New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis is a rotational piece in the offense, but he’s one of the best in the league at what he does. Few rushers can match his elusiveness, receiving skills, and blocking ability, and he’s able to showcase all of his talent in short spurts every week.
The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Patriots on Sunday and defensive lineman Cameron Heyward has serious praise for what Lewis is able to accomplish on the field and offers an interesting player comparison.
“It's hard to say who he reminds me of because I think he's successful in so many different ways,” Heyward said. “He's got a little bit of Ray Rice in him where in the fact that he may be small in stature but plays very big in his role. He's able to fall forward as a running back and that's always good and he's able to catch out of the backfield too. He's become a good target for [Tom] Brady. I think Dion Lewis, he's an every down back and he's showing it.”
Lewis racked up 120 yards from scrimmage against the Steelers in the 2015 season opener, his first game in a Patriots uniform, so Heyward knows firsthand of what Lewis is capable.
But how about that Ray Rice comparison? Does it make any sense?
The former Baltimore Ravens running back measured 5’8, 205 pounds with a 4.47s 40 yard dash and 6.65s three cone time, along with a 9’11 broad jump. Lewis is 5’7, 195 pounds with a 4.47s 40 yard dash and 6.90s three cone, along with a 9’4 broad jump. Rice has an edge from a physical perspective.
"Ray Rice was a great player,” Lewis told ESPN’s Mike Reiss. “He's definitely a lot different than me as a player, a lot bigger -- probably about 20 pounds heavier than me. But he was definitely someone I looked up to watching when he was at Rutgers and when he was in the league with the Ravens, having those big years and rushed for 1,300 yards [in 2009, 2011] and stuff. He's a player I've always looked towards.”
That 20-pound difference doesn’t align with team-reported weights, but the general size difference exists- and that physical advantage is also why Rice was able to be a bellcow runner, while Lewis has battled injuries his whole career.
In the four years from 2009-12, the peak of Rice’s career, he played every single game and averaged 1,266 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns, along with 70 receptions for 610 receiving yards and 2 receiving touchdowns. He was a production machine averaging 1,876 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns each year.
Meanwhile, Lewis has never played a full 16-game season- although he has a chance to do so in 2017- and has played in 51 of a possible 112 games since he was a fifth round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
But if we look past his injuries and look at just his production on the field, there’s an interesting comparison of Lewis to Rice.
Lewis has played 729 offensive snaps in a Patriots uniform (Ray Rice played 811 snaps in 2012, his last fully healthy season), and he has 1,124 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns, along with 73 receptions for 619 receiving yards and 3 receiving touchdowns. That’s a total of 1,743 yards from scrimmage and 8 touchdowns with New England, or a projected 1,939 yards from scrimmage and 9 touchdowns if he played the same 811 snaps as Rice.
In other words, if Lewis were able to remain healthy and received the same snaps as Rice, he would be just as productive as Rice was during the peak of his career.
This, of course, is a dream-scenario comparison. Lewis hasn’t been able to remain healthy, nor do the Patriots seem interested in giving Lewis the bulk of the snaps out of the backfield. But the on-field production comparisons are certainly interesting.
The Patriots decision to cut back on Lewis’ targets as a receiver- he’s seen 5+ targets just once in 2017, versus 10 times in 2015 and 2016- limits his ability to rack up yards, but it preserves his health for a postseason push. Until New England uses Lewis the way the Ravens used Rice, the comparison will always be a ceiling as opposed to a reality.