Dion Lewis was the backup to the NFL’s leading rusher in 2019.
He and the Giants wouldn’t mind if he can be that again in 2020.
The Giants recently signed the 29-year-old running back, who was released by the Titans this offseason, to do for Saquon Barkley what he did for Derrick Henry. In other words: Make Barkley better, make the team better and do it while being on the field as little as possible.
That’s a tough task that takes some getting used to, which is why the Giants enlisted someone with experience in the role.
“I learned a lot,” Lewis said of his time with the Titans during a Friday conference call. “I learned how to be a good team player, doing what I can to encourage the guy in front of me. Watching the game. If when they come off they need to ask me a question about anything, I’m always really honest. You watch the game from a different perspective . . . It’s a unique situation. It’s worked for the past two years with Derrick and I think it will definitely help me come here and do whatever I can to help this group.”
What does Lewis get out of it? Plenty, he said.
“I think we can help make each other better,” he said. “All of the running backs I have played with I have learned things from and they learned things from me. Me being a little older guy, I have a little more experience with some things, but [Barkley] is a great player, so there is not much he can’t do. I’m looking forward to working with him, competing with him, learning from him, building a relationship with him so we can make that running back room and hopefully make the team better.”
Lewis has experience with a few different ways of rotating running backs. He began his career with the Eagles and then emerged with the Patriots as part of a committee. Then he signed with the Titans and became the starter, with Henry backing him up. Eventually that relationship flip-flopped, with Henry becoming the central figure in the Titans’ offense.
Henry ran for 1,540 yards on 303 carries last season. Lewis gained 209 yards on 54 carries, with 68 of those yards and 15 of those carries coming in Week 16, when Henry was rested before the Titans’ postseason push. So in the 15 regular-season games when Henry played, Lewis averaged only 2.6 carries and 9.4 rushing yards per game.
The plus side of that is that although Lewis has played all 16 games the last three years, he hasn’t taken much punishment of late.
“My body feels pretty well,” said Lewis, who will turn 30 in late September. “I didn’t take too much of a pounding last year. My body is relatively fresh. I pride myself on taking care of my body. I feel like I still can play, I can do the things I am accustomed to doing, I still can make guys miss.”
Giants fans understandably will be leery of their team’s decision to sign a veteran to help Barkley. Two years ago, one of general manager Dave Gettleman’s first free-agent acquisitions was running back Jonathan Stewart. Gettleman insisted that Stewart still had plenty left on the field (he didn’t) and would serve as a fine mentor for Barkley in his rookie year (that’s debatable).
It was the signing of Stewart that many immediately recollected when, earlier this offseason, new head coach Joe Judge said the Giants would not be signing veterans to serve as mentors.
So why is Lewis different?
Well, he knows Judge. They worked together in New England. And he knows the philosophies and expectations that Judge is bringing to the Giants from the Patriots. He understands that every player on the team will have a role.
Some of them, like Barkley, will be asked to be on the field for as many snaps as possible. Others, like Lewis, will have to contribute in different ways.
Maybe that will be on special teams. Lewis was used as a kickoff returner by the Patriots (for whom Judge was special teams coordinator) and averaged 22.9 yards on 57 career returns, including a 103-yard touchdown in 2017. Lewis said if Judge asks him to fill that role, he is open to it.
Lewis, who grew up a Giants fan, said he’s not concerned about having his exact job description hammered out now.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “I’ll approach it like I always approach it, go in every day and work hard and show the coaches what I can do and let them figure out a role. Obviously, with a player like Saquon, you have to have him on the field as much as possible. He’s one of the better backs in this league. And I understand that. I’m going to just work hard, do whatever the coaches ask me to do, compete every day and figure it out that way instead of going in there with hopes or what I think is going to happen.
“Compete, work hard, build relationships in the running back room and take it from there.”