With opening day still three months away and the mandatory portion of the initial wave of offseason workouts over, we have entered the more quiet parts of the NFL offseason. However, while the football world seemingly turns slower these days it does not stop.
During workouts and OTAs, players still have a chance to lay the foundation for their spots on the team. Over the course of the next few months, we will take a look at the men fighting for them on the 2017 New England Patriots. 53 of currently 90 players will be asked to help the team defend its Super Bowl title.
Today, we’ll continue the series with one of the most elusive running backs in the NFL.
Name: Dion Lewis
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 33w
Opening day age: 26
Size: 5’8, 195 lbs.
2016 review: After ending the 2015 season on injured reserve because of an ACL tear he suffered in early November, Lewis’ second year with the Patriots started on the physically unable to perform list. He spent the first half of the season on PUP and was activated off it prior to week 10. One week later, when New England played the San Francisco 49ers, Lewis gave his 2016 debut.
Lewis appeared in each of the Patriots’ final 10 games of the season and was used in a rotational role behind LeGarrette Blount and James White as well as a part-time kick returner. Overall, he played 31.7% (163 of 514) of the team’s offensive snaps during the regular season before seeing his playing time dip a bit during the postseason, when he was on the field 25.6% (62 of 242) of the time.
Not only did Lewis see a smaller playing time percentage in 2016, his touches were also not as evenly distributed as they were during the 2015 season. While he had a 57-43 run-pass ratio back then, it shifted to 80-20 this past season. Even though his role was slightly different, Lewis was still a dangerous and productive player. He did not quite live up to the lofty standards he set before his knee injury, though.
Lewis touched the football 81 times (64 carries for 283 yards, 17 receptions for 94 yards) during the regular season and 30 times (25 runs for 79 yards, five catches for 33 yards) in the playoffs. He also scored his first three touchdowns of the year during the Patriots’ divisional round game against the Houston Texans. In fact, Lewis became the first player in the Super Bowl era to score on a run, pass reception and kickoff return in the same postseason contest.
From a production standpoint it was one of the high-points of Lewis’ second year in Foxboro. And while he failed to be the consistent, electrifying runner he was in 2015, he did finish the season healthy and with his first Super Bowl victory. In short: It was still a productive first year back from injury.
2017 preview: With Lewis being another year removed from his ACL injury, he should be able to elevate his game entering the 2017 season. Therefore, he is the favorite to earn the fourth running back spot on the team over some talented and cheap competition, most notably by second-year man D.J. Foster. Still, Lewis has proven himself to be a versatile, reliable and productive player in the Patriots’ system and will likely get another shot in 2017.
His role, despite a deeper running back group around him, will probably look similar to the one he held in 2016: Lewis will play around one third of offensive snaps as the most well-rounded of New England’s backs. As such, he will essentially serve as the top rotational option behind both Mike Gillislee, the projected bell cow back, and James White, the team’s top pass catcher out of the backfield.
Seeing Lewis become a specialized back, à la Danny Amendola at wide receiver, would also not be a surprise. Amendola, for instance is used almost exclusively on third and fourth down, in the red zone and during two- or three-minute drills. Lewis being used in a similar fashion would not be a surprise as it would put less pressure on him and his body and would be a way to keep him healthy throughout the year.
And if that happens, he would add another dimension to the running backs and the offense as a whole. As a result, Lewis might once again become a key cog in what projects to be an insanely deep offensive attack.