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New England Patriots RB Dion Lewis Might Be the Best Running Back No One Talks About

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The dimunitive, but elusive back is primed for a 2015 Breakout Campaign

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Neon Dion is in the house.
Neon Dion is in the house.
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots initially signed Dion Lewis to a future deal in December 2014, but so far that move has turned out to be great. Lewis, who will be celebrating his 25th birthday on Sunday, was considered an afterthought signing by many while at the time Shane Vereen was celebrating his Super Bowl victory parading on a Duck Boat. Lewis entered the league as a 5th round pick for the Philadelphia Eagles following two stellar seasons at the University of Pittsburgh. He quickly fell out of favor in Philadelphia before the regime change and was subsequently traded to the Cleveland Browns. The Browns GM at the time was Mike Lombardi, who is now on the Patriots staff. While Lewis didn't make the Browns' roster in 2013, he left enough of an impression that led to Belichick and Lombardi signing him to the Patriots off-season roster.

Here's Lewis' Combine and Pro Day numbers as a refresher on what kind of athlete he is:

HT: 5'6 5/8"
WT: 193
10-20-40: 1.60-2.68-4.62/1.51-2.54-4.47
5-10-5 Shuttle: 4.18
3-Cone: 6.90
Vertical: 34 1/2"
Broad Jump: 9'4"

Even though Lewis isn't exceptionally fast or explosive for a running back, he does boast exceptional scores in the shuttle and 3-cone.

When Shane Vereen signed a 3-year deal with the New York Giants, who the Patriots will be visiting later this year, that opened up a potential role for the Patriots 2015 offense. In addition to Vereen's departure, LeGarrette Blount was suspended for the first game of the season. The initial thought was the Patriots would just plug in Jonas Gray into that role and that Lewis was only in Foxborough to compete for the 3rd down back role, a competition I had James White winning due to familiarity with the offense. In the 2nd preseason game, those thoughts quickly changed.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr"><a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Patriots?src=hash">#Patriots</a> running back Dion Lewis with one of the strongest runs of the night for a touchdown! <a href="https://t.co/PkVl9cf9Yb">https://t.co/PkVl9cf9Yb</a></p>&mdash; Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) <a href="https://twitter.com/PP_Rich_Hill/status/635266901489414144">August 23, 2015</a></blockquote>

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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Two backs #1 <a href="https://t.co/tkdgwGWT0Z">https://t.co/tkdgwGWT0Z</a></p>&mdash; Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) <a href="https://twitter.com/PP_Rich_Hill/status/636455571307241473">August 26, 2015</a></blockquote>

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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="pt" dir="ltr">Os melhores lances do RB Dion Lewis na pré-temporada: <a href="http://t.co/qdo3FnKb4d">pic.twitter.com/qdo3FnKb4d</a></p>&mdash; NE Patriots Brasil (@NEPatriotsBr) <a href="https://twitter.com/NEPatriotsBr/status/638079946448048128">August 30, 2015</a></blockquote>

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When the Patriots cut Jonas Gray as part of their final roster cuts, I thought Brandon Bolden would be the main guy when the Patriots squared off against the Steelers with Lewis and White rotating in for snaps like a preseason game. Instead it was wire-to-wire with Lewis as the main RB, just like in Week 2 against the Bills. In two games so far, Lewis has ran 22 times for 109 yards (4.95 YPC) and caught the ball 10 times for 149 yards (14.9 YPR). For those 32 touches, Lewis has forced 17 missed tackles and gained 3.4 yards per carry after contact. That's earned him a 181.1 elusive rating according to Pro Football Focus. The elusive rating is likely going to regress as the sample size increases, considering the top elusive rating PFF ever recorded over a single season was 94.6 with CJ Spiller in 2012.

He's also very good at understanding and picking up blitzes, which is a crucial skill to have in New England with your best bets riding on Tom Brady staying upright. Here's an example of him reading and picking up a blitz (LB cross blitz)

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">The <a href="https://twitter.com/Patriots">@patriots</a> received good pass protect. from RB Dion Lewis. <a href="https://twitter.com/Brian_Filipiak">@Brian_Filipiak</a> breaks it down <a href="http://t.co/lMKBT3uA5g">http://t.co/lMKBT3uA5g</a> <a href="https://t.co/9RhpSrNpBW">https://t.co/9RhpSrNpBW</a></p>&mdash; Inside the Pylon (@ITPylon) <a href="https://twitter.com/ITPylon/status/644923634792964097">September 18, 2015</a></blockquote>

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This is a well-designed blitz look that opens up a gap for a linebacker to blast through, something we see a lot when Jamie Collins blitzes. Not only is Lewis able to identify the blitzer and the cross blitz, he attacks the blitzer and stones him in the gap with a textbook block.

Not only is Lewis elusive, he's also able to power through tacklers. That contributes to his 3.4 yards per carry after contact, which will likely regress as the season wears on. Running the ball is where Lewis' lack of height plays more as an advantage, he's able to get lower than the players trying to tackle him and unlike Blount doesn't need a big hole to maximize the amount of yards he can get. Here's his TD run against Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="cy" dir="ltr">Touchdown Dion Lewis <a href="https://t.co/oSPXG1z184">https://t.co/oSPXG1z184</a></p>&mdash; PatriotsNation™ (@Jordanems) <a href="https://twitter.com/Jordanems/status/645655420862889986">September 20, 2015</a></blockquote>

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This is an example of great blocking and great running at the same time. Rob Gronkowski's ability to not only be a game changer in the passing game, but also the running game allows for the Patriots interior offensive line to move up into the 2nd level of the defense. Scott Chandler, David Andrews, and Josh Kline are able to surge into the 2nd level and create the rushing lane for Lewis. Lewis cuts right into the rushing lane and powers forward, taking two defensive backs with him into the end zone.

Not only can Dion Lewis contribute as a pass blocker and a runner, he's also a gifted receiver. Here's what else he did to the Bills and Steelers:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Rex meant it when he said he didn&#39;t care about Dion Lewis <a href="https://t.co/DfrBjaxd0C">https://t.co/DfrBjaxd0C</a></p>&mdash; Rob Quinn (@RQUINN619) <a href="https://twitter.com/RQUINN619/status/646000771381764096">September 21, 2015</a></blockquote>

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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Dion Lewis is shifty, but goodness is this poor by Shazier and Jarvis. <a href="https://t.co/tDR1F6OpZ4">https://t.co/tDR1F6OpZ4</a></p>&mdash; Jon Ledyard (@jledgePFS) <a href="https://twitter.com/jledgePFS/status/642213868895371264">September 11, 2015</a></blockquote>

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Patriots-Tom-Brady-finds-Dion-Lewis-for-40-yards.0.html

This is Shane Vereen type stuff as a receiver. Not only does he gain a lot of yards after the catch based on where he catches the ball, he also able to beat linebackers in isolated coverage looks on fly routes. After spending the offseason trying to figure out who would make an adequate replacement for Vereen, it looks like the Patriots actually found a replacement who is better than the last guy. The way Lewis is playing right now, Vereen might not be the only RB he'll replace. We won't likely know if Lewis' emergence is game plan related or if it's the real deal until the Patriots start facing less sturdy defensive fronts, which is typically when Blount gets the large share of the snaps.

Two games is definitely two small a sample size to make a definitive conclusion on whether it's a mirage or the real deal. At the same time, the tape from both the preseason and regular season shows Lewis either juking his way out of a tackle or running through a tackle to create extra yards. I believe Lewis will end up showing that he is indeed capable of contributing on all 3 downs on offense as a runner, blocker, and receiver as long as he doesn't fumble his way out of New England. This excerpt from NESN's Doug Kyed includes this quote from Head Coach Bill Belichick.

“Dion’s been very productive with the ball in his hands,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s been very dependable when he hasn’t had the ball. That’s really the bottom line — in the passing game, being able to protect, run routes, catch. In the running game, read blocks and make good decisions and make yards on his own. We’re going to block plays for whatever the yardage is — 1 yard, 2 yards 5 yards, 10 yards, but then any skill player, you want them to be able to add yards to that on their own with their running skill, whatever that is: quickness, speed, power, so forth. It’s a combination of all those things.”

Lewis was considered an afterthought after getting buried on the depth chart in Philadelphia, getting traded and not even making the Browns roster in 2013, and then sitting out of a year. With the Patriots in need of a running back for the 2015 season, the Patriots signed Dion Lewis to a future's contract last December under the likely recommendation of Mike Lombardi. In 2011-2013 Lewis never really had an opportunity to establish himself, but now that he's been given the opportunity of a lifetime to play for the Greatest Head Coach since George S. Halas and with the Greatest Quarterback of All Time, he's taken that opportunity and running away with it. Hopefully at the end of the season, we can look back at this article after Lewis finishes his breakout campaign.