There’s a decent chance one of the New England Patriots’ best offensive players won’t return next season.
Running back Dion Lewis, who’s first up in our free agent profile series, is set to hit the open market March 14. The Bill Belichick-led Patriots have only shown so much willingness to pay running backs through the years. It was a shock they gave James White, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead annual salaries of over $3 million last offseason.
Lewis was one of the best running backs in the NFL in 2017, so it’s reasonable to believe some team will be willing to ante up and pay the man what he’s worth as a free agent this March.
The top running backs in the NFL receive annual salaries of $8 million per season. Lewis’ injury history, including a 2015 ACL tear, likely would preclude a team from giving him that much money. But Lewis is dangerous and versatile with the ball in his hands. Why wouldn’t a team be willing to give him $6 million per season if that’s what guys like Chris Ivory, Lamar Miller and DeMarco Murray are making?
All of this is to say don’t rush out and grab that Lewis No. 33 jersey just yet.
Let’s take a quick glance at Lewis.
2017 stats: 180 carries, 896 yards, six touchdowns; 32 catches, 214 yards, three touchdowns
Highlight of the season: This one-handed catch was pretty ridiculous, even if it came in a losing effort.
His best game of the season came in Week 16, when he had 196 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns on 31 touches, in a 37-16 win over the Buffalo Bills.
Chances of coming back: Not great.
RB depth: James White, Mike Gillislee
Contingency plan: If the Patriots can’t re-sign Lewis, they should go all-in on bringing back Rex Burkhead, who’s also a free agent. Burkhead, like Lewis, is adept as a ball-carrier and pass-catcher. White is a great third-down back, and Gillislee can be effective as a between-the-tackles runner, but the Patriots need a guy, like Lewis or Burkhead, who can do everything.
The Patriots won’t be as good if they can’t retain Lewis. Burkhead is a good but imperfect backup plan because he’s struggled to avoid nicks and bruises throughout his career. He played just 10 games with the Patriots in 2017 as he dealt with knee and rib injuries.
If the Patriots don’t re-sign Lewis, they should also look to add a young running back either through or after the draft. It would make sense to see if they can get a bargain on a running back in free agency, as well. Finally, bringing back Brandon Bolden for another go-around seems to make way too much sense not to do.