New England Patriots RB Dion Lewis has the chance to return to the line-up this week against the San Francisco 49ers. He was activated off the Physically Unable to Perform list prior to facing the Seattle Seahawks, but he was inactive for the game. Head coach Bill Belichick said that had nothing to do with the running back’s health.
“He wouldn’t have been on the injury report,” Belichick said about Lewis’ status against the Seahawks. “I mean we didn’t activate him until Saturday but he wouldn’t have been on the injury report. I mean when a player hasn’t played for a year then they haven’t played for a year.”
Lewis is going to slowly work his way back into the Patriots rotation and we shouldn’t expect any serious contributions until the final four weeks of the season. But we also shouldn’t undersell his contributions to the Patriots offense.
In 2015, Dion Lewis was the best running back in the NFL on a per-play basis. This is not an exaggeration and this isn’t to say that he was the best running back in the NFL- just that he was wildly efficient.
The NFL tracks the average output on any given scenario (down, distance, field position) and can compare a player’s individual output to the league average. For example, if the average 1st and 10 play from midfield yields 6 yards, but Player X picks up 10 yards, then Player X gained 4 yards above average.
The Patriots picked up 1.90 yards above average with Lewis on the field, more than any other running back in the NFL in 2015 (min. 150 snaps). In his short time on the field, the Patriots picked up 530 more yards than expected with Lewis, the 4th most of all running backs (behind Steelers RB DeAngelo Williams, Bengals RB Giovanni Bernard, and Cardinals RB David Johnson).
In 2016, RB James White has done a pretty good job in Lewis’ role as the Patriots have averaged 1.68 yards above expectation with White on the field (and he also ranks 4th in total yards above expectation, behind Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott, Titans RB DeMarco Murray, and Falcons RB Devonta Freeman). But White is a below-average runner, while Lewis produced at an average level; Lewis offers another level of versatility to the Patriots offense.
It’s easy to glaze over the potential contributions of Lewis because that is all they are: potential. But if Lewis is able to regain his 2015 form in time for the playoffs, the Patriots are going to elevate their already-great offense to even greater heights.