BEREA: In November, Dion Lewis took a break from rehabilitating his surgically repaired leg and stopped in the locker room to chat with reporters. Full of confidence and optimism, Lewis revealed his belief that the Browns might give him a chance to compete for their featured running back role heading into the 2014 season.
But since then, the Browns have overhauled their front office and coaching staff. Former CEO Joe Banner, who was the president of the Philadelphia Eagles when they drafted Lewis in the fifth round in 2011, is long gone. The same goes for former wide receivers coach Scott Turner, the son of ex-Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner and an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh when Lewis played there.
In March, new Browns General Manager Ray Farmer signed former Houston Texans running back and projected starter Ben Tate to a two-year, $6.2 million contract as an unrestricted free agent. In May, Farmer traded up to draft running back Terrance West in the third round (No. 94 overall). He also signed highly touted running back Isaiah Crowell as an undrafted free agent.
So where do the changes leave Lewis, who suffered a season-ending fractured fibula and ligament damage in his left leg Aug. 15 during an exhibition game?
“I don’t know,” Lewis said last month as mandatory minicamp wrapped up. “I’m still very excited to get back there and prove that I’m 100 percent recovered from the injury. With new coaches, everybody is learning a new system. So I feel like I’ve learned the system well, and I’m looking forward to getting out there and competing with the rest of the guys.”
The answer is telling. Lewis, 23, went from thinking he could possibly climb atop the depth chart to acknowledging the uncertainty of his situation.
The 5-foot-8, 195-pound Lewis has the traits of a prototypical change-of-pace back in the elder Turner’s system.
As a result, he drew comparisons to Darren Sproles with a strong training camp last year before his injury.
However, some doubt that Lewis fits well as a runner in the zone-blocking scheme used heavily by new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Lewis begs to differ, and he plans to prove his point.
He sat out some of the Browns’ organized team activities in the spring and their mandatory minicamp in June with an undisclosed injury he insisted was unrelated to the broken leg that derailed his 2013 season. He expects to be ready for the first full-squad practice of training camp July 26, when he’ll get a shot to show the new coaching staff what he can do.
“If you’re a running back, you’re a running back,” said Lewis, whom the Browns acquired in April 2013 by trading linebacker Emmanuel Acho to the Eagles. “You can run in any scheme. I feel like I can adjust my abilities to anything that a coach asks me to do, and whatever I’m asked to do I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.
“Pretty much every team runs an outside zone play. It’s a different little scheme here. Most of it is outside zone, but at the same time there’s inside zone and other plays, too. I’m very comfortable with it being involved in OTAs and the first minicamp [in April]. I’m just getting comfortable with the terminology, and I should be ready to go.”
But does Lewis really fit the mold of a one-cut runner like Tate and West?
“Definitely,” Lewis said. “Also with the zone scheme, vision has a lot to do with it. You’ve got to be able to see it. You can’t make a cut if you don’t see the cut that needs to be made. I feel I possess that ability.”
New Browns coach Mike Pettine and his staff are determined to run the ball with greater frequency and success than last season, when the team traded former third-overall pick Trent Richardson in September and finished tied for 27th in the NFL in rushing (86.4 yards per game). Even with the Richardson deal taken into account, the franchise’s new brass thinks it’s insane that the Browns had a league-leading 681 passing attempts last season, considering the nature of the AFC North and its cold-weather cities.
That’s why Pettine believes depth and division of labor is vital.
“I think in the AFC North especially, you have to be running back by committee,” Pettine said May 21 during OTAs. “You’d like to have a guy that can carry most of the load, but [it’s important] to have the ability to alternate guys. You’ve got to be able to get fresh legs out there.”
But even if the Browns form a large stable of running backs by keeping four on their 53-man roster, Lewis knows he must earn his keep. Tate and West are locks to make the team. Farmer views Crowell, the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year in 2011 whose college career was marred by off-field issues, as a diamond in the rough. If Crowell lives up to Farmer’s expectations this summer, Lewis could find himself vying with Chris Ogbonnaya and Edwin Baker for a job.
“Every year I’ve been in the NFL, there’s always been seven, eight running backs coming into camp,” said Lewis, who compiled 36 carries for 171 yards (4.8 average) and two touchdowns during his two seasons with the Eagles. “No matter where you go, there’s going to be other players. There’s going to be competition, and that brings the best out of me. So I don’t really look at is as pressure toward myself.
“I’m self-motivated. I can only control the things I can control. They’re great backs. We’re all competing for the same things. So come camp, we’re all going to be having fun, helping each other out. But at the same time, we’re going to be competing, and that’s what it’s really about — having the best players on the field.”
Lewis is convinced that if he can successfully rebound from injury, everything else will fall into place for him, regardless of the organization’s latest turnover.
Asked to list his expectations, Lewis said, “Get back to my old self, come into camp ready to compete and try to have a major role in helping this team win.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.