In the final hours of 2014, the New England Patriots announced the signings of three street free agents to reserve-futures contracts.
One was veteran defensive tackle Antonio Johnson, a 52-game starter for the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans. Two was edge-rusher Rufus Johnson, a New Orleans Saints sixth-round pick the year prior. And three was running back Dion Lewis, a 2011 Philadelphia Eagles fifth-rounder who hadn’t appeared in a regular-season game in 731 days.
So, consider what transpired on Dec. 31, 2017 to be only fitting.
The three-year anniversary of Lewis’ arrival in Foxborough saw the running back garner a career-high 32 offensive touches as the Patriots defeated the New York Jets, 26-6, to close out the regular season with the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Lewis handled 26 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown on the ground, in addition to six catches for 40 yards and another score by way of the air, during it.
The workload was in part due to the backfield’s absence of Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and James White. But that shouldn’t undercut much; it was a New Year’s Eve that few foresaw coming three New Year’s Eves ago.
“Dion works really hard. He always has,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his postgame press conference, via Patriots.com. “We signed him. He was coming off of not a lot of production and really earned his way. He’s earned everything he’s gotten, like everybody has, but he’s earned it.”
Lewis rushed 36 times for 171 yards, received three times for 21 yards, and returned 32 times for 702 yards during his stay in Philadelphia.
He’d notched two touchdowns over that 24-game span on a depth chart featuring LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown.
The flashes were fleeting.
By April 2013, the 5-foot-8, 195-pound University of Pittsburgh product was traded to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for Emmanuel Acho. And by that August, a fractured fibula and ligament damage had shut that door before it ever opened.
The Browns waived Lewis ahead of the 2014 campaign, and outside of a six-day cup of coffee with the Indianapolis Colts, he’d spend it out of football. Waived twice and traded once are how many NFL obituaries go. But Lewis is an outlier. He has been a revelation, an afterthought, and a top-10 back. From his torn ACL in 2015, to his backseat role in 2016, to a 2017 that nobody could’ve have written better.
“He’s gotten opportunities,” added Belichick. “He’s faced some setbacks along the way, but he’s always been pretty resilient. He’s had a great attitude. I think I’m certainly happy for it, but everybody is happy for the success that he’s had because of the way that he’s worked and the way that he competes. He’s given us that for basically every day that he’s been here.”
Antonio Johnson was released by the 75-man roster cut in the summer of 2015, while Rufus Johnson appeared in one game, landed on the non-football injury list and was let go from the practice squad by the following September. Lewis, in contrast, has experienced a tenure far less circuitous than what preceded it. And, as he sits on the doorstep of free agency once again, he may be doing so as best futures signing in franchise history.
Dion Lewis on a 17-yard adventure. pic.twitter.com/92JPiUz36H— Oliver Thomas (@OliverBThomas) December 31, 2017
For now, the 27-year-old is one that the Patriots are counting on when the games count the most.
"I'm embracing it,” Lewis told reporters in the locker room after Sunday’s frigid victory. “I like having the ball, I like helping my team win. They counted on me today and I just got to try and make plays for the team and have fun out there. I had a lot of fun out there. We won. It was a great way to close the year out. Now we just got to move forward and work hard for the playoffs."
Lewis finishes the 2017 regular season having logged 16 games work for the first time in his career. He finishes it with 180 carries for 896 yards and six touchdowns, 32 catches for 214 yards and three touchdowns, and 23 kick returns for 570 yards and one touchdown.
He didn’t have a 100-yard rushing game on his resume until December. Now he has two, and very nearly had a third Sunday. No Patriot had scored a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in back-to-back games since Larry Garron 1964, either, according to NFL Research.
"It means a lot to me,” Lewis said. “Just being out there and having the opportunity to be out there playing. Things haven't always worked out that way in my career, so this year to be out there and be getting the ball as much as I have for the past two games – I've got to relish the moment and just embrace it."