The Tennessee Titans sign Dion Lewis to a four-year contract, although you already knew this because you read the title, and probably bookmarked his introductory press conference. Going into free agency, I figured the Titans needed to attain a pass catching back to compliment Derrick Henry, and they fulfilled that requirement. If you are reading this at work, please tell your boss I’m sorry for posting it on a Monday.
Last year, DeMarco Murray had 3.13 targets per game in the passing game, and he converted those stats into 39 catches, 266 yards, and 1 TD. His Yards per Reception amounted to 6.8 yards, and a catch percentage of 83%. Murray however, took a downturn in terms of running the ball, going down to a career low 3.6 yards per attempt (tied for lowest in career), and 43.9 yards per game, which was the lowest of his career. For a win now team, banking on a 30-year-old running back may not have been the most prudent game plans for the Titans. It’s understandable as to why the Titans decided to move on from Murray, because it’s more about age, and expected decline.
Now I’m going to reference some fantasy football related stats here to back up my points. This article by Numberfire notes that it’s best to move on from a running back when they enter their 7th to 9th years, because production is bound to go down. In this case, 2019 would be Murray’s 8th season in the league. This report from MileHighReport also notes that the age of decline seems to be around 29.7, and Murray is going to be 30 in 2018. In either case, moving on running backs, unless they are top tier talents seems to be the most prudent course of action. This is another article from FootballGuys also noting that Age 30 is a magic number to avoid when discussing long term issues for running backs.
While it’s tough for fans to move on from favorites, it makes sense to let Murray go elsewhere because the Titans are set up to compete in the near future, and it’s better to get a younger talent as the No. 2 running back.
The Titans are promoting Derrick Henry to the No. 1 running back position, so they need someone that can act as the No. 2 back. The team is more likely to be employing more spread concepts as well, so the next running back has to operate will in space and against one on one match ups.
Solution: Tennessee Titans sign Dion Lewis
The Tennessee Titans signed Dion Lewis, and it solves almost all of the problems outlined up above. Why? Because I framed it that way! Kidding aside, Lewis is the perfect Murray replacement for a bunch of reasons. Let’s compare the two of them:
Yards per Carry:
Yards per Game:
Yards per Target:
For two players on different teams with different offensive philosophies, their stats are pretty similar. The Titans are essentially replacing Murray with someone that has very similar skills, yet at a younger age.
There is some misconception that Lewis is more of an East/West runner, someone who dances in the backfield, but that wasn’t the case last year. NextGenStats considers Efficiency ratings as an indication of North/South runners. Essentially, they measure the amount of yards traveled in comparison to rushing yards gained, so if you run around East or West to find holes, then the number will be higher. Therefore, the lowest number means the fastest to hit the hole and turn up the field as quickly as possible.
Dion Lewis comes in second on the list with an efficiency number of 3.3, which is .7 behind the leader in Alvin Kamara. Therefore, Lewis is more of a North/South runner than people may believe with his stature and pass catching ability.
NextGenStats also tracks the time a runner spends behind the line of scrimmage, and Lewis comes in 12th on that list, paired around more power running backs such as LaGarrette Blount and Chris Ivory. The stat indicates that Lewis sees a hole and attacks the defense, rather than waiting around for one hole to open up. There isn’t a huge difference between Lewis and Murray, but these stats once again show the new Titans running back being more of an inside runner than fan perception.
Going back to the well with NextGenStats in hopes of a sponsorship, I’ll leave a link to the video of Matt Harmon discussing elusiveness ratings for running backs. Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry ranked 2nd and 3rd last year in elusiveness rankings last year. I’ve seen this link on pretty much everyone’s Twitter feed and message boards, so if you are a Titans fan, you will know this video by heart.
ProFootballFocus ranked Dion Lewis as the No. 5 running back last year, indicating that he’s a high quality player. Lewis does get lost in the shuffle because Tom Brady is the focus of the New England offense, but he provided extremely good value to the team last year.
Now, time to look at an article from the Ringer which also mentions Dion Lewis and how he is a big part of the Patriots offense:
The uptick in Lewis’s usage coincides with the improvement in the Patriots’ run game late in the season. New England tied for the league high in rushing touchdowns over the final six weeks, a stretch in which the Patriots ranked second in rush yards (829) and third in yards per carry (4.66). In that final six-week spell, Lewis ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards—behind only Todd Gurley—and showcased his big-play ability, logging eight rushes over 15 yards, second only to Marshawn Lynch in that period.
Because he didn’t take over lead-back duties until midseason, Lewis’s volume stats don’t stand out, but the efficiency numbers paint a picture of one of the best backs in the NFL. He forced 49 missed tackles, and led all qualifying backs (minimum 50 percent of snaps played) with an elusive rating of 73.2, per Pro Football Focus. He ranked third among those players in yards after contact per carry (3.17). He also registered a perfect pass-blocking efficiency grade per PFF, giving up zero pressures or sacks on 35 pass-blocking snaps. He finished the year with zero drops on 32 catchable targets, didn’t fumble the ball a single time on 212 touches, and ranked first among running backs in Football Outsiders DYAR (total value) and second in DVOA (value per play). He became one of just five players in the Super Bowl era (joining Jamaal Charles, Maurice Jones-Drew, Terry Metcalf, and Gale Sayers) with 800-plus yards rushing, 150-plus yards receiving, 500-plus yards on kickoff returns, and at least one rushing, receiving, and kickoff return touchdown in a single season.
Please do check out the link, it’s a good read, and they have some film breakdowns as well to showcase his abilities. I love film breakdowns (if you haven’t noticed by now) so it’s always nice to see other articles do film review.
I’m going to pick a couple of stats mentioned within the article, from Football Outsiders. Dion Lewis ranked No. 1 for running backs for DYAR in 2017, which as the article mentions, measures the total value of a running back, with 271. If we go back all the way to 2015, the score of 271 is the 4th highest in the last three years with Ezekiel Elliot (339), LeSean McCoy (338), and Le’Veon Bell (277) as the only running backs to eclipse the number. Interestingly enough, they all did so in 2016.
Another stat to note is the value brought on by Dion Lewis on the kick returning game, because he functioned as the top kick returner for the Patriots. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Lewis ranked 4th overall in yards per kick return, ahead of Adoree’ Jackson. The addition of Lewis also allows the Titans to move Jackson away from punt returns because his status as a possible high-end cornerback is too vital to risk on special teams. It also allows the Titans to rotate their kick return duties, because Jackson deals with top end speed, while Lewis deals with elusiveness in small areas. The opposing special team has to prepare for two different, yet effective, styles.
NFL Draft Dion Lewis:
40: 4.47 (Pro- Day: He ran a slower time at the combine)
20 Yard Shuttle: 4.18 (Combine)
3 Cone Drill: 6.90
10 Yard Dash: 1.51
Bench Reps: 17
Broad Jump: 34.5
Broad Jump: 9’04”
He didn’t light up the combine, but I want you to look at the 3 cone drill numbers, because the Patriots focus on the 3-cone numbers to find running backs and offensive players. This article from Masslive highlights how the team focuses in on the drill to find players that are good in short area quickness. The theory employed is quite simple, players with short area quickness and change of direction skills are better at beating one on one match ups. It’s far more likely that you will evade someone in a small space than run by them down the field using top end speed. I believe the concept employed by the Patriots is that, man coverage means the players have to win their match ups, while zone coverage indicates that it’s more on the scheme to win the match up. I have a working theory that Patriots receivers employ a double read on zone coverage plays, making audibles down the field to match zone cover areas. For example, a receiver will get an audible from Brady at the line of scrimmage, but the audible has a built in secondary audible which allows the receiver to make a secondary read to an open spot once the play is in motion. You often hear about how receivers have trouble adjusting to the Patriots system during mid-season pickups and I believe it’s because of this secondary read. I don’t think the Titans offense is going to be based on the same philosophy because Tom Brady is an all time great, and he’s incredibly good at releasing the ball in a timely manner. However, I can see the Titans put an emphasis on short area quickness for their offensive players.
Saying all that, now that I distracted you enough from the main point, notice the 6.90 three cone drill number. The 2018 NFL Combine featured two running backs that topped the number (Chase Edmunds and Justin Jackson) while Royce Freeman tied with Lewis. If we go back to 2017, three running backs did so.
Now, let’s make a comparison with another running back known to be elusive in the open field, Tarik Cohen:
Cohen: 179 lbs
Lewis: 193 lbs
40 Yard Dash:
Cohen: 4.42 (Combine – did not run on pro-day)
Lewis: 4.47 (Pro-Day)
10 Yard Split:
3 Cone Drill:
Cohen: 7.22 (Pro-Day)
20 Yard Shuttle:
Cohen: 4.27 (Pro-Day)
I think it’s safe to say Lewis might be a similar athlete, even a better one at that when compared to Tarik Cohen, and we’ve all heard about the impact of the young running back in Chicago. Now Cohen is an excellent punt returner, so there is added value there for the Bears.
In terms of play this year, Cohen averaged 4.3 yards per carry, while Lewis was at 5 yards per carry. They both averaged 6.7 yards per reception, although Cohen gets a much larger number of targets, so he has the larger sample size on the season. In terms of kick returns, Cohen averaged 22.4 yards per kick return, while Lewis averaged 24.8 yards per kick return. In terms of physical skill and production, they were clearly similar this past year. The caveat being that Cohen is a rookie with a rookie QB, while Lewis is in his 5th year, and playing with Tom Brady. I’m not saying I would rather have Lewis than Cohen, because the contract situation completely favors Cohen, but in terms of dynamic ability, they are fairly similar. Another benefit of the comparison with Cohen is the compatibility with a No. 1 back as we saw the split with Jordan Howard this season.
The Tennessee Titans sign Dion Lewis to a 4 year $19.8 million deal, so let’s see how it breaks down, using OverTheCap. To me, the biggest numbers are cap hits and dead money hits because everything else doesn’t matter as fans.
Cap Number Hit: $4.31 million, which brings the positional spending for the Titans to $6.87 million as of now, which places them 13th in the league in terms of RB salaries. The Dead Money hit is $5.7 million, which is what it would accelerate onto the cap if Lewis was somehow released this year.
Cap Number Hit: $4.86 million, which brings the positional spending for the Titans to $7.2 million as of now, placing them 9th in the league. The Dead money hit for Lewis is down to $1.6 million in 2019, meaning that amount will accelerate onto the cap if he’s released next year.
Cap Number Hit: $5.16 million, which brings the positional spending for the Titans to $5.87 million, which would place the Titans 6th overall in positional spending. Although, at this point the positional spending is somewhat useless because teams may not have players lined up to fill the slot yet. The Dead Money hit is $1.25 million for cutting Lewis in 2020.
Cap Number Hit: $5.4 million against the cap, and I’m not going to even bother putting the positional spending. The Dead Money hit is $0.56 million, which would go on the cap if he’s released.
The most important number here the 2020 number because Derrick Henry’s rookie contract runs out after the 2019 season. At that point, the Titans have to make a decision towards the future. Either they have to extend Derrick Henry to a long-term contract (maybe a franchise tag), or move on from Henry. If the Titans do extend Henry, I expect Lewis to be cut because the Titans also have to extend Marcus Mariota and Taylor Lewan, therefore spending high end money on running backs won’t be a luxury available to them. However, notice the dead money hit in 2020 because it goes down to $1.25 million for the Titans, which is less than what the team paid to release Sylvester Williams recently. Furthermore, if they designate Lewis as a post June 1st cut, they can split the dead money in 2020 and 2021, therefore easing the pain if needed.
The contract is set up with Derrick Henry in mind. If Henry breaks out and becomes a star, then moving on from Lewis is much easier in 2020, when Henry’s new contract will go into effect. If Henry doesn’t break out, then Lewis is not a huge burden on roster construction, which would allow them to invest a draft pick on a mid-round running back. The production from Lewis (assuming health) allows them to bring the running back up to speed slowly, much like Henry being the backup to Murray in his early days. Therefore, I believe come 2020, there will only be one of Dion Lewis or Derrick Henry on the team.
OK, now that your eyes are twitching from all the words and links, time to break down some film:
The first one here is something you’ve already seen as you went to YouTube for his highlights, right after the contract agreement announcement. If you didn’t do that, it’s highly unlikely you read all the way down here for this article. I’m not all that experienced in breaking down kick returns, so I’ll save myself the embarrassment and keep it short. I like Lewis hitting the hole directly on this return, rather than dancing near the end zone. Notice how Lewis runs straight towards the hole, albeit helped out with great blocking, and then putting a move on the kicker. Lewis waits until the last second possible to make the move on the kicker, which causes the kicker to be somewhat flat footed. Notice the angle Lewis takes towards the kicker, because he starts to head a bit to the inside, to force the kicker to stop his progression to the outside, and leave enough space for Lewis to cut back outside. If the kicker does proceed outside, then Lewis has enough momentum to run straight inside and possibly run down the field. Although, the kicker is the kicker, and they didn’t make the NFL for their tackling abilities, so it’s hard to really breakdown a kick returner making the kicker miss.
I don’t want you to pay attention to the result of this play, but notice Lewis out of the backfield. The Patriots have him matched up one on one, and notice the route on this play. When Lewis comes out of the backfield, he squares up the linebacker, which forces the linebacker to stay flat footed because he doesn’t know if Lewis will be going to the inside or the outside. The running back makes a nice cut to the inside, and should be open for the pass if he doesn’t pull up when he sees the pass being thrown to Rob Gronkowski. This is a good example of him offering the safety option if need be, and a one on one match up nightmare.
This isn’t a major play, but I wanted to highlight his ability to hit the hole quickly, and gain positive yards. This is a 2nd and 1 play in the game, and Lewis attacks the hole and gains positive yards. Notice how he doesn’t waste too much time trying to hit the home run, but rather runs straight downfield to where the run is intended, then tries to make people miss once he gets to the hole.
This is another play where he hits the hole as soon as possible, then tries to make people miss once he hits his target. On this play, notice the right side of the play, because it shows the vision from Lewis. There is a free safety coming in from the right side of Lewis to plug the hole, which is why Lewis decides to turn left and try to hit the space left of the linebacker since the blocking is set up that way. Unfortunately for the Patriots, Brandon Marshall does a great job of shedding his block and making the tackle. Yet, once again Lewis gets past the line of scrimmage quickly, and makes sure that he gets positive yards.
On this play, the Patriots catch the Broncos off-guard with this quick snap and Lewis follows the lead into the end zone. Lewis does a great job with the cutback here, then hits the hole to the right side of the field, and goes straight up the field. He basically drags Aqib Talib into the end zone for the touchdown, but this play is set up by the quick pace of the offense, as well as the great cut by Lewis at the line of scrimmage.
This is a great run by Lewis in the first Buffalo Bills game, where he hits the hole created by the offensive line, gets to the second level and then absolutely destroys Bills safety Jordan Poyer. The first thing about this play is that the offensive line creates such a hole with their blocking, only Trent Richardson could turn this into a negative play. However, once again we see Lewis hit the hole as quickly as possible to get to the second level, and then making people miss in the second tier. He breaks three tackles on this play and his explosive speed coming through the line of scrimmage allows him to get down the field before the defense can close the gap. You can see the safety and the linebacker try to close the gap in the middle, but Lewis beats them to the spot, and then breaks their tackles to go down the field. While the start of this play is positive because of the blocking scheme, the second half of this play is all on Dion Lewis fighting through tackles while showing excellent speed.
This guy isn’t your average speed back that folds at the first hit, but rather he fights through tackles for extra yards. I believe part of the reason for his success is the lack of specialization into a role, because he’s fast to attack the line of scrimmage, elusive in short spaces, and powerful enough to fight through tackles. In this instance, he sees the Bills linebacker plug the A gap, so he opts for the C gap with minimal space as he leaps over the feet of his lineman. He then fights through three tackles again, and almost scores a touchdown.
This play doesn’t count, because there is a holding penalty on Rob Gronkowski. I put it in here to highlight his vision as he’s running towards the line of scrimmage. From all indication, this play is supposed to be run to the outside, because you can see how Gronkowski is trying to push the defender towards the middle of the field, and the right guard pulls across to make the block. However, as Lewis is running, he can see the defender on Gronkowski readjust to the outside along with a free defender. The play calls for the right guard to pull block, but he’s going to face two defenders if Gronkowski doesn’t hold on this play, so Lewis cuts back inside to the cutback lane. It may not be a home run play, but he makes sure to gain positive yards on the play and then fights through a tackle. While the play doesn’t count, I thought it was a good representation of his vision during the course of a play.
In this clip, you can see him being patient and waiting for the cutback lanes to open up, and then hitting the smallest of gaps to fight through the line of scrimmage. It takes an absolutely great one handed tackle by the defender to bring down Lewis by the shoestrings, but it once again shows good vision and quickness.
Once again, look at the cutbacks into the hole, while attacking the line of scrimmage. There aren’t any apparent holes opening up as he’s approaching the line of scrimmage, but he’s waiting patiently for the cutback lane to open, and bursts past the line of scrimmage as soon as he sees some daylight. He also shows good elusiveness as he spins out of a tackle and almost scores a touchdown. I put in this play just to showcase the patience for the cutback lane, instead of panicking at the sign of clogged lanes.
One of the most under-rated parts of any running back’s game is blitz protection, and in this case, Lewis showcases good ability to take out the linebacker. Lewis is lined up in the backfield, but the Steelers send a linebacker blitz up the middle. In most cases, a linebacker against a running back is a win for the defense but Lewis attacks the legs of the linebacker and takes him out of the play. He doesn’t shy away from contact or try to take him on while being upright, but rather just takes the linebacker and himself out of the play, protecting Tom Brady. It’s a quick pass play, so it doesn’t matter quite as much, but he provided the option for Brady to wait longer in the pocket by sacrificing his body on this play.
While he does go between the gaps for most runs, he can turn up the jets to the outside and create havoc. In this instance, he cuts to the outside to get a one on one match up and cuts up the field for the touchdown. Once again, he fights through the tackle to gain positive yards and reaches out for the end zone. This play is crucial because the Steelers sold out to block the cut back lanes, so Lewis goes outside before he cuts in against the last defender. This is the type of play on tape, that prevents defenses from blocking cutback lanes, because they know he can turn it outside.
I believe most Titans fans will remember this play, even if it might be more for screaming at the referees. This is a screen pass set up for the offense, but notice how Lewis reads the blocks and defenders down the field with his cut back, allowing for more yards. He fights through tackles, and refuses to give up, even when it appears that he may be down. Although the touchdown is later reversed, it’s a good example of Lewis refusing to give up on a play and fighting through traffic.
This is not going to be one of those “Where were you when the Tennessee Titans signed Dion Lewis?” moments, but he’s an extremely good signing for the Titans. He’s perfect as the complimentary back in a high-powered offense because he is good at all aspects of the game. Contrary to what his size would have you believe, he’s a physical inside runner that breaks plenty of tackles. He’s not just the speed type that will look to turn outside and avoid contact, but rather attacks the line of scrimmage and bursts through the hole. He’s a solid pass catcher with great open field elusiveness and should replace the stats from DeMarco Murray rather easily. He adds another element to special teams, which should make him more valuable as well. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, the Titans didn’t just sign Barry Sanders because he has his issues as well. He’s a consistent runner that gets positive yards with good blocking, but he’s not the type to create a masterpiece from a broken play. However, that fits in exactly with what the Titans need in their No. 2 back, which is a consistent runner that can gain positive yards, along with good blitz recognition. The money is a bit high, but I do believe that pieces that take a playoff team to the next tier tend to be more expensive than market price. Look no further than the Vikings contract to Kirk Cousins, because they know that getting those playoff wins are more expensive than getting regular season wins. In this case, the Titans are paying extra to have a great No. 2 back, that could have possibly been a No. 1 back with a few teams, but form a great duo with Derrick Henry instead.
Most fans that watched his introductory press conference love him as a person, but I believe they are going to be thrilled with him as a player. He’s a great fit on the team in terms of scheme, especially with RPO based around Marcus Mariota. One of the major advantages of RPO (or play action) is to have the defenders freeze for a fraction of a time, because they aren’t sure who has the ball. Lewis does a great job of attacking the line of scrimmage so quickly that the slight hesitation should work in his favor. With the Patriots, the fear of Tom Brady allowed running lanes, and with the Titans, the fear of RPOs should help him gain yards as well.
Thanks for reading this article, and I know it’s extremely long, so make sure to let your ophthalmologist know why your eyes are strained. Yes, tell them I take sponsorship. I’ll have other articles posted in this coming week, based on the moves with free agency. Barring a major signing like Suh, I will turn my focus right back onto the NFL Draft. As usual, please like, share, and subscribe to any Titans fans you know.
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