Patriots

Protect and swerve: Looks like Lewis has earned more playing time

patriots_jets_dion_lewis_101517.jpg

Protect and swerve: Looks like Lewis has earned more playing time

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick has said it many times, though in not so many words: This is a meritocracy. Opportunities go to those who deserve them. Time is earned.

Trey Flowers? He's near the top of the list of snaps played by defensive linemen across the league because "he's earned that playing time," Belichick explained recently. Eric Rowe, who had a short-lived run as a starter before suffering a groin injury? He was playing as much as he was because "he's definitely gaining with the experience that he's received and earned."

There's that word again. "Earned."

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Understanding the requirements for time on the field makes the case of Dion Lewis a relatively curious one. He's averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 3.5 yards after contact per attempt. He's been his team's most elusive back on a per-touch basis. He's handled his duties in pass-protection. And when given a shot at more time on Sunday against the Jets following a Mike Gillislee fumble, he responded with 52 yards on 11 carries and a goal-line touchdown. Belichick said later his team's ability to move the ball on the ground against the Jets was part of the reason Brady was kept as clean as he was.

The 29 snaps Lewis saw at MetLife Stadium were a season-high. Despite being healthy and in uniform all year he has played in just 21.5 percent of Patriots plays.

Lewis may not be exactly the same player he was through the first half of the 2015 season when he was an electric ball-carrier who turned in a handful of Barry Sanders-type moments before tearing his ACL. But if he's not quite there, he's close, and he knows it.

Taking a closer look at some of his plays from over the weekend, here's why if the Patriots opted to continue to bump up Lewis' playing time, it would be well-deserved.

HARD TO HANDLE

Lewis somehow turned this first-quarter run, where he's stopped three yards behind the line of scrimmage, into a one-yard gain. That may not sound all that significant, but second-and-nine isn't quite as daunting as second-and-13. He actually made two tacklers miss on the play, and he finished the game having forced five missed tackles in all. He's now causing one missed tackle for every three carries this season, according to Pro Football Focus, which is the second-best rate in the NFL.

For running backs, getting what's blocked is good. Having the ability to create yards on your own as well is even better, and no one on the Patriots has done that better than Lewis this season.

Take the above run for example. On the first play of the second half, Lewis burrowed into the line of scrimmage and found nothing. In the image grabbed here, Lewis is totally obstructed by Nate Solder and Jets linebacker Demario Davis, but he bounces the run out to the left. After avoiding a swipe by Kony Ealy, Lewis out-runs corner Morris Claiborne to the sideline for a gain of 11 yards that he basically pulled out of thin air.

Here's Lewis -- blending in with the NFL logo -- meeting 332-pound defensive tackle Mike Pennel (No. 98) and running through his arm tackle for a gain of seven yards. After the play, Pennel looks up to see just how far Lewis had driven ahead, and he slapped the turf out of frustration as if to say, "How did he do that?"

HOLDING HIS GROUND

Against the Jets, when not carrying the football, Lewis proved to be a willing and able pass-protector. On this second-quarter throw -- a Tom Brady deep shot that was intercepted by Buster Skrine -- Lewis provided his quarterback with all the time he needed. Spotting strong safety Jamal Adams creeping toward the line of scrimmage late in the play clock, Lewis bailed on what looked like was a designed play-fake to the right in order to thwart the oncoming Jets rookie missile. Lewis stuck his right shoulder into Adams' midsection and put him on his back.

This block, which came earlier in the second quarter, wasn't as jarring. But it was impactful. Again, the Patriots ran a play-fake to the right side of the line of scrimmage. Again, though he was perhaps a little late this time, Lewis spotted a pass-rusher screaming off the left edge. This time it was the other Jets rookie safety Marcus Maye. Lewis barely got his hands on Maye, but he altered Maye's course just enough to push him past Brady. The result was a near-interception by Skrine on the sideline, but Lewis likely saved Brady a shot to the spine.

A productive runner. A capable pass-protector. Perhaps Lewis will see more time moving forward as a result of his play. But Belichick may have, in a roundabout way, hinted at the reason Lewis hasn't been on the field more during a press conference last week.

He was asked about incorporating Rex Burkhead into the offense when the Patriots have seen their other backs be productive in the work they've been given. Belichick passed on the specifics of Burkhead's situation, but he shed some light on his decision-making process in general.

"As a coach, I can’t control a player’s performance," Belichick said. "That’s up to him. So we put the players out there and let them compete and let them play and try to play the ones that earn the playing time, earn the opportunities. That’s up to each individual player to do. Sometimes circumstances enhance or can restrict those opportunities, but the most important thing is taking advantage of them."

The circumstances that could be restricting Lewis' opportunities are two-fold.

For one, his teammates at the position have in general performed well with the chances they've been given. James White is on pace for a career year as the team's sub back. Gillislee had seemingly made few mistakes as New England's hammer between the tackles until fumbling last weekend. And Burkhead could return soon from the rib injury that has held him out since Week 3, which may make the running-back workload for the Patriots even more unpredictable.

There's also Lewis' injury history. Though he's healthy now, he has had a litany of physical issues that have hampered him over the course of his career. His 2015 ACL team and subsequent patella fracture last summer kept him off the field until midway through the 2016 season.

The Patriots may be looking to manage Lewis during the regular season in order to ensure that they have him at full strength in December and January. It's an approach they've taken in the past with receiver Danny Amendola in 2014 and 2016, despite Amendola's having earned opportunities with what he'd shown on the field in the limited time he'd been given in those seasons.

At the moment, Lewis' skill set may be viewed as a luxury for an offense that ranks first in the NFL in yards and fifth in points. But going forward, if they should need a boost the way they did in Jersey on Sunday, Lewis has certainly earned the opportunity to give it to them.

Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

Patriots get Edelman back, but what about Amendola?

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have numbers but could see two key veterans depart via free agency: Receiver. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED:


Danny Amendola was a machine in the postseason. Chris Hogan was dynamite in the Super Bowl after a midseason shoulder injury that limited him to nine regular-season games. Brandin Cooks was very good throughout the majority of the regular season, putting up numbers that made him one of the league's most productive deep threats - and that's without the penalty yardage he drew. It wasn't a dominant season from this unit, but the group lost its most consistent performer when Julian Edelman tore his ACL in the preseason. Malcolm Mitchell's year-long knee injury also sapped this group of some depth. Despite some regular-season hiccups - it was a forgettable final month of the before the Wild-Card Round bye -- what Chad O'Shea's group did in the playoffs showed just how valuable it was for Tom Brady to have a handful of trustworthy receivers at his disposal. They checked in with a "B" in our final grades for 2017.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell, Cody Hollister, Riley McCarron

WHO ISN'T?
Danny Amendola, Bernard Reedy, Matthew Slater

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Brady should have his top three options back for 2018 so the need here can't be considered more than a 5 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay Memorial "How Concerned Are You?!?" Meter. That said, the group needs some trustworthy depth. Especially if Amendola, 32, who has been willing to take less to remain in New England, decides he'd like to max out his value elsewhere. He's right there with Edelman, who turns 32 in May, as the most clutch postseason receiver Brady's had since Troy Brown. Dorsett and Britt are physically-gifted options who could benefit from a full offseason in the offense, but are they strong enough candidates to serve as the No. 4? And what about Mitchell? What does his future hold after missing his entire sophomore season? Moreover, and this wouldn't impact the offense so much as it would the kicking game and the level of leadership in the locker room, but Slater's loss would be monumental. If both Slater and Amendola return, the need here can't be considered close to dire. But a young option in the draft - either a burner who could provide insurance if Cooks opts for free agency next offseason, or someone who profiles as a true slot - would be a wise investment. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There's a potpourri of pass-catching talent available on the market this offseason. The biggest names available are receivers the Patriots know well from their time in the AFC East: Jarvis Landry and Sammy Watkins. One's a slot. The other's a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, who struggled to put up numbers in a highly-productive Rams offense in 2017. Then there's Jacksonville's physical outside-the-numbers option Allen Robinson (coming off an ACL tear) and Arizona speedster John Brown. Other field-stretchers who could be had include Seattle's Paul Richardson, Atlanta's Taylor Gabriel and Arizona's Jaron Brown. Buffalo's Jordan Matthews (25 years old) is a bigger slot, sort of a younger version of Eric Decker (31), who also happens to be a free agent this offseason. Keep an eye on Denver's Emmanuel Sanders, who could become available as a cap casualty. The Patriots tried to bring him aboard as a restricted free agent years ago and it would make sense if they were still interested. He caught six passes for 137 yards in a Week 10 loss to New England last season. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


After Alabama's Calvin Ridley, there seems to be some confusion as to which draft-eligible receivers deserve to take their place at the top of the class. Clemson's Deon Cain (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) has the size and speed to be a starter at the next level, but he was plagued by lapses in concentration that led to drops and false-start penalties. Courtland Sutton of SMU has an NFL-ready frame (6-4, 218), but probably doesn't have the athleticism to threaten defenses deep down the field as a pro. For teams interested in slot options, Texas A&M's Christian Kirk and Maryland's DJ Moore look like two of the best available. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


There may be little to address here if Amendola is back in the fold. If the Patriots are looking for young depth, though, there are plenty of options. Miami's Braxton Berrios could probably be had on Day 3, and he's already drawing comparisons to Amendola for his work in the slot, his toughness, and his ability to contribute as a returner. The Patriots could also dip into the Texas Tech pool after missing on both Amendola and Wes Welker in the draft in years past by taking Keke Coutee. He's slight (5-11, 180) but can play inside and out, has speed to burn, and could return kicks. If Belichick and Nick Caserio want to go with a bigger slot who will be a good character guy, Penn State's four-year starter Daesean Hamilton (6-1, 205) would make sense in the middle rounds. 

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The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The quote’s been credited to a whole lot of coaches. It doesn’t matter who actually said it. What matters is how much truth there is in the saying, “Once an NFL player starts considering retirement, he’s already gone.”

There are myriad variations but they all arrive at the same spot. Once a player talks about hanging ‘em up, he’s given mental traction to feelings of football ambivalence. Employer beware.

Immediately after the Super Bowl, Gronk was asked about possible retirement.

He did nothing to spike the idea.

“I don’t know how you heard that but I’m definitely going to look at my future for sure,” he said. "I’m going to sit down the next couple weeks and see where I’m at.”

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Rob Gronkowski’s gone past idle musing about retirement. The “that” is the smoking gun there, obviously referring to something that had been ongoing.

In the two weeks since the Super Bowl, we’ve learned Gronk’s  gotten advice from Sly Stallone and The Rock about how much dough he can make in action movies  and that folks in the WWE would offer Gronk a deal similar to Ronda Rousey’s.

Is this an orchestrated attempt to create some urgency with the Patriots so they give Gronk a bump that makes it more worth his while (he’s on the books for salaries of $8 million and $9 million the next two seasons)?

Is this an effort to dip a toe in the entertainment pool while his NFL marketability remains near its apex? A Brady-esque effort to set up a post-football career while still continuing in the main vocation?

Or is it simply what it is – a 28-year-old whose body’s been through the wringer since college using common sense to realize that his position and style of play are going to exact a physical cost on him for the rest of his life?

Yes. Yes. And yes. It’s all of the above.

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And that’s why the Patriots have to take this very seriously.

Gronk and his family have had an eye on his football mortality since he was 19. Because of an insurance policy taken out by his father, Gordie, while Gronk was at Arizona, Gronk could have retired from football and received $4 million tax-free. He considered it as his recuperation from back surgery left him concerned he wouldn’t be able to walk correctly again.

He declared for the draft in 2010 to maximize his earning potential. And he bought in. Then 2012 happened. 

He broke his arm during the regular season and had a plate inserted in his forearm. When he rebroke the arm just above the plate in his first game back, it was described as a fluke. Worst-case scenario. But that was small consolation. And when an infection developed in the arm in early 2013, another surgery was necessary. And the convalescence from that ensued. Then came a back surgery in June of 2013. Then came a longer-than-expected recovery that stretched well into the 2013 regular season and a blown ACL when he did return.

The 2014 season was injury-free, but when Gronk was hit in the knee against Denver in 2015, you could sense his panic as he writhed on the field that something was terribly wrong. There wasn’t. But the team and the Gronkowski Camp released a joint statement about his timetable for return then Gronk underscored his intention of not returning until he was “100 percent.”

The 2016 season ended prematurely with another back injury suffered against the Jets and another surgery. That injury followed soon after a thunderous hit was laid on him by Seattle’s Earl Thomas. And his 2017 playoff run was marred by a concussion suffered in the AFC Championship Game.

So it’s best to remember all that context when eye-rolling about how the Patriots have had to bend over backwards to accommodate Gronk. His care and feeding are a lot different because A) he came to the NFL with injuries that gave him perspective; B) he got burned when he came back quickly from the broken arm; C) the 2013 whisper campaign painting him as a malingerer left a dent and D) his family is uniquely attuned to NFL reality that it’s a business and you best protect your only asset – your body.

The branding and the marketing has felt hamhanded at times but that’s the nature of the business these days and - in hindsight – it’s been a boon for a player who signed a “safe” six-year, $54M contract in 2011 that’s now severely outdated.

So what are the Patriots to do with a 28-year-old who’s suffered multiple knee, head and back injuries and is openly talking about wrapping it up?

They can’t just sit with their hands folded in their laps and wait until Gronk gets around to deciding. They need to know is he in or is he out? Or if he’s completely ambivalent, at which point, would trading him be a horrific idea?

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The irony is, Gronk told me in December that he’s never felt better. “I’m having fun playing football again,” he told me. His body held him hostage until he changed the way he trained and now the results from increased flexibility are obvious in his statistics, his quickness and the types of catches he was able to make last year.

He’s a Hall of Famer if he never plays another down. It’s not hard to make a persuasive argument that he’s the best tight end to ever play.

But how do the Patriots proceed with a legend that – for all the right reasons – isn’t sure he wants to keep playing? It’s a lot to wrestle with.