With the hours until the beginning of free agency winding down, the Titans have to decide what back they want to compliment Derrick Henry with (that is, if they don’t draft one). Some of the big names of this free agent RB class include Jerick McKinnon, Isiah Crowell, Charles Sims, Rex Burkhead, Carlos Hyde, and Dion Lewis.
DeMarco Murray’s release allows the team to create a fresh, new dimension in the backfield, and New England Patriot back Dion Lewis just might do the trick.
Lewis has been on four different teams (including the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts), but the Patriots were able to give him a home. After a spectacular start to the 2015 season, he received a two-year contract extension in New England through 2017. Lewis was only able to play 7 games due to a turn ACL in the middle of the season.
When he returned, it took two years for Lewis to get back to where he was in 2015 (though he ended up winning a Super Bowl ring in 2016). He was extremely rusty up until the second half of the 2017 season, where he finally pulled through as the Patriots’ starting running back.
Behind a backfield that included James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, Lewis is the best of the bunch from that 2017 squad. Though he will be 28 in 2018, because of his small size, his skill set should age well excluding any injuries.
Dion Lewis is a rare athlete at running back. His speed, quickness and size allow him to find improbable holes and exploit them—It’s all done with great power as well. Such is the case on this play. He jump cuts outside, stops, processes the field, cuts back inside and out, breaking into the open field in the process.
Again, this play shows how lethal Lewis’ quickness is. He was a three-year letterman in Track and Field in high school, so this isn’t a surprise.
Lewis stops his momentum when he sees the defensive end fall. He leaps over the DE, then accelerates once he hits the ground. As far as razzle dazzle plays go, this one is especially aesthetically pleasing.
Titans fans should be familiar with this play, because Derrick Henry is known for embracing the sideline on runs. With that said, Lewis is much more controlled on when he needs to chase the sideline versus when he doesn’t need to due to better vision.
Lewis makes several jump cuts outside, and does it so quickly it almost looks like he’s gliding. The result is a key 5-yard run to pick up the first down.
Lewis received really good run blocking in 2017. A less competent back would not take advantage of the available holes as much due to limited vision or speed, but that wasn’t #33’s case, as he rarely wasted quality run blocking.
On this play, Lewis literally jumps out of the way after receiving the handoff. In doing so, he allows tight end Dwayne Allen (Yes, he’s still in the NFL) to deliver a key block. Lewis’ patience pays off, as he uses his power and acceleration to do the rest, creating an impressive run an inferior back would’ve ignored.
You’re probably figuring out by now that Lewis is one of the most complete runners in the league. Of course, this is when he’s actually healthy. And Lewis is as equally a threat in the receiving game for the aforementioned reasons.
The Oakland Raiders have one of the least talented defenses entering free agency, and when you’re asked to guard a speed demon like Lewis, it’s no contest.
When the ball is snapped, Lewis sprints past the line of scrimmage, plants his feet, then pushes off his left foot. The speed at which he executes this is otherworldly.
At the same time this is happening, quarterback Tom Brady pump fakes to the underneath route in the middle of the field, drawing the eyes of the linebacker guarding Lewis. When he realizes his mistake, the linebacker tries to get to #33, but by then Lewis is way ahead of him.
The accuracy of Brady’s throw gives Lewis a perfect chance at yards after the catch. Lewis knows this—he positions his body forward just before the ball gets in his hands, pushes off his right foot, cuts inside, then accelerates forward. Finishing this amazing play off, he attacks an open gap, making it into the end zone for the touchdown. Poetry in motion.
Of course, Titans fans will probably ask if Lewis is a good run blocker. (Tennessee loves their offensive line, don’t they?) In New England, Lewis’ role as a blocker was extremely rare—James White and Rex Burkhead generally stood in front of him in that regard, even when he became the starting back. His sample size as a blocker was extremely limited, but he did block when he was asked and generally did it well. In Matt LaFleur’s zone blocking system, he wouldn’t be the worst option.
So now that I’ve given the highlights of this 28-year-old machine, why is it that he’s the superior free agent back over the competition? Let’s get to the rundown of other backs available.
Minnesota Vikings back Jerick McKinnon has been heavily requested by Titans fans, and he’s certainly not a bad option. He’s a solid receiver and runner, and like Lewis is dangerous in space. When it comes to vision and speed, however, Lewis runs circles around him.
Charles Sims of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is probably the closet to Lewis in terms of skill set. His quickness and speed clearly stand out, though he is taller. He would be a nice, cheap option, but probably wouldn’t deserve as big of a contract as Lewis.
Fellow teammate Rex Burkhead is also a free agent, but is more suited as a third down back, and his skill set isn’t as versatile as Lewis’.
Isaiah Crowell of the Cleveland Browns will likely leave in free agency. He’s not a bad option either. His vision and burst are all solid for an undrafted player. The problem is Lewis again runs circles around Crowell.
Little is known about what the San Francisco 49ers will do with Carlos Hyde. He can be an explosive player, but his vision is also inconsistent.
Bottomline, Dion Lewis is not only the best free agent running back available, but he’s also one of the most complete backs in the NFL period. He provides experienced quality as a runner, receiver and blocker, and his ability to make moves quickly at the cut of a dime would easily be welcomed in Nashville. While he will be 28—the same age DeMarco Murray was when he was dealt to Tennessee from the Philadelphia Eagles—Titans fans shouldn’t be concerned, as Lewis’ smaller size and superior speed will allow his skill set to age a lot better barring injury.
With that said, a Derrick Henry-Dion Lewis backfield is something I wouldn’t mind seeing every Sunday.