At 25 years old, New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis is still young enough to bounce back from the torn ACL that ended his 2015 season, and be every bit as explosive, quick and dynamic as he was before he went down.
But what if he's not? Do the Patriots want to wait to find out?
These are questions Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his personnel staff must be asking themselves as we head into the offseason. There will be opportunities for the Patriots to add a talented running back to their fold.
One of the most common false assumptions to make is that a player will recover from an injury and will return to 100 percent of the player he was before he got hurt.
Of the many Patriots players who were injured during the course of the 2015 season, Lewis might be one of the safer bets to return to full strength. He tore his ACL in Week 9 against the Washington Redskins on November 8; that gives him a full 10 months between the injury and the beginning of the 2016 regular season, which is in the middle range of the timetable for recovery from ACL surgery.
According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, Lewis is on track to be ready for the beginning of training camp. At this point, however, Lewis has had multiple season-ending leg injuries (the ACL this year and a broken left fibula in 2013 that also kept him unsigned in 2014), and he's dealt with other minor injuries throughout his career. It might not be safe to put all the eggs into the Lewis basket.
|Patriots running backs, 2015|
|Player||Dion Lewis||LeGarrette Blount||James White||Brandon Bolden||Steven Jackson|
Fortunately, the Patriots have James White as a backup in the event that Lewis is any less explosive or dynamic. White offered a great safety valve for Tom Brady out of the backfield, but he was more than just a dump-off option, tallying 40 receptions for 410 yards (10.3 yards per reception) to go with his 22 carries for 56 yards (2.5 yards per carry) and six total touchdowns.
Still, finding quality depth should be a priority given the uncertainty at the top of the depth chart. But the Patriots could even go a step further and find quality starting-caliber talent.
Previously, the Patriots have looked to the draft—it's how they found White back in 2014, and it's also what they did when they were forced to address the running back position in 2011, picking Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in the second and third rounds of the draft, respectively.
According to Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit, recent trends indicate the value of running backs in the draft is increasing:
Rich Hill @PP_Rich_Hill
We've seen major devaluation in top tier RBs in the draft, despite their production. https://t.co/XTmdCOTLGb https://t.co/CDWTLOlVcg2016-2-15 10:23:15
An early pick for a running back would be out of character for the Patriots, especially after Laurence Maroney bombed as a first-round pick in 2006.
But if it's a running back they want, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Alabama's Derrick Henry make the most sense for what the Patriots need, which is a between-the-tackles hammer; however, Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon would be a solid mid-round option who could provide versatility as a runner, blocker and receiver.
With some available free-agent options, though, the Patriots could also look that direction.
Of course, there's former Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte, who has already expressed more interest in "playing in Super Bowls" than in playing for top dollar in an interview with NFL Network during Super Bowl week. CSNNE's Phil Perry drew a comparison between Forte and Lewis:
Phil Perry @PhilAPerry
Forte, still considered a relatively elusive guy, force 29 missed tackles in 261 touches in '15, per @PFF. Dion Lewis? 43 in 85 touches.2016-2-12 19:59:39
If the market for Forte's services is too strong for the Patriots to show interest, Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller and Seattle Seahawks running back Fred Jackson are the kind of versatile veteran presences who would be worth considering.
Belichick has gushed about Jackson in the past, albeit long ago when he was still with the Buffalo Bills. Lamar Miller offers a similar skill set to Jackson, but at a much younger age (and probably a much higher price tag, as a result).
Whether the Patriots want to look for starters or backups, in free agency or the draft, they will have their options. That being said, a return to full health for Lewis would be the best option of them all.