Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- Dion Lewis has impeccable timing. And not just because he seems to know when to bounce a run to the outside or when to hesitate to allow blockers to clear paths for him on screens. 

The 27-year-old is in a contract year and he's now putting the finishing touches on his best professional season. He was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday for his career-high 129 yards rushing on 24 attempts, 24 yards receiving on five catches and two touchdowns against the Bills.

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Add that honor to a list of accomplishments in 2017 -- including a Special Teams Player of the Week Award for his kick-return touchdown in Week 10 -- for the diminutive back who has shown he has a variety of tricks up his sleeve to avoid would-be tacklers. On one snap, he may go to a stiff-arm in the open field. On the next, he may spin away from a hit or slide by with a subtle juke.

Regardless of the method, Lewis (5.2 yards per carry) has consistently come up with positive plays. Despite having his workload limited through the first month of the season, when he lost touches to Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead and James White, he's seized the role of lead back and now has it in a chokehold.

Over the last 13 weeks, Lewis is third in the NFL in total yards (1,403) behind only Todd Gurley (1,712) and Le'Veon Bell (1,710). He's also fourth in the league in yards after contact among running backs, picking up an average of an extra 3.4 yards per carry, behind only Kenyan Drake, Alvin Kamara and LeGarrette Blount.

 

"He's a durable kid," Bill Belichick said Wednesday. "He's tough. He takes some hits, but he's been very durable. He's tough. He gives out some punishment, too. He works hard."

Lewis has been durable this year, playing in all 15 games, but that hasn't been the case over the course of his career. He tore his ACL in 2015, ending his first eye-popping season with the Patriots. Before the start of the following season he suffered a fractured patella. He broke his leg before the start of the 2013 season when he was with the Browns, and since entering the NFL in 2011 he's played in 53 of a possible 96 regular-season games. 

The question now is what does the future hold for Lewis?

He'll be 28 years old early next season. And he has a length history of injuries. But a healthy Lewis might be the second-best running back on the free-agent market this upcoming offseason. That list includes Bell, Blount, Carlos Hyde, Jerick McKinnon, Isaiah Crowell, Alfred Morris and Jeremy Hill. Burkhead is also slated to become a free agent in March. 

Falcons back Devonta Freeman, 25, set the market for running backs last offseason when he got a five-year, $41.2 million deal with $17.3 million guaranteed. Lewis won't see that kind of cash, but he could potentially slide in closer to what Latavius Murray, 26, got from the Vikings: Three years and $15 million, with $3.4 million guaranteed.

Another contractual comparable could be what the Patriots gave White last offseason. The 25-year-old received a three-year, $12 million deal with $4.7 guaranteed. Lewis is the more dynamic of the two players, but perhaps with Lewis' age and injury history the Patriots could argue their values are similar. Seems reasonable. What happens with Burkhead -- who has not been durable this season, but, like Lewis, is considered an all-purpose back -- could also impact how the Patriots view Lewis' future in New England.

If he re-signs, Lewis would offer the Patriots versatility, some unpredictablility in the backfield, a built-in understanding of the offense, and a weapon Tom Brady trusts. Whether or not they'd be willing to pay for that remains to be seen. But after the season Lewis has had, someone will.

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