FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24: Dion Lewis #33 of the New England Patriots scores a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills during the first half at Gillette Stadium on December 24, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

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Dion Lewis has done everything the New England Patriots have asked of him during his three-year tenure with the team.

The Patriots have long run a model of finding players who can fill a specific role, rarely using them outside of their most obvious strengths. Lewis has proven this year to be the exception to this rule, forcing the Patriots to capitalize on all he has to offer.

Once primarily used as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, Lewis’ role has evolved over the past three seasons, as he molds himself to pick up any additional work he can find within the offense.

Year Ru. Yards Y/A Re. Yards AVG
2015 234 4.8 388 10.8
2016 283 4.4 94 5.5
2017 803 5.2 174 6.7

Lewis’ 2017 season reached a climax in Week 16, when he received career highs in rushing attempts (24) and total touches (29). He rushed for 129 yards and picked up another 24 as a receiver, scoring touchdowns via both methods.

The game was the showcase of Lewis’ career evolution into a true workhorse back, after entering the season as a potential training camp cut.

His opening last Sunday came with both Rex Burkhead and James White sidelined by injuries. He was preferred over Mike Gillislee for the majority of snaps, as Gillislee totaled 43 yards on six carries, one reception, and a goal-line touchdown in his first game since Oct. 29.

Despite acknowledging earlier in the week that goal-line work was not his role, Lewis showed he’s fully capable when called upon.

Lewis used his 5-foot-8, 195-pound frame to dart between blockers and defenders to get into the end zone for the second time in the game, second consecutive week, and seventh time on the season (five rushes, two receptions).

While sitting slightly behind White among Patriots running backs in snaps through 16 weeks, Lewis ranks as the team’s No. 1 back, and second in the NFL behind MVP candidate Todd Gurley, according to Pro Football Focus.

Lewis has evolved from simply being able to fill roles, to excelling in all areas in which he’s being used.

In his fifth year since being selected 149th by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2011 draft, Lewis has accumulated just 303 rushing attempts. By running back standards, he’s still fresh and fully capable of taking on more work as he approaches 30 years old.

With Burkhead set to hit free agency and New England having an easy out in Gillislee’s contract after this season, it’s time for the Patriots to acknowledge Lewis’ true value as a No. 1 back in the NFL, and re-sign him early in the offseason to be the leader of their backfield.

By limiting his exposure to the rest of the league thus far, they’re likely to be able to retain him at a bargain price once again.