There is an interesting discussion to be had about the New England Patriots running backs and which ones will make the final roster. When you factor in guaranteed money, past performances, and projected future roles at the offensive skill positions, it’s easy to wonder about the future of RB Dion Lewis.
The Patriots spent the offseason stacking the roster by adding players like TE Dwayne Allen, WR Brandin Cooks, RB Rex Burkhead, and RB Mike Gillislee to an already talented squad with WR Julian Edelman, WR Chris Hogan, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Danny Amendola, TE Rob Gronkowski, FB James Develin, and RB James White, whom they signed to a potentially lucrative extension.
There are only so many roster spots to go around and if we assume the Patriots would like to have three tight ends on the roster (and I wonder if Develin plays a factor in this math), then it’s unlikely that the Patriots would be able to hold on to more than four running backs.
White, Burkhead, and Gillislee all received over $1 million in guaranteed money upon signing their deals over the past three months, so they are roster locks. The question is whether the team will keep Lewis over second-year RB D.J. Foster, who made “highlight catches” in the rain this past week and who was “one of the top performers.”
ESPN’s Mike Reiss believes that there’s still room on the roster for Lewis.
“Albeit not in full pads, Lewis' quickness and explosiveness still stood out on the practice field Thursday, as I only saw Gillislee among the running backs hit the line of scrimmage with close to the same noticeable burst,” Reiss shared in his Sunday notes. “It had me thinking that Lewis' skill set still has value to the club and he could fall into a Danny Amendola-type classification as a player who is carefully managed. Gone are the days when he plays 73 snaps (Sept. 20, 2015 at Buffalo), but as a kickoff returner and reserve running back playing 15-20 snaps per game in hopes of preserving his health, I still see a spot for him on the club.”
Comparing Lewis to Amendola is interesting because Amendola is left in his packaging on the sideline until a high-leverage play, like a third down or a red zone attempt, where he serves as a reliable option that converts whenever his number is called.
There’s no question that Lewis steps up when asked. He almost single-handedly brought the Patriots past the Houston Texans in the divisional round this past year, scoring three touchdowns- once as a receiver, once as a rusher, and once as a returnman- and he’s electric whenever he touches the football.
Lewis has played 17 games in a Patriots uniform (including playoffs), with a few limited by injuries. Over those games, Lewis has racked up 596 rushing yards, 515 receiving yards, and 6 touchdowns, which is a pretty solid “season” for a Patriots running back.
But the emergence of James White as an elite receiving back has really impacted Lewis’ contributions on the field.
This graph shows that from Lewis’ yards gained per snap (blue line) is roughly 2.00 throughout his time with the Patriots. This, in my mind, shows that Lewis is still capable of being the same running back that he was early in 2015 if he receives the snaps, carries, and targets within the offense.
But after the Broncos game (the spike at #12), we see that Lewis’ touches per snap increases, while his yards per snap falls below the expectation. There are two takeaways:
- The Patriots were much more intentional with Lewis’ snaps. If he was on the field down the final stretch of 2016, he was almost twice as likely to be the target of the play than he was early in his Patriots tenure.
- Lewis’ opportunities were more as a rusher than as a receiver. While Lewis was a pretty balanced runner and receiver during 2015 and his first few games of 2016, his opportunities were driven by rushing attempts down the final stretch of 2016.
Earlier in his tenure in New England, Lewis was used as a pass blocker, which increased his wear-and-tear. By concentrating his snaps to plays where he can touch the ball, the Patriots will maximize his contributions on the field- and with two extremely capable pass blockers in James White and Rex Burkhead, the Patriots won’t be sacrificing anything on offense.
So as we head into 2017, I believe that Lewis can be the same dynamic player that he was in 2015, but that he will receive fewer opportunities to flash his abilities. As Reiss says, the Patriots could use Lewis as a 20-snap type player with an increased focus on getting him the ball when he’s on the field. And with the continued struggles of Cyrus Jones in the return game, perhaps Lewis is an organic option to shoulder the load as a returner.