Can Dion Lewis Duplicate His 2015 Production This Season?

Lewis was a surprising fantasy football factor last season. Should you expect more of the same in 2016?

Dion Lewis arrived at Patriots training camp last season as an unknown commodity.

Originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, the running back played two lackluster seasons there after being selected in the fifth round in 2011. He had a total of 36 carries and 3 receptions in his time with the Eagles before being traded to Cleveland.

He spent the 2013 season on injured reserve and was later released by Cleveland and signed by Indianapolis, who released him six days later. By the time he got to New England for the start of the 2015 season, he hadn’t seen action in an NFL game since 2012.

Lewis surprisingly started the season opener against Pittsburgh, amassed 120 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches, and the fantasy football universe began to take notice. He started five straight games and scored a touchdown in three of them before missing Week 7 with a rib injury.

Lewis would return in Week 8, accumulate over 100 yards from scrimmage for the third time, and score his fourth touchdown in six games before blowing out his knee in Week 9. And that was the last time we would see Dion Lewis in the 2015 season.

Can Lewis repeat his production this year? Let’s examine.

The Simple Answer

The simple answer is “yes.”

Last season, Lewis rushed for 234 yards and scored 2 touchdowns. He had an even larger impact catching the ball out of the backfield with 36 receptions for 388 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Our initial projections have Lewis rushing for 369.72 yards and 3.18 touchdowns this season. The projections suggest he’ll catch 77.94 passes for 694.34 yards and 3.5 touchdowns.

Those projected numbers are all improvements on his production last season.

That being said, Lewis’ production last season came in only seven games, so those improvements really don’t seem that drastic and fall short of his 16-game pace stats from 2015.

What the Metrics Tell Us

Lewis is an explosive and elusive runner with elite stop-and-start ability that makes him difficult to tackle.

Among the 31 running backs who had between 35 to 70 rushes last season, Lewis’ Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), which quantifies a player's impact in terms of points added above expectation level, was the best in the group. For more information on NEP, please visit our glossary.

Lewis also led this class of running backs with comparable carries in Rushing NEP per carry at 0.19. Perhaps more impressive is his 46.94 percent Success Rate, the percentage of carries that boosted his team's NEP, third-best among backs with comparable carries.

What makes Lewis an even more attractive running back, especially in points per reception formats, is his ability to catch the ball. When you compare him to the 34 backs who had between 25 and 50 receptions last season, Lewis’ 25.66 Reception NEP is fourth-best, behind only David Johnson, teammate James White, and Giovani Bernard.

His Reception NEP per target also ranked fourth, and his Target NEP per target ranked third, behind White and Johnson, which suggests that his offense and quarterback situation is beneficial to the pass-catching running backs.

But will that quarterback situation hurt him early in the year?

The Garoppolo Effect

Tom Brady will not appeal his four-game suspension, and Jimmy Garoppolo will start the Patriots' first four games barring an injury or some other unforeseen circumstances.

In his Patriots Fantasy Preview, Rotoworld senior football editor, Evan Silva, states that Garoppolo followed up a promising rookie preseason with a subpar one last year, relying heavily on checkdowns to complete 76.2% of his passes.

It’s probably safe to assume that Lewis, along with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, will be Garoppolo’s primary reads on virtually every pass he attempts. If Edelman and Gronk are covered, Garoppolo probably won't think twice about dumping it off to Lewis and allowing the little fella to work his video game juke magic.

Lewis, as long as he is good to go Week 1 (and all reports say he is), will be a huge part of the temporarily Garoppolo-led offense.

Red-Zone Monster

When Brady returns, it’s a reasonable assumption that Lewis will continue to be a huge part of the offense based on Brady’s reliance on Lewis in the red zone last season.

The Patriots leaned heavily on Lewis inside the 20, but because of his diminutive size, it’s easy to forget that all four of his touchdowns were scored from inside the red area in 2015.

Lewis received 10 carries inside the 20, where he churned out 51 yards and scored 2 touchdowns. Five of those carries and both touchdowns came from inside the 10-yard line. The Patriots aren’t afraid to call the little guy’s number in close, even with LeGarrette Blount healthy and ready.

Lewis was targeted five times inside the red zone, where he caught three balls for two touchdowns.

In seven games, he received 13 red zone touches which he turned into 85 yards and 4 touchdowns. He averaged 6.53 yards and 0.30 touchdowns per touch in the red zone.

The Elephant in the Room

Lewis has a long history of injuries. He blew out his ACL in Week 9 last season. He has missed time in the NFL because of hamstring and abdominal injuries. He was on injured reserve for all of the 2013 season with a fractured left fibula. He sustained an injured shoulder his final year at the University of Pittsburgh.

He is a tiny man playing a sport full of freakishly large men. Injuries are a big and frequent part of football, and it’s easy to point to the fact that Lewis has a history of being prone to injuries.

But the question was whether or not Lewis could repeat his production from 2015.

The answer is yes. He can not only repeat it, but he can also light it on fire and dance circles around it. The only thing that could prevent him from doing so would be another season-ending injury.