If you asked me which running back the Patriots had on an absurdly team friendly deal, I’d immediately point to Dion Lewis.
Lewis is on a 2-year, $2.6 million extension for the next two seasons and, while he’s coming off a torn ACL, he was one of the most dynamic running backs in the entire NFL last season. Lewis accumulated 622 yards in 7 games last season and his 88.9 yards per game ranked 9th for running backs.
But when I compare Lewis’ contract to the other players in the top 10 that are on veteran deals, Cowboys RB Darren McFadden is the only one to come close at $1.5 million per year. Saints RB Mark Ingram and new-Jets RB Matt Forte are earning $4 million per year. Buccaneers RB Doug Martin makes $7.2 million and Bills RB LeSean McCoy makes $8 million. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson makes a silly $14 million per year.
And there’s Lewis, making $1.3 million per year on a total bargain contract. I would expect that would be “team friendly” enough to rank Lewis as one of the five best RB veteran contracts in the league.
So when Pro Football Focus (PFF) released their article titled “5 Best NFL Running Back Contracts” and noticed a Patriot made the list, I was surprised.
It wasn’t Lewis. It was LeGarrette Blount.
“On the field, Blount has been one of the most productive rushers since he entered the league in 2010,” PFF writes. “Blount is among the league’s most bruising backs when he is on form; last year, he broke 34 tackles on just 165 carries, ending the season with a 77.1 rushing grade.”
Note that PFF scales their grading on a 100-point scale, so Blount fares well with their rankings. I should also note that three of the backs ranked with Lewis feature on PFF’s “Five Worst NFL Running Back Contracts” rankings (Peterson, McCoy, Ingram).
Personally, I think Blount is a fine running back that suffered last season because of the atrocious offensive line play. He is on a 1-year, $1 million contract with the Patriots.
So the easy question raised is whether or not Lewis is $300,000 better than Blount on a per year basis.
My first reaction is duh of course he is, but then I decided to actually look into the numbers to see whether or not I could support the claim beyond the eye test.
In general, the Patriots gained 7.31 yards per play (YPP) with Lewis on the field, versus 5.16 YPP with Blount- but that is to be expected. Rushing plays will yield fewer yards than passing plays and 63.2% of Blount’s snaps were rushing plays, compared to just 22.9% of Lewis’ snaps.
On passing snaps, the Patriots averaged 8.29 YPP with Lewis on the field, versus 6.94 YPP with Blount and 6.14 YPP with neither of them on the field.
On rushing snaps, the Patriots averaged 4.13 YPP with Blount on the field, versus 4.00 with Lewis and a ghastly 2.88 YPP with neither of them on the field. When you adjust for defensive personnel, Lewis saw slightly more success than Blount.
So we get a clear picture that the Patriots were better with Lewis and Blount than they were without them- and I think we fully understand that Blount is not a replacement level back that can be found on the street in December.
PFF lauds Blount for his 34 broken tackles on 165 carries, but Lewis broke their elusiveness scale with 43 broken tackles on 85 touches at midseason. Lewis even had a grade of 80.0, which exceeds Blount’s grade of 77.1.
Of course, Blount has proven his ability over six seasons in the league. Lewis has played less than half of a season with the Patriots, so I understand the trepidation at anointing him the second-coming of Barry Sanders.
Still, I wonder if we’ll be reconsidering which running back is truly the bargain come October and November.