How Does Dion Lewis' Injury Affect LeGarrette Blount in Fantasy Football?

Can Blount seize the opportunities available in the Patriots' backfield?

The great baseball catcher and layman’s philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis must feel like he’s Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day because this is the second year in a row he’s had to have surgery on his torn ACL and the fourth year out of six career seasons that he’s had a worrisome injury to his legs. It appears that Lewis’ newest procedure is just a “simple” clean-up on the previous ACL repair, but he is expected to miss 8 to 10 weeks of action.

In this situation, I think Berra would remind us, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Things certainly aren’t going the way the Patriots planned coming into the 2016 season, but that doesn’t mean they’re throwing in the towel without having played a down of real football yet. They too are surely aware that, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it." But which way will that fork lead them when it comes to their backfield in 2016, and how can we respond to that in fantasy football?

Let's take a look.

You Can Observe a Lot Just By Watching

We know the Patriots like to use multiple running backs, changing their players’ usage based on their opponent, the weather, and probably head coach Bill Belichick’s horoscope that day. This offense does not feature players -- it features roles: typically a rushing back and a pass-game back.

There is a perception that Lewis’ presence made the Patriots abandon their committee approach in favor of his more all-around skillset last season, but that just isn’t true. While Lewis certainly had a solid role, he led the team in running back touches (targets and rushing attempts) just twice -- Week 1 and Week 2. Those first two games saw him rack up a combined 258 all-purpose yards on 36 opportunities, including one rushing touchdown.

After that, for the other five weeks he was healthy, Lewis was featured in his role -- and he played well -- but he was not the feature back.

Week Rush ruYD ruTD Targ recYD recTD FP
3 8 37 1 5 30 0 15.2
5 6 34 0 11 59 1 19.3
6 4 21 0 6 18 0 5.4
8 5 19 0 9 93 1 20.2
9 4 14 0 5 39 0 7.3

So, while his loss for the first few weeks is unfortunate, it doesn't appear tragic for the offense as a whole from a usage standpoint. Will it affect LeGarrette Blount?

A Nickel Ain’t Worth a Dime Anymore

When it comes to choosing a path at a fork in the road, Blount plows right through it and creates his own. One particular rush against the Green Bay Packers during his Tampa Bay Buccaneers tenure depicts Blount’s skillset perfectly. He is a bruising runner, breaking tackles and stiff-arming opponents with a surprising amount of agility for a 250-pound player.

In coding the Patriots’ games from 2013 to 2015 based on running back roles, Blount could never be mistaken for a passing back; he has averaged 0.55 targets per game over the last three years.

Last year, though, Blount was the primary big back for the Patriots, and he delivered in a big way when called on to carry the load, recording 4.26 yards per carry and a 3.64% touchdown rate on his carries.

But can we rely on this mountain of muscle in fantasy football in 2016?

I split Blount’s game logs as the lead big back with the Patriots over the last three years in order to figure out how his teammates’ production affects him. I didn’t deal with his Buccaneers or Pittsburgh Steelers years -- he was a clear backup for long stretches of time in there, rather than a meaningful part of a committee.

The first split we will look at is how the presence of a valuable receiving back affects Blount.

LeGarrette Blount Rush ruYD ruTD FP
When Another RB Has 6 or More Targets 12.50 61.83 0.33 8.92
When Another RB Has 3 or Fewer Targets 16.10 79.70 0.80 13.28

Really, what we see here is that Blount is not well suited to playing catch-up.

His yards per carry are an identical (and whopping) 4.95 in both of these splits; all that changes is the volume of rushes and his touchdown scoring rate. This is an indication that Blount does not feature into the Patriots’ game plan nearly as much when they are down on the scoreboard and passing the ball (as his 0.55 targets per game suggest).

But what about if he has a competent change-of-pace back sharing touches with him? Lewis was a good rusher, as well; will the loss of his “lightning” to Blount’s “thunder” be an issue?

LeGarrette Blount Rush ruYD ruTD FP
When Another RB Has 8 or More Rushes 14.38 77.38 1.25 16.08
When Another RB Has 3 or Fewer Targets 15.50 72.50 0.64 11.96

This is incredible. Blount is a fine running back on his own, but when he has a teammate leeching off touches, he’s actually been far better in efficiency with his touches without losing much volume (though part of this could stem from performing well when his team wins, thus earning more running back carries overall).

Still, when players such as Stevan Ridley, Jonas Gray, or Lewis help Blount carry the load, he has a 5.38 yards per carry -- a 0.70 yards per carry better than when he’s the sole lead back.

It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over

Losing Lewis for significant time and Tom Brady for the first month is a harsh blow to the Patriots -- not just on the NFL gridiron but for their fantasy prospects as well.

Lewis’ versatility allowed the Patriots to create mismatches for both he and Blount. This is what will really be lost without Lewis: another competent player to take the focus off of defending Blount and the power run game. The worrisome thing is that the only current Patriots besides Blount who had multiple eight-carry games over the last three years are Dion Lewis and roster-bubble special teamer Brandon Bolden. Bolden’s yards per carry in those games has been a full yard per carry lower than Lewis’, though, not to mention that he doesn't provide nearly the receiving value Lewis does.

If they have to rely on a more traditional power run and passing attack with Blount and Jimmy Garoppolo, there could be issues for both of them in the early weeks of this season. Plenty of volume could be there, but the kind of explosive upside we’ve come to expect from this offense may not be present.

Our own JJ Zachariason showed that James White can do a decent job filling in for Lewis, but unless another competent running back emerges (Tyler Gaffney, or rookie D.J. Foster are candidates) to share the rushing load, Blount may find his going rougher at the outset of the year.