FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Rex Ryan has taken some heat in these parts after he said he didn’t know the name of the New England Patriots’ starting running back.

He said that before the Patriots whipped his Buffalo Bills, 40-32, last Sunday. Then, after the game, the Bills coach said he still didn’t know Dion Lewis’ name.

Cut Ryan some slack. There are probably plenty of people like him.

Lewis, originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, hadn’t appeared in an NFL game since Dec. 30, 2012 before earning the starting job with the Patriots for the Sept. 10 season opener against Pittsburgh.

Now Lewis is enjoying a career renaissance. He leads the team with 109 rushing yards – averaging 5.0 yards a carry – and has caught 10 passes for another 149 (14.9 yards-per-catch average). The only Patriots with more catches are named Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.

“It’s funny sometimes how this league works,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots special teams ace. “And you wonder how a guy like that kind of falls into your lap.”

Traded by Philadelphia to Cleveland in 2013, Lewis never played for the Browns. A leg injury during preseason landing him on injured reserve and he sat out the entire season. He was released by the Browns during training camp in 2014 and signed with the Indianapolis Colts. He was inactive for one regular-season game, then released by the Colts on Sept. 16, 2014. Although he had tryouts with several teams, including the Patriots, he did not play the rest of the 2014 season.

The Patriots signed him to a futures contract on Feb. 6.

“A lot of players have those unusual circumstances,” said Bill Belichick, when asked recently about how Lewis landed on the roster. “Just keep doing your homework.”

Lewis, Belichick noted, could have been on the Patriots roster last year if the need surfaced. But after losing Stevan Ridley to a knee injury, they reacquired LeGarrette Blount, who is still listed on depth charts as the Patriots No. 1 running back.

“Different circumstances, he could’ve easily been on our roster last year, but it turned out that he wasn’t,” said Belichick. “But I don’t think that really affected our overall evaluation of the player. Again, you can only keep so many guys, and sometimes they slip through the cracks like that or guys get injured and miss a year and then they come back and resurface the next year. Sometimes they end up having a bigger impact than others, but we try to track those guys as best we can, as I’m pretty sure all teams in the league do.”

The Patriots do that very well. Lewis is joining a long list of castaways that have earned starting – and sometimes starring – roles with the Patriots: linebackers Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich, running back Danny Woodhead, offensive linemen Russ Hochstein and Stephen Neal.

Lewis, who will turn 25 on Sunday when the Patriots play the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium, never doubted he would play again.

“It was frustrating at times,” he said Wednesday before practice. “But you’ve got to keep working and stay positive. That’s what I do, you’ve got to just keep pushing.”

Lewis got the start in the opener because Blount was suspended for one game by the NFL. But even when Blount returned last week for the Buffalo game, Lewis was the lead back. At 5-foot-8, 195 pounds, he provides a nice burst of speed with some surprising power. On his 6-yard touchdown run against the Bills, Lewis overpowered two Buffalo defenders at the 2 to bull his way in.

“We’re going to block plays for whatever the yardage is, a yard, 2 yards, 5 yards, 10 yards,” said Belichick. “But then any skill player, you want them to be able to add yards to that on their own with their running skill, whatever that is – quickness, speed, power, so forth.”

Gus Bradley, the Jacksonville head coach, isn’t going to get caught as unaware as Ryan was last week. He’s preparing his defense to take on Lewis.

“He’s averaging over five yards a carry, I know that,” said Bradley. “You see his speed. They’ll put him out in empty sets and look for matchups … They know his strength very well and they utilize his strength.”

Lewis has been one of the Patriots hardest workers since he came into mini-camp last June. Knowing that the Patriots offense can be complicated, he asked a lot of questions.

“I take things day-by-day,” he said. “I work hard every day, just try to get better and go from there.”

His skill was apparent early.

“He’s a very talented runner and it doesn’t take long to see that,” said Slater. “What he’s able to do, not a lot of guys have that gift.”

If Lewis has had an issue, it’s ball security. He has fumbled in each game. Normally Belichick benches a back when that happens. But he’s kept Lewis in after each fumble.

“I know I’ve got to do better at that,” said Lewis. “I’m going to work, work, work to get it fixed.”