The Patriots will have a few notable free agents come March, including left tackle Nate Solder and cornerback Malcolm Butler, but running back Dion Lewis is currently the talk of the town in New England. According to Spotrac.com, Lewis is in the second year of a two year, $2.6 million (plus incentives) extension that he penned back in 2015, shortly before tearing his ACL. After rehabbing for most of last season, Lewis returned to the Patriots’ lineup at the end of the year, but did not seem to be as explosive as he was pre-injury. That, combined with the additions of Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead this past offseason, led many to believe that Lewis would be released or traded prior to the regular season. However, Bill Belichick and staff ultimately decided to keep him around; a brilliant decision in hindsight.
After starting the season as the fourth running back on the depth chart behind Gillislee, James White, and Burkhead, he eventually beat out Gillislee in practice as the team’s top runner and has not looked back since. Just for comparison: he only touched the ball twice on offense in the Patriots’ home opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, but totaled 32 touches in their regular season finale against the New York Jets. Despite not carving out a role on offense until around Week 5 of this year, Lewis ended the season with 896 rushing yards and about 5 yards per carry, good for third in the NFL.
However, despite his terrific performance this year, it will be difficult to project an extension for Lewis, considering that he has a somewhat extensive injury history and has only really found success in New England (he spent a few years with the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, and Indianapolis Colts before finally catching on with the Patriots in 2015). As a result, other teams might be concerned that he is a product of New England’s system — like they were with LeGarrette Blount last year — which would drive his market value down a bit. All that being said, let’s start with a few comparisons to establish a baseline. In my opinion, the closest comparisons are Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Chris Thompson, and the Patriots’ own James White. I’ll outline some details of their contracts below.
|Name||Average/Year||Signing Bonus||Percent Guaranteed|
The only problem with these comparisons are that these guys fall more into the mold of a third-down running back, while the Patriots’ use Lewis as a true workhorse, often running him out of the I formation or other such sets. However, given his size, other teams might view Lewis as a third down back — thus making such comparisons useful for determining his market value. Taking this into account, along with the ‘system’ and injury concerns, here is my projection for a new deal for Lewis.
|Year||Base Salary||Signing Bonus Proration||Per-Game Active Roster Bonus||Workout Bonus||Other Incentives||Cap Hit (Excluding Incentives)|
The total guarantee is $2.5 million ($1.5 million signing bonus plus $1 million in guaranteed 2018 salary) which is equal to 37% before the incentives.
The incentives break down as follows:
$250k for playing 25% of offensive snaps
$250k for playing 35% of offensive snaps
$250k for playing 45% of offensive snaps
$250k for 400 rushing yards
$250k for 600 rushing yards
$250k for 800 rushing yards
$250k for 1000 rushing yards
Lewis played in 35% of offensive snaps this year and totaled 896 rushing yards, so he would have earned $1.25 million of these incentives under this structure this year. I’d say that the contract is fair overall — he can earn up to $4 million a year if he performs like he did this year, with a base value of $2.25 million a year. And as long as he stays healthy, he can expect to earn at least the 25% playing time incentive as well as the 400 and 600 yard bonuses.
Lewis is getting older — he will be 28 next September — making this likely his last chance to cash in a big contract before he retires. While it is possible that another team overpays for his services in March, I expect the Patriots to give him a structure similar to what they gave Dont’a Hightower — an incentive laden deal based on his performance. Overall, I’d say this projection is realistic and fair given his history.
(Author’s Note: Statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com; contract data via Spotrac.com and Overthecap.com)