LeQuan Lewis' first go-round in the NFL was fairly typical for an undrafted rookie. He signed on with Tennessee after the draft (atypically, that signing was actually in July due to the 2011 work stoppage), went to camp with the Titans, was waived during the final cuts and set about waiting for his next opportunity.
Lewis came back for that second chance in 2012, signing with the Oakland Raiders in May. That's when things started to go in a very different direction. Or many different directions, to be more accurate.
Since that initial signing with the Raiders on May 14, Lewis has been involved in 15 NFL transactions with four different teams. He has put on silver, green and pewter helmets. He has seen two different practice squads; been waived on the actual day of a game; been put up in a hotel by a team to wait while not on a roster; and even played for and against the same team in the regular season.
And last Sunday, with Tampa Bay clinging to a seven-point lead and trying to hold off Philip Rivers and the Chargers, Lewis came up with the interception that sealed the victory and put the Buccaneers over .500 for the first time since Week One. Believe it or not, Lewis thinks all of his bouncing around in the spring, summer and early part of fall helped prepare him for that big moment. He doesn't regret a moment of it.
"Some guys in the newspaper in New York called me a journeyman, and it's exactly that," he said. "I knew at some point, just waiting and being patient, I was going to find somewhere, someplace, a team where I would fit into their team and their organization. Finally, I think I may have found a home, rather than just bouncing around."
To summarize, Lewis' 2012 travels began in Oakland until he was waived in June. He was signed by the Jets midway through the preseason, but was subsequently waived and re-signed twice more before being added to New York's practice squad. He was signed off that practice squad to the Cowboys' active roster, and he played three games for Dallas, including one against Tampa Bay, before being waived again. He was then signed by the Buccaneers to their practice squad; was promoted to the active roster and played in one game; was cut again in Week Eight on the afternoon of the team's Thursday night game in Minnesota so that Da'Quan Bowers could be activated from PUP; was signed back to Tampa Bay's practice squad; and was then promoted again before the San Diego game.
And he insists that all of that is more confusing than it sounds, and that the various experiences all piled on top of each other have actually made it easier for him to fit in quickly in a new home and a new playbook. He also thinks that practicing against the likes of Cowboys receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, and alongside the likes of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, has significantly helped his game.
"No, it's not confusing at all," he said, with no trace of weariness or bitterness in his voice. "I think it kind of helps me. If I've been in another playbook and I'm familiar with it already, it's kind of like I'm turning and going back over everything again. I'm learning from great DBs, I'm learning from great receivers. Through this bouncing around I've been able to guard some of the best receivers, and learn from the best. The game slowed down for me, actually. It didn't speed up at all."
It's Lewis who has sped up as the NFL game has come into focus for him. And it is almost surely his speed that has bought him this chain of opportunities. He has been clocked at 4.29 in the 40-yard dash and says he can run a 4.3 at any time. "I believe I'm the fastest guy out there," he says, and he just may be right.
It's attractive to coaches," said the former Arizona State standout about his swiftness. "Now, putting everything together with this speed is what's going to make me a great player."
That speed could also make him valuable to the Buccaneers in more ways than one, and that's often the key to a young player holding onto a roster spot. With primary kickoff return man Arrelious Benn injured and inactive last Sunday, Lewis stepped into that job in a surprise move by Greg Schiano and the coaching staff. He got only one chance and it didn't go well, as he briefly muffed the kick and thus was unable to get his return past the 10-yard line. But he believes he'll get another shot at it, and he has plenty of experience from his ASU days, including a 104-yard TD return that nearly sparked an incredible comeback against USC.
Lewis would have appreciated another chance to run back a kickoff and redeem himself, but the rest of San Diego's kicks were too deep to return. Instead, he made the play the Bucs desperately needed on defense in crunch time. He might not have even been in that position if starting right cornerback Eric Wright hadn't left the game in the first half with an injury, bumping rookie Leonard Johnson up a notch and creating a need at nickel back.
"I had to make that play to erase that kickoff return that I had in that game," said Lewis. "I mean, I did forget it after it happened, but I kind of think that interception trumped it. I felt like I lifted my confidence and my team's confidence in me. And it came at a good time, to seal the game. That was a great opportunity, and I took it."
And it appears as if it has bought him some more opportunities.
"We're all trying to figure out what he can do but we didn't have a choice on Sunday and he stepped up and did a good job," said Schiano. "That should earn him more playing time this week and we'll see how he does."