I’ll admit to being skeptical when I heard the New England Patriots were high on Dion Lewis entering the 2015 offseason.
If they were so high on him, why didn’t they sign the undersized running back after he worked out in November of last year? And if they liked him so much, why did he go unsigned from Sept. 16, when he was cut by the Indianapolis Colts, to Dec. 31, when the Patriots signed him to a futures deal?
I now can see why the Patriots were so excited about the 5-foot-78, 195-pound change-of-pace back. He’s quick, shifty, agile and a willing blocker, and he flashed versatility — catching a touchdown lined up at wide receiver — in the Patriots’ 17-16 preseason win over the Carolina Panthers on Friday. It was Lewis’ second consecutive impressive preseason performance, and based solely on these exhibition games, he should be the front-runner for the Patriots’ third-down running back job.
That statement sounds insane on paper. Lewis hasn’t played in a regular season game since Dec. 30, 2012. He broke his fibula and suffered ligament damage in the 2013 preseason, forcing him to miss that season, then was cut by the Cleveland Browns and Colts last summer and couldn’t find a job in 2014.
But it’s really not that crazy. There’s no clear-cut, obvious choice to win the Patriots’ third-down job for the first time since Bill Belichick took over the team in 2000. They went from Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead to Shane Vereen without a hitch. James White, a fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, was supposed to be the heir apparent, and while he also impressed in the Patriots’ first two preseason games, he hasn’t flashed as much as Lewis.
The Patriots, of course, could still hand the reins to White or Brandon Bolden, who began Friday night’s preseason game in the third-down role. Bolden knows the system, but he doesn’t have the quickness, speed or versatility needed out of the Patriots’ third-down role, and he has a roster spot locked up regardless as a special-teams ace.
It’s not as if Lewis came out of nowhere, either. The 24-year-old was a fifth-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh in 2011 after he racked up 544 carries for 2,860 yards with 30 touchdowns in two years with the Panthers, adding 405 yards and a touchdown on 52 catches. Lewis gained 171 yards on 36 carries in two years with the Philadelphia Eagles before then-Browns general manager — now Patriots assistant to the coaching staff — Michael Lombardi traded for him.
Lewis hasn’t had a fair shot in nearly three years and it’s still confusing why the Patriots didn’t sign him earlier last season if they liked him so much — perhaps he was still slowed by the leg injury suffered in 2013 — but he’s proving that he was worth waiting on, and his own patience to get back on an NFL field has paid off this summer.
Lewis is doing his best work when it actually counts for a running back. Since there is no tackling during team drills in practice, this is the time for a running back to shine by making defenders miss, and no one is doing that better than Lewis, who can stop on a dime and shimmy a defender out of his shoes.
The Patriots probably had higher hopes for White or Travaris Cadet — who remains out with an injury — coming into the summer. But they’re also proving to be smart for waiting on Lewis and snatching him up when they could in late December.
Thumbnail photo via Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Aug 28, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis (33) tries to elude Carolina Panthers cornerback Melvin White (23) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. New England wins 17-16 over the Panthers. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports Images
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