Backup running back Dion Lewis looks good. How do you incorporate him in the offense?

“We’ll know a lot more about these guys after three preseason games than we do right now. But Dion has done everything you can ask him to do. Obviously my history, I’ve been involved with a guy of his stature (Darren Sproles). He’s made a lot of plays and if you look out here it on the practice field it looks like Darren. Now you’ve got to transfer that into games.”

How did you use Sproles with LaDainian Tomlinson?

“My first year in San Diego, L.T. led the league in rushing, in 2007. And there wasn’t a place (for Sproles). What happened was we got ahead in some games in the second half of the season and we got L.T. out and started playing Darren. And he was so explosive, we found out he could handle playing on first and second down, could run the ball, and then over the next 2-3 years his role grew to a big-time role. And in our playoff games, some big games we won L.T. was limited because he got hurt, and Darren had the big plays in two of our big playoff games, whether it be screens or a runs. He had the walk-off run against Indianapolis to win the playoff game.”

I couldn’t take it anymore.  The headlines and quotes about Dion Lewis coming out of Berea, OH have just too tantalizing.  I will fully admit to there being a bit of confirmation bias going on here.  For full disclosure: I own Lewis in the RotoViz Dynasty League which is hosted on Fleaflicker.com so of course I want him to be as good as I thought he could be.  Here are the reasons I drafted Lewis back in June:

  • This was a PPR league: I went WR early with Calvin at 1.02 and then Roddy at 2.13 and Garcon at 4.13.  I’m still agonizing over the Roddy pick.  It might have been too much of a win-now move.  I need him to produce like a WR1 for it to be worthwhile given his age.  But, I digress…

  • If you find yourself in that situation in a PPR dynasty startup, you might try what I did – make up RB points later in the draft by taking passing down or in-space guys who could be viable starters mostly because of their ability to rack up receptions.

  • My RB model doesn’t love Lewis, but it doesn’t hate him either.  Most of the reason it doesn’t like him is because he was drafted in the mid 5th round and he has a pretty awful 89 speed score.

  • But he accounted for a pretty good market share of Pitt’s rushing attack which tells me he’s got the skills to play if he gets his chance (more on that later).

  • He also has a good Agility Score of 11.08 (which jives with Shawn’s passing down or in-space draftable profile).

  • The Browns traded for him despite having Chris Ogbonnaya on the roster.  Ogbonnaya might not be a great runner, but he does his damage as a receiver.  He caught 46 balls his senior year with the Longhorns!  Sure he’s a little older and is closer in size to TRich at 225lbs, but he’d certainly demonstrated he could catch passes in the NFL as he posted 23 receptions in about half a season’s worth of work filling in for the injured Peyton Hillis.  The browns had a “change of pace pass catcher” type, but they went out and traded for Lewis.  That said something to me.

It may seem like a simple, obvious thing but I think it means a lot when a team trades for a player.  Grabbing a guy off waivers or bringing him in as a UDFA still shows a team has some interest in a player, but the team really isn’t giving anything up to try him out.  A trade, on the other hand, tells me a team has something specific in mind for that player.  A trade actually involves negotiation with another GM.  It involves giving up either a player the team believes has (or had) talent, or giving up some precious NFL currency – draft picks.  In my mind, when a team targets a player in a trade it means he met a high enough talent threshold that the team was willing to give up something in order to get him.  So I’ve been intrigued all offseason by what the Browns would do with Lewis, given that they already have a “feature back” in Richardson.

Is it possible the team just didn’t trust Montario Hardesty (who I actually like as a breakout candidate on his own), Chris Ogbonnaya, and Brandon Jackson to handle the load if Richardson were to miss time?  It’s possible.  But the signing of Lewis (April) took place before the news of Richardson’s shin/leg injury broke (May), so it’s not as if the Lewis signing was a reaction to the Richardson injury.  Instead, as the blurb from the beginning of this article hints, I think they view Lewis as more than just a handcuff.

As @FantasyDouche pointed out in this great piece about Norv Turner’s impact on Trent Richardson’s upside, Norv LOVES to throw to his running backs.  The table in the article shows that not only was San Diego 2nd in share of team targets to RBs (31%), but they had the 4th most gross RB targets in the league last year (155).  I wanted to take the analysis a step further and look at how Norv has historically carved up those receptions between his lead back (as defined by “received the most carries”) and the the other guys.  Sproles was never the lead back in Norv’s offenses but he sure caught a lot of balls.  Clearly Lewis fits into the “other guy” category with TRich the lead back.  So what does Norv’s history tell us about how he might use Lewis?

I decided to use pro-football-reference.com and start my sample with Norv’s first head coaching gig all the way back in 1994 with the Washington Redskins and run all the way through 2012 using all of his coaching jobs whether they were as HC or OC.  I let my player universe be any non-WR.  For example, Darren Sproles is listed as “KR/PR” for all five of his seasons in SD but I’m considering him an RB for this exercise.  Likewise I included all FBs who recorded receptions since they can often be used as receivers (Mike Tolbert was classified as a FB in 2008).  Then, for each season I divided the production between the lead back (the one guy who received the most carries) and the rest of the field.  I’m trying to get at how many non-Richardson receptions there might be to go around in 2013.  So if there happened to be 3 non-Lead Back guys who all caught a bunch of passes in one season I didn’t want to look at only the #2 pass catching running back since that wouldn’t capture the full picture.  There could be a scenario where Norv spreads the passes around to a whole bunch of complementary backs.  But I assume if Norv has one guy he sees as his primary receiving back, that player will get the lion’s share of the receptions.  So, here’s what we see over that 19 year span (wow, that’s a long time!):

CategoryRuAttRuYdsRuTDY/GA/GRecRecYdsRecTDR/GY/GPct Total Rec
Total Backfield Avg371.501,521.4012.60106.2026.1098.70787.902.906.8053.50
Total Backfield Median378.001,503.0012.00105.1025.4094.00773.003.006.9054.30
Lead Back Avg267.301,100.609.4074.9018.2041.00307.100.602.8020.800.42
Lead Back Median290.001,110.0010.0077.3019.5039.00293.000.002.9020.900.41
Non LB Avg104.20420.703.2031.207.9057.70480.902.304.0032.700.58
Non LB Median93.00462.002.0029.306.0063.00555.003.004.0037.100.67

Of course the non-LB workload won’t go 100% to Lewis, but back to my earlier point about trading for him…it sure seems like that’s the role they have in mind for him.  I think that increases the share of that non-LB work he’s likely to get.  I don’t think it’s out of the question for Lewis to get 80% of the non-LB work which could be somewhere on the order of 50 receptions (Median 63 * .80 = 50.4).  Richardson’s no slouch in the receiving department either, but again – looking at history, this would suggest that Norv prefers to have one lead back who still catches a good number of balls (Richardson), with his Sproles-ian pass catcher doing even more catching (Lewis).You can see from the Total Backfield numbers that there are about 100 receptions per season to go around between Norv’s running backs.  Not a bad place to start!  What’s interesting to me is that while the Lead Back (by definition) commands the vast majority of the carries, the non-Lead Back conglomerate has a pretty obvious advantage in the receptions department.  Looking at the Pct Total Rec column which divides the LB and non-LB receptions into the total receptions, you can see the non-LB has about a 60/40 advantage.  The receptions/game also stands out with more than a full reception per game advantage for the non-LB.  Finally, you can see that Norv must like to design the red zone plays around his non-LBs because almost all of the receiving TDs come from those guys (remember Mike Tolbert’s two receiving TDs in week 1 2011 vs. Minnesota?  Well, I didn’t either, but it happened…).

But does Lewis really compare to Darren sproles?  Let’s take a look from a physical attributes (and draft) perspective:

PlayerDraft SlotHeightWeightFortySpeed ScoreVertBroadShuttle3 ConeAgility
Darren Sproles130661874.4793.733.01053.966.9610.92
Dion Lewis149671934.5689.334.51124.186.9011.08

Sproles is a wee bit smaller, and he’s also faster and more agile than Lewis, but Lewis has the edge in vertical leap and broad jump (which is usually associated with “burst”).  Lewis isn’t a carbon copy but I would definitely call him similar.  What about comparing them from a production standpoint in their final collegiate seasons?

PlayerCollege YearSchoolRush AttRush YdsYPCRush TDRecRec YdsYPRRec TDMS Pos YdMs Pos TDDR Pos
Darren sproles2004Kansas State24413185.411322237.0000.720.570.65
Dion Lewis2010Pittsburgh21910614.813272168.0000.610.720.66

It’s nip and tuck here.  Sproles with the better raw rushing total and YPC, but Lewis with the better TD total.  Sproles has the edge in raw receptions but Lewis beats him in YPR.  They both have excellent market share numbers and are right on the threshold that tells me they’re likely to be successful runners in the NFL.  If you want to know why market share matters, check out my Lamar Miller lovefest where I explain how relative production is indicative of a running back’s talent.  Matthew Freedman also expands on the concept in his study of non-QB Dominator Rating.  But the point here is that Lewis is pretty similar to Sproles from both a physical and a production standpoint.  I don’t think it’s just coach-speak when Norv compares Lewis to Sproles.

 A few more reasons to like Lewis.

  • I mentioned Fleaflicker earlier because 1) the service is fantastic and 2) I love the layout of their player pages.  On the left hand bar they have the player details where they feature age, height, weight, and NFL draft selection information prominently – all bits of information we take very seriously, especially here at RotoViz.  When I was looking at Lewis on Fleaflicker for my pick I noticed something I found amazing: despite 2013 being his third pro season, he won’t even be 23 until the end of September!  From a dynasty perspective that makes Lewis even more valuable.

  • This is kinda stating the obvious, but if Lewis does win the RB2 job and Richardson proves to be injury prone, Lewis could see spikes in playing time.

  • The reports coming out of training camp have been positively glowing:


Plus there’s even this Vine video of him juking defensive back Kenronte Walker out of his jock strap for a TD in practice.

I know, I know, we’re not supposed to get too geeked up about guys “looking good” in practice.  But this hasn’t been just one report.  It’s been consistent and frequent.

And of course there’s his preseason performance last night, where he was running as the RB1 with Richardson out.  What did he do?  Oh, that’s right.  He scored a receiving TD.  Funny, he looks a little bit like this guy doing it.  Something tells me Norv has a few more of those plays in his playbook too.

At this point Lewis is still going undrafted in normal snake drafts and if you’re in an auction league (first read this) then add him to your list of $1 players to fill out the end of your bench.  If you’re in a dynasty league he might still be on waivers depending on league and roster size.  If he is, I think he’s well worth rostering.  Sure he may turn out to be a flash in the pan, but why not take a flier on a guy who has the potential to be a Darren Sproles clone in Norv Turner’s offense.

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