FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A third-down running back wearing No. 33 and carving out a key role in the New England Patriots' offense? We've seen this script before.
Kevin Faulk first joined the Patriots in 1999 and ultimately played 13 seasons for the franchise, solidifying his place on the club with exceptional pass-catching skills, a willingness to pick up the blitz and quickness through the hole on running plays.
This year, the emergence of Dion Lewis (also No 33) in the same role has sparked some thoughts of Faulk.
"He’s very similar to Kevin," agreed running back coach Ivan Fears, noting that both Lewis (Pittsburgh) and Faulk (LSU) were every-down running backs in college.
"The only limitation that these guys have had is the size factor [Lewis is 5-8, 195 pounds while Faulk was 5-8, 202]. Everybody just knocked them because of it. But believe me, they’ve proven a lot of people wrong."
Lewis has been a breakout performer for the Patriots this season.
He has 30 carries for 146 yards and two touchdowns, while adding 15 catches for 179 yards. The result of that production is that Lewis, who probably wasn't part of many initial fantasy-football drafts, has become a hot commodity on the fantasy circuit, while also generating excitement among Patriots fans.
That excitement extends to the coaching staff, although Fears also tapped the brakes a bit on that Monday.
"Dion has still got a lot of work to do," he said. "We’re not giving him any crown right now. We’re just saying he’s been very good through three games, and we look forward to see what he can do for us in the future.”
To this point, he has played 154 of 228 offensive snaps, which reflects how he's been such a big part of the team's plans.
“We knew there was something there. We had a feeling there was something there, and we let it play out," Fears said of the team's belief in Lewis, who had not played a regular-season game in two seasons when he signed a futures contract with the Patriots for 2015 on Feb. 6. "He took advantage of preseason games and practice sessions, and he’s done a good job. Like all the guys, he’s [carved] out a little role for himself.
“Just watching him in the practices and OTAs -- man, he’s got exceptional quickness and he’s got the vision to go with it. He’s got the Kevin Faulk-type of vision. He sees a lot, but he can make things happen because of his feet and his ability to change directions."
Fears relayed that Lewis had been hurt when he first came into the league, and then was hit by the injury bug in Cleveland in 2013 (broken leg). "His body responded, and he’s ready to go," he said.
Fears added that Lewis, despite his stature, shouldn't be overlooked as a running back who can effective between the tackles.
"That was his MO at Pitt when he was in college. He was a very productive every-down back. He’s not unfamiliar with running in between the tackles, so we just let him do what he does," he said. "We try to feature the strong points of each one of those guys when they’re out there, and Dion is an exceptional runner. That was his strong suit in college, and he’s kind of proven to us he can do more than that."