FOXBOROUGH — Dion Lewis may have generated the least amount of buzz among the six running backs vying for roster spots with the Patriots.
Everyone knows what LeGarrette Blount can do as the 250-pound battering ram. Jonas Gray earned a cult following for his performance against Indianapolis last year. Brandon Bolden has filled in capably for three seasons in New England, James White was an intriguing unknown after playing scarcely as a rookie, and Travaris Cadet was seemingly signed to fill the “Shane Vereen” role after catching 38 passes for the Saints last year.
Lewis, meanwhile, hasn’t suited up for an NFL game since December 2012, and was out of football for almost the entire 2014 season after being released by the Colts in September.
But Lewis had such a good offseason and training camp that he sat out the Patriots’ preseason finale against the Giants, a sign of how much the team values his presence for the regular season. The Patriots kept Lewis over Gray, a fan favorite, and now Lewis is in line to have a fairly significant role for Thursday night’s season opener against Pittsburgh, and potentially beyond.
“Yeah, he’s done a good job. He’s picked things up well,” Bill Belichick said. “He’s been healthy for the most part other than one week there in training camp. But he’s been out, he’s gotten a lot of work in and that’s been good for a guy who missed the season last year. He’s done a good job. I like him.”
No one would blame Lewis if he gets a little emotional Thursday night, because the Steelers game has been a long time coming for him.
A shifty running back listed at 5 feet 9 inches and 195 pounds, Lewis came into the NFL with high expectations after two standout seasons at Pitt, where he was named the Big East 2009 Offensive Player of the Year as a redshirt freshman.
The Eagles drafted him in the fifth round in 2011, but an inconsistent work ethic led to him getting only 23 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown on the season. In 2012, he carried the ball just 13 times for 69 yards, and when the Eagles cleaned house with their football department after the season, Lewis was traded to Cleveland.
Lewis’s time as a backup, and the subsequent trade, was a wake-up call. Browns coaches Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner didn’t really want Lewis at first, but were blown away by his elusiveness, his football intelligence, and a much-improved work ethic.
Lewis was in line to win the Browns’ No. 2 running back job when misfortune struck — a fractured fibula suffered in the Browns’ second preseason game, which also caused ligament damage. He missed the entire 2013 season.
“You learn to cherish the game a lot more when you’re away from it,” Lewis said. “And when you get an opportunity to play again, you want to take advantage of it.”
He returned to the Browns in 2014, and was having a great preseason. New coach Mike Pettine called Lewis the “favorite” to land the No. 3 tailback job. Then a week later, Lewis was surprisingly cut.
The Colts picked him up, but had short-term injuries and needed the roster spot, and cut him after one week.
Lewis spent the rest of the 2014 season at home, his career at a crossroads.
“Every day when you come in here, you don’t know if it’s going to be your last. That’s what I learned,” said Lewis, who turns 25 later this month. “So every day I come in here, it could be my last day. That’s how I approach it.”
Lewis had a few offers to sign with teams at the end of last season, but instead he chose to wait until after the season and find the best fit for him.
He narrowed his choices to the Patriots and Giants, and decided on the Pats based on their history of getting the most out of undersized players such as Wes Welker, Shane Vereen, and Julian Edelman. Coincidentally, the guy he’s replacing — Vereen — signed with the Giants in March.
Lewis didn’t have any problems knocking off the rust in New England. After a healthy and effective offseason, Lewis showed an impressive all-around game in the preseason. He showed quickness in gaining 80 total yards on 15 touches in three preseason games, showed a nose for the end zone by scoring twice, displayed good hands by catching nine passes for 56 yards, and had a couple of impressive blitz pickups, which is the quickest way to Belichick’s heart.
“He’s just an explosive guy, man,” Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “Those legs are pretty big. As quick as he moves them, he has a lot of power behind them. You don’t usually see that kind of pop from a guy that small. I look forward to watching him run around. He’s a pretty electrifying back.”
Lewis only has 36 carries for 171 yards and three catches for 21 yards in his career, but a high-ranking personnel executive from one of Lewis’s former stops thinks Lewis is in a good spot to succeed in New England. Lewis won’t say it, but privately he wants to prove this year that the Browns and Eagles were wrong to give up on him so quickly.
Lewis still will have to compete with White, Cadet, and Bolden for snaps — plus Blount when he returns in Week 2 — but don’t pigeonhole him into the third-down “Shane Vereen” role, either.
“He is a much better runner than people realize. His only issue is durability,” the executive said. “I would use him more than just third down, but not an every-down guy. Him and Blount could be a great combo.”