FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman has fond memories of his time as teammates with running back Dion Lewis, and perhaps he’ll even take a few moments to greet him Sunday.
Actually, that won’t be happening.
“He meant a lot to me when he was here. Now, I hate him,” Edelman said with a touch of humor as the Patriots (7-2) prepare to visit Lewis and the Tennessee Titans (4-4) on Sunday.
Lewis was one of the Patriots’ remarkable personnel-related stories in recent years -- rising from an afterthought “future” free-agent signing in 2015 to one of the club’s most explosive playmakers in 2017.
If not for the Patriots helping to revive his career and Lewis’ own perseverance, Lewis wouldn’t have been in position to cash in as a free agent in March, when he signed a four-year, $19.6 million deal with the Titans. His departure created a significant void for the Patriots to fill, and it’s been an ever-evolving picture as to how they’ve done it.
It starts, of course, with first-year captain James White.
Lewis had 32 receptions all of last season, and White -- now with 61, second in the AFC -- has more than picked up that slack.
“He has like 5,000 [receptions]; it’s ridiculous,” marveled Titans coach Mike Vrabel. “Eighty-one targets in nine games -- that’s impressive. Obviously Tom [Brady] trusts him. He’s really turned into a nice player, another third-down back [and] a first-and-second-down change-of-pace back that they’ve had for a lot of years.”
White has been on the field for 59.7 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, way up from his previous workload (33.7 in 2017; 38 in 2016).
That has happened in part because of injuries around him.
First-round draft choice Sony Michel missed all of the preseason and the season opener after having fluid drained from his knee, and it took a little while for him to get up to speed upon his return. He was at his best from Weeks 4-6 before a knee injury knocked him out early against the Bears on Oct. 21, and after missing the next two games, he’s on the cusp of a return for Week 10.
Fellow running back Rex Burkhead (neck/concussion) landed on injured reserve after the team’s Week 3 loss in Detroit, and he just returned to practice for the first time Thursday. He’s eligible to return to action Dec. 2 against the Vikings.
And power option Jeremy Hill tore his ACL in the season opener, which had the Patriots scrambling to bring in free agent Kenjon Barner (he’s played sparingly) while experimenting with receiver Cordarrelle Patterson at running back at times.
So it’s been a mix-and-match type situation -- not exactly the way the Patriots drew it up without Lewis, but it hasn’t hurt them. They are 7-2, after all.
“He’s a guy who I still talk to all the time. All the running backs that were here, we’re all really good friends,” White said of Lewis.
“I still don’t think we’ve played our best football yet. We’re still working, still trying to improve, especially as an offense. We can be better. I think the coaches are staying on us and guys are staying on each other, holding each other accountable, knowing that we haven’t played our best football yet and we’ve got to keep working to do that.”