely a topic of conversation when you ask about the intriguing talents in a months-long sifting process that has just begun.

So much so that five personnel men who named Kamara in their grouping of potential risers in January of 2017 each mentioned Michel in some fashion when asked the same question this month. But their spin was also different. Kamara was still somewhat of a question entering the draft process last year, a reality that likely parlayed into his slide into the third round. But Michel has climbed out of the question mark category and now would have to stumble in the draft process to halt the momentum he’ll carry into the NFL scouting combine late next month. Right now, there’s a fight to be the second running back off the board behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. And Michel has a chance to take that slot and put himself solidly into the NFL’s first round.

That’s largely thanks to Michel’s playoff explosion, when he lit up Oklahoma with four touchdowns and 222 yards (rushing and receiving) on only 15 touches. He strengthened his resume further against Alabama in the national championship game, when Michel had a tough 98 yards on 14 carries. Those stats are only part of the love story for NFL teams. Evaluators believe he has the skills to fit any scheme, but will be enticing to the multitude of franchises that have adopted spread offenses. And not just because he is a productive runner.

“He can pass block,” one personnel man said. “You can be confident in that part of his game, which you can’t say for most first-year [running backs]. He’ll catch it. He didn’t have to do that a lot [in 2017] but he can do it. Their coaches had that confidence in him. … He’s got the build for everything you’d want. He’ll get you yards inside and out. He can be violent. He won’t run anyone over [in the NFL], but he will drop his shoulder and attack. He’s definitely isn’t afraid of contact.”

That’s high praise for a split-carry player whose talent would likely have made him a high-volume player at most other schools. But Michel shared the ball with Bulldogs star Nick Chubb during all four of his seasons in college. Like Kamara at Tennessee, that limited load is a plus. While his medical chart will draw some scrutiny over occasional injuries at Georgia, his split carries suggest he arrives into the NFL with more tread on his tires.

What will separate him at the combine? Speed and agility. Part of what hurt Kamara in workouts were good but not great numbers in those departments. Some personnel departments were hoping to see him show out like an athletic freak and it didn’t materialize as expected. But the same scouts who loved Kamara before the workouts all said the same thing when he was tearing up the NFL this season: his tape showed he was special – and his performance as a rookie showed the same guy who repeatedly flashed brilliance at Tennessee.

Michel will get that same argument if he doesn’t showcase the speed and elite footwork. The same scouts who frustratingly saw their teams pass on Kamara in 2017 and then rolled their eyes as he became a difference-maker in New Orleans will make the same arguments about Michel.

“He’ll work out well – I really would be surprised if he didn’t,” one evaluator said. “But I was a little surprised by Alvin’s workouts and that [created] some hesitation. … I’ll say the same thing about Sony that I said about Kamara: he runs away [from defenders] on tape and when the trash is closing up, he puts it into another gear and is gone. He pushes a pedal that is pretty special.”

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