Eagles' Dion Lewis hopes to be No. 2 running back behind LeSean McCoy

Posted: July 31, 2012

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - LeSean McCoy knows the problem Dion Lewis encounters is that McCoy is in his way. When McCoy left the University of Pittsburgh for the NFL, he was replaced by Lewis. The two are now serendipitously teammates, often standing on the sideline side by side.

Lewis looks up to McCoy, who has developed into one of the finest running backs in the NFL. This time, though, there is nowhere for McCoy to go - especially after a five-year contract extension has McCoy in Philadelphia for the next six years. So Lewis is relegated to fighting for a backup spot, where a player's ability is often obscured, and particularly when he's behind a player such as McCoy, whose sheer talent forces him to be on field as often as possible.

"Nobody knows how good Dion is," McCoy said on Monday while he walked to his car after practice. "Real good. He can be better than me."

The compliment sounded like hyperbole, but McCoy's point was that Lewis, who had only 23 carries in 2011, has talent.

Coach Andy Reid has said that he wants to reduce McCoy's workload, and the Eagles are gambling that Lewis can serve as the No. 2 back while letting rookies Bryce Brown and Chris Polk fight for a third spot.

"Everyone is getting a chance to show what they can do," Lewis said, adding that McCoy "is a great back, obviously, but the second player has to be a good player, too."

Before Lewis arrived in camp with the veterans, there was speculation about whether Brown or Polk could unseat him. It is still too early to form full evaluations, but Lewis appears to be one of the standout performers in the first three days the players wore pads.

"Dion has had an excellent camp up to date," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "Sure is a fine runner. Excellent with his protections."

Lewis is listed at 5-foot-8, although he's sturdy at 195 pounds. Other successful smaller rushers were similarly built. One was former Eagles Pro Bowler Brian Westbrook, whose name was invoked by both Mornhinweg and running backs coach Ted Williams. The reference was to a toughness that belies Lewis' size.

But it is one thing to look impressive in practice, when the hitting is not as brutal and the defenses not sophisticated. It is more difficult to shine in games. And the sample size with Lewis remains small. Most of his 102 yards last year came during a 12-carry, 58-yard effort in the season finale against Washington that included a touchdown.

Mornhinweg wanted to use the 2011 fifth-round pick more than the Eagles did, but that never happened.

"That's probably my mistake," Mornhinweg said. "Always wanted to go into a game using him a little bit more. Then you get into a game, every play's important, and LeSean was so good last year."

The number of touches McCoy accumulates will loom over the Eagles throughout the season after he had 273 carries and 48 catches last year. Reid first said in March that he wanted to lighten McCoy's load, but that could be difficult to pull off when Mornhinweg requires a big play and has McCoy at his disposal.

"It is hard because he is such a great player," Lewis said. "You want to have one of your better players on the field, but at the same time being a running back you take a lot of hits. He probably won't get as many touches this year, but he will still get his fair share."

The Eagles signed Ronnie Brown as a veteran backup last season. In 2010, Jerome Harrison filled the role. Now, McCoy looks around the meeting room and comes to a startling realization. Less than a month after his 24th birthday, he is the old man in the group.

"It is kind of crazy," McCoy said. "But I treat it like I'm a vet. I take a responsibility. Guys like Brian [Westbrook] and Duce [Staley] installed that in me."

So if the plan is to give carries to the 21-year-old Lewis, the Eagles will count on a player who flashes talent but possesses little experience. In order to develop, he must keep watching the player who is keeping him on the sideline in the first place.

"Things I do, things I say, how I react, they look to me," McCoy said. "They look to see, 'How does McCoy handle it?' "

Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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