Saturday, June 18, 2016

Reloading The Musket, Part 4 - Lewis To Be Featured Back In Patriots' Juggernaut

"...Blount has plenty left in his 30 year old legs, but not so much that the team won't select a running back in the draft, one with some power and with some explosiveness, because truth be told, Blount has all of the explosiveness of maple syrup.

He is, however, a good complementary back when passing backs Dion Lewis and James White are mixed into the equation. White wasn't productive between the tackles, but was pure smooth hell in the pattern and put forth a yeoman's effort in picking up the blitz, while Lewis is everything a running back should be, and then some." - Foxborough Free Press, April 14, 2016

New England Patriots' general manager Bill Belichick is not an easy man to pin down, as anyone who has tried to figure out his draft board has experienced.

The general sentiment going into the 2016 NFL draft is that the Patriots were in need of a blue chip bell-cow running back that would put the team on his back, make yardage on his own behind what was wrongly perceived to be a terrible offensive line and bring new life to a running attack that ranked in the bottom three in all of professional football.

So what did Belichick do?  Almost completely ignoring the position in free agency and selecting a grand total of zero running backs in the draft, the Dark Master once again stunned the experts and confounded the fan base with his complete disinterest in what anyone else thought his team needed, and instead went about his dark business with a heart full of hate...

...signing a brace of former first-round draft picks in free agency to make up for the top draft capital taken from him by the league in their over-reaching response to a still-alleged ball deflation scheme, and then using the draft picks he had left to punk the experts by going heavily defensive, while tip-toeing around the perceived needs on offense.

My own mock drafts were an exercise in why-the-hell-do-I-even-bother, mocking the Patriots to move up for Derrick Henry or staying put in the second round for Jordan Howard or waiting even deeper into the draft - which I was certain was the safest route - to select small school back Darius Jackson, only to be denied in my belief that the Patriots needed that large, bell-cow running back to continue their offseason trend of becoming more physical at the point of attack.

But what we all found out instead is that Belichick is content with what he already has, and that we should have known this all along - and he's right, as usual, because he has a diverse range of skill sets lining the depth chart that, if he can get offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to use them correctly, will be very difficult for an opposing defense to deal with.

Of course, most of that has to do with the immense amount of talent among the tight ends, where defenses will be forced to focus, opening up running lanes and wheel routes for the backs - and in that respect, Dion Lewis should be considered the New England Patriots' featured back.

Hell, the way their offense is structured, he may even be a bell-cow - but not in a traditional sense, for the demure Lewis stands only 5' 8" tall and doesn't even tip the scales past 200 - not to mention his durability concerns will likely limit him to just the featured role, but he is built to carry the load, and then some.

Preposterous, you say?

Lewis has had some injury issues since entering the league as a fifth round selection of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011, and even had some shoulder concerns in his last season at the University of Pittsburgh, but still "shouldered" the load in his freshman and sophomore seasons before declaring for the NFL draft, because he had very little left to prove at that level...

...not after rushing for 1800 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman to win the Big East Conference's Rookie of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year - something done previously only by Virginia Tech's Michael Vick a decade earlier - his two year total of 2860 yards eclipsing LeSean McCoy's team record for rushing yardage in his first two seasons.

What's more, the man Patriots' receiver Julian Edelman nicknamed "Little Dirty" broke the freshman rushing record at Pitt, held previously by some dude named Tony Dorsett, and was named MVP of the 2009 Mieneke Car Care Bowl, named National Freshman of the Year by CBSSports and Sporting News, was a consensus second-team All American, with Sporting News even going so far as to claim that Lewis was "the game's most complete runner."

So with nowhere to go but down after such an auspicious start to his college career, Lewis followed Shady's lead in leaving school after his sophomore season, but quickly found out that as far as running backs go, size does matter, and if you don't have size, you'd better have something special that will make scouts and coaches not care about that so much.

So despite all of the records and accolades in college, Lewis ended up playing behind McCoy in Philadelphia, barely seeing the field, as McCoy was just starting to blossom as a superstar and received over three quarters of the offensive snaps - but on the occasions that lewis did get into games, he impressed Eagles President Joe Banner to the point that when Banner moved on to Cleveland, he worked up a trade to get Lewis on the Browns.

The plan was - according to then-Browns' offensive coordinator Norv Turner - that Lewis was brought in to be the starter over Trent Richardson, but he suffered a fractured fibula in the Browns' second 2013 preseason game, and was lost for the season.

"I would say he was going to play a great deal had he not been injured," Turner said in an interview last year, "After Richardson (was traded), Dion would have definitely been the starter."

So, Lewis is a featured back.  He was tabbed as the starter in Cleveland and he literally ripped that role away from Patriots' incumbent LeGarrette Blount to start 2015, and was on pace for 700 rushing yards and an absurd 1000 receiving yards, both numbers uncharted NFL territory for Lewis but for different reasons.

Before signing with New England, Lewis had caught just three balls for 21 yards for his pro career, after logging only 52 in his college career, prompting several draft scouts to question his fit as a passing back on the next level, the ambiguity concerning his receiving skills part of the reason why he slid to fifth round.

But the biggest knock against Lewis was his size, those same scouts universal in their notion that Lewis could not be an effective inside runner in the pros despite record-setting success in college, yet Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sent him up the gut thrice as often as on the edges for an impressive 4.9 yards per carry.

Now, this is not to say that Blount was discounted in any manner by the Patriots, as while he was used sparingly early in the season - he had just 25% of the offensive snaps through the first half of the season compared to Lewis' 63% - he was an effective runner in his limited opportunities, and was actually on pace for a 1000 yard season before his hip attacked him with four games remaining.

Blount is pure power, his 6' 0", 250 pound frame gaining separation from would-be tacklers by simply running them over, and sometimes with the aid of a nasty stiff-arm, while Lewis has the innate ability to slip tackles in the hole by getting tacklers leaning one way, then side-stepping them or making them whiff with a disturbing spin move.

Both have their place in Belichick's version of the Erhardt-Perkins offense, it's motto being "Pass to score, run to win."

If looked at in that context, where the offense uses the passing game to gain a lead and then turns to the running game to wear down both the clock and the defense's will, then the Patriots offense is well on their way to being as fundamentally sound as any philosophy in football, and similarly dangerous - because let's face it, Lewis is the most explosive player on the team.

Passing back James White offers a competent alternative and change of pace from Lewis, to spell him at times on obvious passing downs.  While not as elusive as Lewis - and, really, how many players around the league are? - White has more size and is more versed in pass protection, willingly putting his body between blitzers and Brady.

What White doesn't offer is much in the running game, so obvious passing downs is the only time we will see him, and even then it will be sporadic.  That said, White has a trust bond with Brady after ably filling in after Lewis went down last season, and put together quite the compilation package to state his case.

Free agent pick up Donald Brown is a head-scratcher, unless Belichick feels that he offers something in the running game - which he might.  Brown's salad days were with the Colts, offering a change of pace to backs like Joseph Addai and Trent Richardson and averaging a serviceable 4.3 yards per carry, but spent plenty of time in the trainer's room and on the injury list.

Not surprisingly, Brown's best seasons were in 2011 and 2013, the only seasons that he played in all sixteen games, averaging 4.8 and 5.3 yards per carry, respectively - but that average dipped substantially when he left Indianapolis for San Diego, with whom he signed a three year deal then watched his effectiveness dip to 3.2 yards per carry.

Brown will have to show plenty in training camp to make the team, but the fact that he does many of the little things very well gives him a fighting chance.

Joey Iosefa and Tyler Gaffney round out the camp look for New England, and also Arizona rookie D.J. Foster, though the team lists him as a wide receiver.  Iosefa became a bit of a cult hero for a time last season for trucking Titan's cornerback Cody Sensebaugh, then was inexplicably released a week later despite the team having just White and special teams ace Brandon Bolden as runners...

...but Belichick told the University of Hawaii alum to stick around and that he would be resigned to the practice squad - which pretty much sums up what happened to Gaffney this offseason.

The Stanford grad is a bruising interior runner who as a senior ruined run defenses in the Pac-12 to the tune of 5.7 yards per carry and over 1700 yards, topped off with a ridiculous 21 rushing touchdowns.  Despite the lofty numbers and his performance at the combine, Gaffney fell precipitously in the draft, finally selected by Carolina in the sixth round.

Many in the league felt that Gaffney favored baseball, for which he left Stanford for a year after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, which is the biggest reason why he lasted so long in the draft, while other drawbacks seem to stem from his lack of wiggle, with virtually no elusiveness to his game - just a straight-ahead, no-nonsense power runner who isn't afraid to mix it up.

Unfortunately for Gaffney, he has hit the IR in both of his years in the league, without ever appearing in even a preseason game, which makes assessing his value to the team difficult, but Belichick wouldn't have kept him around unless he had some idea of what the kid brings to the table - even if he did cut him earlier this spring, only to resign him at a better cap number.

If Gaffney makes the roster, one of the aforementioned will probably have to go, but that unfortunate player is not Dion Lewis...

...because Dion Lewis is the featured back.

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