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That’s it, you’ve all gone and forced my hand. At the (very minor) risk of someone actually listening to me and starting up this hype train, inflating the ADP of one of my favorite picks in every mock draft I’ve done this summer, it’s time someone beats the drum for Dion Lewis. For the past two years, the common proclamation around Lewis was “He’s such an exciting player to watch, but I can never trust a Patriots running back! Damn Belichick!” Or, even better, they’d say, “But he’s so injury-prone! I can’t risk that!” Lewis not only put both those narratives to rest last season, posting RB16 and RB19 finishes in standard and PPR respectively through 16 weeks, but even signed with a different team this offseason. This means no more worrying about Belichick suddenly deciding to use James White or Rex Burkhead as a workhorse, and for their part, the Tennessee Titans boast the 5th-best offensive line in the league according to Pro Football Focus.
Let me break this down now. All of the following are now true of Dion Lewis:
- Was always believed to possess great skills despite being held back by fickle usage and nagging injuries
- Has moved to a new team with a better offensive line
- Just proved his ability to make it through a full season
- Is coming off a top-20 finish
- Was the fourth-most popular player on championship rosters in ESPN leagues
- Is currently being drafted, depending on scoring format, between 59th and 62nd overall on fantasyfootballcalculator.com as the RB28, and even later at 71st overall on ESPN
I don’t understand. What could possibly be chaining down his ADP? Let’s take a look at some of the other running backs going before him… let’s see… we’ve got rookies Ronald Jones II and Rashaad Penny… fellow 2017 waiver-wire hero Alex Collins… and… oh, well just look at that, I’ve solved the mystery. Everyone’s favorite “incredibly talented beast” of a running back that is definitely in line for a breakout year (for the third year in a row…) and Lewis’ new teammate, Derrick Henry.
Just to quickly gauge my feelings on Dion Lewis, I’d draft him in PPR over all four of those running backs listed above.
Raise your hand if you held Henry on your bench for a significant amount of time in the last two years, swearing that this would be the week the Titans finally turned him into the workhorse he was made to be. You waited with bated breath as Demarco Murray’s contract was left to expire this offseason. Now would finally be Henry’s chance to show you and everyone else why you’d held on for so long, validating your eye for potential and justifying your often-destructive habit of latching on to players you see being hyped on Reddit… and then the Titans signed Dion Lewis to a four-year, $20 million contract with nearly $8 million guaranteed.
“No worries,” you think as you draft Henry in the third or fourth round in your summer mock drafts. “That’s not an enormous contract, and Henry is better than Lewis anyways!” That $8 million guaranteed is $8 million guaranteed more than the Titans have given Henry during their current coaching regime. Yes, Henry was a second-round pick in the NFL Draft a few years ago, but that fact does not mean that new head coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur will favor him over Lewis. The ball will be in the hands of whichever back they believe will give them a better chance of winning each week. Fantasy owners, especially in redraft formats, overrate the importance of the money or draft capital a team has invested in a player when projecting their usage. Jerick McKinnon’s current ADP (21st overall) is a great example of this. Almost no money is guaranteed in the NFL, and the 49ers can easily be off the hook after this year with a minimal cap hit if McKinnon doesn’t perform.
But I digress. What’s important is that the Titans will be using Henry and Lewis based on which of them will perform better in every given situation. We’ve all seen the pictures of these two guys standing side-by-side… I have no illusions that Lewis will be the one running up the middle 15 times a game. In fact, I’d prefer he doesn’t, as it’s much more fun to watch him when he’s not broken. But in space, on third downs, and even in the red-zone? Let’s examine some stats.
The Past And Future
Starting with the basics, Lewis averaged 5.0 yards per carry in 2017 to Henry’s 4.2. “But Lewis must have a smaller sample size!” The Henry truthers scream. “His efficiency would crumble with heavier volume!” Dion Lewis handled 180 carries last year. Henry had 176.
YPC isn’t everything, though. What about contributions in the passing game? Last year, Henry managed 11 receptions on 17 targets, including an ugly 2 drops on a minuscule target count. Meanwhile, Lewis caught 32 of his 35 targets for a whopping 91.4% catch-rate, including no drops and even catching all of his 6 red-zone targets. That catch-rate, drop-rate, and red-zone catch-rate were all good for 1st in the league. Of course, Lewis didn’t handle a ton of targets either, but given his efficiency, it seems likely he’ll be the one absorbing most of the 57 targets that Demarco Murray averaged the last two years with the Titans, rather than Henry. With Delanie Walker being the only other proven pass-catcher on the team, Lewis has an excellent opportunity to amass a significant target share in the Titans’ offense.
Regardless of the other options on the roster, Marcus Mariota’s new safety valve should have an excellent PPR floor, with offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur hailing from the same coaching tree as the Rams’ Sean McVay and the 49er’s Kyle Shanahan. I dislike when players are hyped purely because of their coaches or coordinators, but it’s worth noting how these coaches tend to pepper their running backs with targets. Todd Gurley’s 88 targets last year and Carlos Hyde’s 87 are tough to ignore. LaFleur himself was the OC for Gurley’s resurgent season last year. Yet Jerick McKinnon, who has been a less efficient player than Lewis in his career, is an early third-round pick right now mostly because of who his coach is – a coach from the same tree as LaFleur, who will almost certainly be doing the play-calling on offense – and Lewis is going in the sixth. It boggles my mind.
Finally, let’s move on to the always-critical red-zone. Last year, Lewis converted 9 of his 40 touches inside the 20-yard line to touchdowns, a conversion rate of 22.5%. Henry scored on 3 of his 29 red-zone touches, a rate of just 10.3%. The Titans slightly favored Henry over Murray in the red-zone last year, with Murray totaling 22 of his own touches. Given Lewis’ proven prowess in this area, a similar split seems like the worst-case scenario for him. Again, Lewis caught 100% of his red-zone targets last year, 3 of which were for touchdowns. There is clearly potential here for Matt LaFleur and the Titans to take advantage of on the most important part of the field for both NFL teams and fantasy owners.
I’ll end things off with a couple of my favorite Dion Lewis stats, which show just how dynamic and elusive of a runner he is. Playerprofiler.com has a stat called “yards created per carry,” which measures all the yards a runner earns on the rest of the play after evading a tackle. It serves to isolate the yards that a runner earns entirely by himself, with the designed run-blocking no longer a factor after this point. Last year, Dion Lewis was first in the league in this metric, averaging 2.56 yards created per carry. He also boasted nearly a 40% juke rate, meaning on average, he broke a tackle in every 4 out of his 10 touches, good for third in the league.
Lewis’ ability to break open plays and score long touchdowns is seemingly massive, yet all 9 of his touchdowns last year came from inside the 20-yard line, with none coming on a big play. Lewis may be the first former Patriots running back ever that could actually have a chance to increase his touchdown production after leaving the team. I see him as a sure-fire RB2 in PPR this year, with top-12 upside depending on his red-zone usage. I recommend drafting him every time you see him sitting there in the sixth round, ready to explode from Derrick Henry’s overpriced shadow.