Dion Lewis has the NFL’s undivided attention.
It’s about time. The former Pittsburgh Panther had been towards the top of both modern and traditional statistical categories and performance indicators over the season’s second half. Leading up to his 142-scrimmage-yard performance in last Saturday’s victory over Tennessee, the national media cultivated a newfound reverence with the veteran running back’s story of determination, as well as his unique skill set.
“It’s great to have recognition, but I’m a very confident person,” Lewis told reporters on the Wednesday leading up to their Divisional-round contest, according to a NESN’s Doug Kyed. “I don’t speak much, but I believe in my abilities, and I feel like I’m one of the better players in the league.”
While his self-characterization as one the league’s best is absolutely correct, it could shine a light on why he and the Patriots failed to ink an extension this season.
No reports surfaced in 2017 on whether or not the Patriots pursued further communication with Lewis and his management team in regards to a deal, although it would come as a surprise if the team hadn’t made some kind of an effort to do so — even if talks never progressed to the point where figures were exchanged.
This is a projection from the end of October on what a potential contract extension keeping Lewis in New England through the end of 2019 could have looked like. At that point in the season (through seven games) he had only amassed 272 of his eventual 1,110 total yards from scrimmage, and just two of his nine total touchdowns.
A modest deal like this would have been emblematic of the many “team friendly” agreements the Patriots have inked with in-house personnel over Bill Belichick’s tenure with the organization. If such a deal were offered to Lewis before the season, it would have been a gamble to turn it down, considering it would have given him two more years of stability heading into a season with an expected backfield platoon — a situation not particularly conducive for the accumulation of notable statistical production.
This hypothetical extension would also average less per-year dollars than each of the other three running backs that Lewis was expected to platoon with this season. James White’s contract, which runs through 2020, averages $4 million per season, Mike Gillislee’s two-year deal averaged a maximum of $3.2 million per year, and Rex Burkhead’s one-year pact was worth a maximum of $3.4 million.
It’s also not the kind of deal you sign if you have the self-confidence and belief that you’re an elite, All-Pro-level player who is just one season away from the sweet rewards of NFL free agency. If Pittsburgh Steelers star Le’Veon Bell receives the franchise tag again in 2018, a serious argument can be made that Lewis would become the preeminent available asset on the free agent running back market. Carlos Hyde represents Lewis’ best market competition from a talent and role-versatility standpoint. Players like Jerick McKinnon and Isaiah Crowell, who provide more down-specific, specialized services, will also be available.
As great as Lewis’ season has been, injury history, age (27-years-old), and a softened running back market are major factors working against him according to salary cap guru Miguel Benzan of The Boston Sports Journal. These circumstances are also why Benzan expects Lewis to back in Foxborough next season. However, with the presupposition of additional suitors in free agency, just how much more money will Lewis and his management team be able to procure from the Patriots in addition to the aforementioned “team friendly” projection?
A benchmark Lewis’ team could realistically set is the contract Bilal Powell signed with the Jets last March. Powell was 27 at the time of signing, and to that point had accumulated 2,427 total scrimmage yards and nine touchdowns in his previous five seasons in the league — all with New York. He also stayed relatively healthy, with the only substantial chunk of missed time coming from a high ankle sprain in 2015, costing him four weeks of the season.
Powell’s three-year deal, according to overthecap.com, is worth a total of $11.25 million, with $6 million guaranteed at signing in the form of a $2.65 million signing bonus, and salary guarantees of $850,000 in 2017 and $2.5 million in 2018. $2.25 million in escalators were also built in. All told, his deal carries an average per-year value of $3.75 million.
While Powell is a talented player, Lewis is simply on another level from a skill and production standpoint.
It’s difficult to gauge the ceiling for Lewis’ value. Like the past two seasons, the incoming running back draft class is rich with talent, but that hasn’t keep teams from spending on the position in free agency. Last March, Lamar Miller brought home a four-year, $26 million deal with $14 million guaranteed in Houston, and to facilitate a trade to Tennessee, 27-year-old DeMarco Murray re-negotiated his contract, creating a four-year, pay-as-you-go-style deal with the Titans worth $26.2 million and $12.25 million guaranteed.
Lewis’ injury history will preclude him from reaching the $6 million+ per-year mark, but a recent contract that he and his agent could focus on is Latavius Murray’s.
Murray, who is just four months younger than Dion Lewis, hit unrestricted free agency last spring after four unspectacular, high-volume years in Oakland. The three-year, $15 million deal he signed guaranteed him $2.7 million at signing — a $1.8 million signing bonus, what appears to be a $900,000 2017 roster bonus, and his $900,000 2017 salary. Each year includes $500,000 of per-game roster bonuses, and $2.3 million of unspecified incentives. If he is on the roster on the third day of the 2018 league year, his entire $5.15 million 2018 salary becomes guaranteed.
One would think that would be an acceptable amount of up-front cash for Lewis, and assuming he survives what amounts to a year-two team option, a fruitful second year salary. For organizations with a dire need for skilled offensive personnel and an abundance of cap space like the 49ers, Browns, and Colts (each carrying over $80 million of projected 2018 cap space), such a deal would be a drop in the bucket.
With many in New England anticipating the release of Mike Gillislee after this season — a move that would free up just over $2,181,250 in gross cap space — an agreement for Lewis that mirrors Murray’s may not prove too costly for the Patriots’ taste. Like many Patriots deals, the pact carries a low year-one cap figure, and gives the team ample protection against another catastrophic injury. Although it is hard to imagine Bill Belichick being thrilled about the cap figures beyond 2018.
Whether or not his checks are signed by the Krafts in 2018, the Patriots star has earned every penny coming his way.