Why Dion Lewis Might Actually Be Here to Stay

It's only been two weeks, but are we already overthinking the New England backfield situation?

You can't trust Belichick.

That's what fantasy football owners have learned over the last decade -- week to week, trusting a Bill Belichick running back is like trusting a guy isn't the father on an episode of Maury. 

So, naturally, the emergence of Dion Lewis in the New England backfield has caused a lot of debate. In PPR leagues, only four running backs have scored more points through two weeks of the NFL season. Yet, we still have folks -- including myself earlier this week, to be transparent -- who aren't overly optimistic about his potential.

Because Belichick.

After doing some thinking post-15 Transactions, it could be that we're not looking at this Dion Lewis situation properly. And it could be that Dion Lewis is underrated, simply due to the Belichick narrative.

What's His Role?

With the departure of Shane Vereen this offseason, the Patriots lost 77 targets and a whole lot of pass-catching production out of the backfield. Vereen had played 24 games over the last two seasons, and he averaged 6.08 targets per game. For reference, Le'Veon Bell averaged 6.56 targets per contest last year.

The difference between Vereen and other top-notch backs is that he's never been a player who's been able to handle a big workload on the ground. Or, at least, that's never how he was used -- throughout his five-year career, Vereen has hit the double-digit carry mark just seven times. 

And he hasn't been all that effective with his touches, if we're being honest. His yards per carry average is an ordinary 4.2, and while he's been really efficient on the ground according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, averaging 0.03 Rushing NEP per rush when the league average hovers around -0.02, he's accomplished this through high-impact runs. 

I know this because his Success Rate -- which measures the percentage of plays that contribute positively towards a player's NEP -- has been pretty low at 40.55%. Last season, the average Success Rate in the NFL was 41.4%, meaning Vereen's been a worse-than-average rusher in terms of consistently adding points on each play.

Why does this matter for Dion Lewis? Well, perhaps we're looking at this "Vereen role" the wrong way. Rather than it being purely a pass-catching role, what if it hasn't been a bigger deal because Vereen himself just wasn't a very effective runner?

So far through two games (sample size alert!), Lewis has a higher Success Rate than Vereen's career average, all while being more efficient on the ground. And although he faced a mediocre Steelers defense in Week 1, Lewis went up against one of the best in the league in Week 2 versus Buffalo.

The sample size of two games may not be relevant, but even if it isn't, all of this is to say that Lewis doesn't have to do much to match Vereen as a runner.

From a pass-catching standpoint, everything looks dandy so far, too. In Week 1, Lewis was targeted five times, catching four balls from Tom Brady. Last week in a pass-happy attack, Lewis saw a running back league-high nine targets. He was able to haul in six of those for 98 yards.

In other words, Lewis has certainly taken the "Vereen role" in the passing game, but he has more upside as a runner. So instead of looking at this situation as "Vereen role or bust", maybe we should be seeing this as the Vereen role being his floor.

Have I mentioned that Lewis has played 75.4% and 84.9% of the Patriots' running back snaps over the first two weeks of the season? That's kind of a big deal, too. Over the last three seasons, per, a Bill Belichick running back has hit the 75% snap mark in a single game just three times. That's one per season. Lewis has now done that twice in two games as a Patriot.

Maybe it's because he's a more complete back than the ones Belichick and company have worked with in the past?

How Good Is This Situation?

In fantasy football, there's a decent correlation between quarterback efficiency and how well a running back performs, especially in terms of touchdowns scored. This isn't rocket science, I know -- good quarterbacks lead good offenses, and good offenses score points.

Dion Lewis plays for the Patriots. He plays with Tom Brady. That makes his situation one of the best you can find. 

Since 2005, Patriot running backs, as a team, have placed in the bottom half of the league in fantasy points scored just once. Over these 10 seasons, they have six top-10 finishes, and four top-five finishes.

We can hate Belichick for his unpredictability, but we should also love him for putting an offense together that scores a ton of fantasy points.

Lewis Moving Forward

The reason I've become more bullish on Dion Lewis is actually because of Danny Woodhead. No, not the Patriot Danny Woodhead, but this year's Charger version.

As it stands, Woodhead ranks just behind Lewis in PPR points scored, and most would give him decent RB2 status in fantasy football moving forward. He's a big part of the Chargers offense despite sharing a backfield with Melvin Gordon, and when game script goes in the wrong direction for San Diego, he'll be there catching lots of passes from Philip Rivers.

What's so different about someone like Dion Lewis? Actually, if you think about it, wouldn't it make sense that Lewis is firmly an RB2 with the upside of actually being the lead back in one of the most potent offenses in the NFL?

The fact is, after a handful of running backs, things are incredibly inconsistent and unclear at the position in fantasy football. Running back rankings appear linear, but they're not -- the difference between the 11th and 24th running back, as an arbitrary example, isn't nearly as big as the difference between the 8th and 11th running back. This is a big reason why elite running backs matter so much in fantasy football

Lewis may not end up as an "elite" option, but he certainly has a floor that most are overlooking. Even in a worst-case scenario (aside from the obvious benching for fumbles, which could become an issue, or getting injured), it appears as though Dion Lewis is Shane Vereen in this offense. Last season, that was the 20th best running back in PPR leagues. 

And while Vereen's production was tough for a fantasy football owner to manage week to week, what if we're on the verge of seeing Shane Vereen with more consistent running capabilities? What if we're witnessing a Bill Belichcik running back who can do more than what other Bill Belichick running backs have been able to do?

Shouldn't we at least recognize the upside?

So that's why my mind has slowly changed. That's why Dion Lewis isn't a sell, but more of a hold. And actually, that's why, if there's a Lewis owner in your league who's not completely sold on him, you may want to actually go out and trade for him.