Patriots

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

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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.

What was Odell Beckham Jr. telling Kyrie Irving?

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AP Photo

What was Odell Beckham Jr. telling Kyrie Irving?

Admittedly, the audio is poor but the idea is no less intriguing.

Was Odell Beckham Jr. telling Kyrie Irving at NBA All-Star Weekend that he's trying to go to the Patriots? Or to Boston? Or New England? 

It's 23 seconds into the video below: 

Isaiah Houde of USA TODAY's PatriotsWire interprets it as: "You went to the Celtics and I’m trying to go to New England."

Beckham has had a few Instagram posts about Brady recently, including an exchange of rap lyrics back in December. 

🐐chasin.

A post shared by Odell Beckham Jr (@obj) on

Unless there's a trade between the Patriots and Giants, Beckham, 25, the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, won't be free to join Kyrie in New England - or was it Boston? - until the four-year deal he signed in 2014 ends. As he enters that 2019 season, Tom Brady will be 42. 

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Branch's uncertainty may lead to another big body up front

Branch's uncertainty may lead to another big body up front

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 to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are always on the lookout for power and athleticism: interior defensive line. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


Depends on who you were watching. Malcom Brown may never live up to the impossible expectations some set for him as the team's first-round 320-pounder brought aboard immediately after Vince Wilfork left, but he put together his most consistent season as a pro and was the team's top defensive tackle. It would not be a surprise if the Patriots opted to pick up his fifth-year option for 2019. Lawrence Guy was absolutely solid as the team's other primary interior defender and ended up playing more defensive snaps than anyone not named Trey Flowers or Kyle Van Noy. Adam Butler, the undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, showed promise as an interior rusher, and Ricky Jean Francois came through with valuable contributions late in the season. Alan Branch, meanwhile, struggled to find his footing after signing a new deal last offseason, and this group struggled against the run. They allowed opponents to average 4.7 yards per carry, which was the second-worst mark in the league. Having another body inside to improve the rotation and help eat up blockers - such as Vincent Valentine, who spent the season on injured reserve - would've helped. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Brown, Guy, Valentine, Butler, Branch

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENT 
Francois

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The need here hinges on a couple factors: 1) Can Branch be a dependable option in 2018, and b) how does the team feel about Valentine's odds of becoming a regular after missing the entirety of his second season? Hard to believe the answer to that first question would be a resounding "yes." He was a healthy scratch down the stretch in the team's biggest games of the season and could be a cap casualty. The perception of Valentine is a little murkier. The Patriots should feel good about what they have in Brown and Guy, and Adam Butler showed flashes of his potential as a sub rusher. An important factor in the equation here is just how frequently Bill Belichick likes to use his edge defenders inside. Flowers has been especially effective in that regard, and Deatrich Wise the ability to beat interior offensive linemen as well. Still, the Patriots could use a player here to help bolster their big-bodied depth up front. They simply can't have another year where they're near the bottom of the league against the run. Some of that falls on linebacker play, but another competent space-eater would help. Let's put this spot at a 6 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay Memorial "How Concerned Are You?!?" Meter.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY


A handful of big names hit the open market in March at this position. Carolina's Star Lotulelei may be the best of the bunch (even though he's coming off of a down season) and Atlanta's Dontari Poe isn't all that far behind. There are a few under-the-radar names who could be contributors even if they aren't huge names. Shamar Stephen of the Vikings, Justin Ellis of the Raiders and Bennie Logan of the Chiefs are intriguing options. From a Patriots perspective - and we've suggested this kind of move multiple times in this series - finding an accomplished veteran near the end of his career could pay dividends. Buffalo's Kyle Williams and Detroit's Haloti Ngata are both into their mid-30s, but maybe they could be coaxed into a season in New England as the No. 3 guy on the inside. We all saw just how much it meant to Williams to make the playoffs last season. He may want to ride it out in Buffalo as one of that team's unquestioned leaders, but a season playing under Belichick could be enticing. One more name: Sheldon Richardson. The Patriots are plenty familiar with the former Jets defender, and he'd be a fine on-the-field fit, with a couple of caveats. Is his head is on straight? And what's his market? His talent level and age (27) would suggest he commands big bucks. But if the market is suppressed because teams are worried about whether or not his head is screwed on correctly, does he end up being a relatively low-risk signing? Doesn't seem like someone the Patriots would gamble on, but never say never. Would he take a short-term deal to rebuild his image and then hit the market while he's still in his late-20s?

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


The name everyone will be watching, particularly at next week's combine, when his next-level athleticism will be on display for all to see, will be Vita Vea of Washington. He's 6-foot-4, 344 pounds, and he was much more than a clog-the-middle man for the Huskies. He rushed the passer. He even covered punts. He's expected to run a sub 5-second 40...and he'll be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. For a team like the Patriots that may be looking for help against the run? Alabama's Da'Ron Payne is enticing as a run-stuffer and he's a good enough athlete to potentially make some noise as an interior rusher. Michigan's Maurice Hurst and Florida's Taven Bryan have the kind of quick get-off that could make them first-round interior disrupters. One name to keep an eye on because of his rare combination of size and athleticism: Virginia Tech's Tim Settle. He's 6-3, 335 pounds, he's shown great quickness for a player with his frame, and he's only 20 years old. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


The Patriots don't have to do anything drastic here with Brown and Guy in the fold, but another dependable contributor could alter the look of their front-seven and provide a lift against the run. Players like Lotulelei and Poe - and Richardson if another team gets desperate -- could be too pricey to make Belichick and Nick Caserio bite. Williams or Ngata would be solid in the locker room and legitimate top-three options inside if healthy. And someone such as Ellis, in his fifth year out of Louisiana Tech, probably won't break the bank but could be what they need. He's played 16 games in three of his four years in the league. Settle, because he looks like a tremendous athlete with NFL size who's still growing as a player, could be tough to pass on at the end of the first if he's available. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares him to Vince Wilfork.