Outside of seven days in September, Dion Lewis was not on an NFL roster last season.
The 5-foot-8, 195-pound running back never played in a regular-season game for the Indianapolis Colts in 2014, nor did he for the Cleveland Browns after being acquired for linebacker Emmanuel Acho in 2013, suffering a broken leg in the preseason.
Much changed across the landscape since then. Just where Lewis fits into it now as a New England Patriot is unknown.
He was once an elusive Pittsburgh product, one who joined LeSean McCoy as a Philadelphia Eagles fifth-round pick after 2,860 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns over two college seasons. He was once named Freshman of the Year by the Sporting News and CBS Sports, second-team All-American by the AP, and considered a Heisman Trophy candidate after posting a campaign second to only Tony Dorsett in Panthers history.
But while Lewis once described as “the game’s most complete runner,” he hasn’t played in a game since 2012, when he handled a total of 13 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown, along with two catches for 24 yards for the Eagles.
He’s 24 years old now, and an enigma whose NFL resume includes 24 career games, 171 rushing yards, 23 receiving yards and two scores over 39 offensive touches.
Yet as he vies to play in a 25th game two years removed from his last, there’s reason to wonder what exactly Lewis is. There’s reason to wonder if his most recent sample size – 60 snaps with the Eagles in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus – is what he is now.
Over that limited volume for Philadelphia, Lewis rushed for three yards on one attempt from I-formation, as well as 14 yards on four attempts as the single back in Ace formation.
But it was his 50 yards and a score on seven attempts next to Michael Vick and Nick Foles in shotgun that resembled familiar ability.
The then-second-year pro’s compact frame and powerful legs resembled the kind of player who could turn the corner and force through creases with his cleats still pedaling.
Not unlike current Eagles back Darren Sproles. Just not the same.
The opportunities for Lewis to do more than resemble were seldom, though. His short-striding legs, while powerful, did not appear to show that same gear, that same sudden shift of direction in open space of a Sproles-type runner. But there were moments where he showed enough to be his own type of runner.
There were moments where he ran with patience, widening the playing surface behind his blocks, and not showing the defense his hand until it was too late. And there were moments where the defense could could not stop what it could not see as he made his cut upfield.
Only those moments were just that.
Low to the ground and built like a change of pace, Lewis’ never truly became one with Philadelphia. He was never able to fulfill not only the rushing side of that title, but also the receiving side in a backfield he shared with a future NFL rushing leader, McCoy, and a former seventh-round draft choice, Bryce Brown,
Those two combined for 67 receptions in 2012; Lewis slipped out for one screen pass before being delivered to the turf on a three-yard loss, then had another net a 28-yard gain up the right sideline.
There just didn’t appear to be a place for him moving forward in Philadelphia, not as a rusher, a receiver, or a returner.
After fielding 31 kickoffs for 669 yards as a rookie, Lewis ran just one short-hopped kickoff up and outside in 2012, bumbling for 33 yards before falling down along the boundary. And with that, it was over in all three phases.
Lewis’ time under head coach Andy Reid and in an Eagles uniform came to an end in April of 2013, when he became a Brown. And that time came to an end in August of 2014, when he was released and became a Colt for one week.
He’s now two years removed from a game and on his fourth NFL team. His time under head coach Bill Belichick and in a Patriots uniform may ultimately follow suit before it begins.
There are no givens. There are no barometers that can indicate the type of player Lewis was, or the type of player he was supposed to be before or after his leg injury. But as the third-youngest of seven backs on the New England’s offseason roster, Lewis has been given the opportunity to prove he’s still what he revealed in flashes.