FOXBORO -- As Patriots running backs worked their way through an agility drill at the beginning of Monday's practice, position coach Ivan Fears looked up and made it seem as though he was caught off guard by what he saw.
"Who's this?" he asked.
It was Dion Lewis, back on the field for his first practice since tearing his ACL in a win over the Redskins last November. Lewis joined tight end Rob Gronkowski and offensive lineman Shaq Mason in a trio of 2015 starters who were back to work after missing all three minicamp workouts last week.
Lewis' return, however, was the most surprising as he was coming off of a devastating non-contact injury that abruptly ended his meteoric season.
Not only was his presence at practice unexpected, but his level of participation was also worthy of more than a few raised eyebrows. He went without a knee brace on his surgically-repaired left leg for the workout, explaining that trainers told him he didn't need one, and pushed off of it without a hitch. He later took off down the field during an 11-on-11 period and moved fluidly.
Most of Monday's practice was not performed at full speed, perhaps making it a logical session for him to return. But regardless of the nature of the drills performed, Lewis didn't look at all out of place.
"The trainers wouldn't have put me out there if they didn't think I was ready," Lewis said. "I wouldn't have went out there if I didn't think I was ready."
When Lewis was injured, the Patriots lost their most versatile back. A true all-purpose player, he posted a 4.8 yards-per-carry average through seven games, and he caught 36 passes for 388 yards. His quickness made him a matchup nightmare for linebackers in coverage, and he lined up all over formations to find weaknesses in opposing defenses.
It wasn't the physical sensation in his knee that bothered him the most after he collapsed following a catch-and-run at Gillette Stadiumm last fall. It was knowing that he wouldn't be able to continue to contribute. He knew.
"The pain wasn’t really that bad," Lewis said. "It was just the fact that I wasn’t going to be out there and playing with my teammates. That’s what hurt the most."
Spending time at the Patriots facilities this offseason, Lewis has rehabbed to the best of his ability -- at times lobbying trainers and medical staff to do more.
"Whatever the team thinks I can do, whatever I do with my rehab, I’m doing whatever the trainers tell me to do and whatever is going to be best for the team," Lewis said. "Whatever they think is going to help me help the team or get my knee better or quicker, faster, however, I’m going to do whatever the team tells me to do."
Lewis would not commit to being ready for Week 1 of the regular season when asked. He did, however, say he was hoping to "have a lot of fun in September."
Whenever he is back, he wants to be the player who was playing like one of the best dual-threat backs in the league before his injury. He's not there yet -- he was hard on himself after one dropped pass early in Monday's practice -- but that's the goal.
"When I come back I want to be me," he said. "That’s the only person, player I know how to be is me. I think working hard will help me be me quicker. I think me being me will help the team win. I’m all about the team. Whatever I do is for the team. I love football. When I couldn’t be out there with my team last year, it hurt. I just use that as a motivation."