AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Not too long ago, Dion Lewis was down the bottom of the running back depth chart. It seemed like he was the odd man out when it came to the Patriots’ offense.

Lewis was supposedly an expendable part, a player the Patriots could easily live without. He was talked about as trade bait. At least, those were the whispers.

Bill Belichick never shipped him out.

That’s because Belichick understood the value of Lewis. He knew Lewis is a rare breed. He knew if he kept him healthy, used him correctly, he’d be a terrific weapon for not only Tom Brady and the offense, but for special teams as well.

So Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were careful, and didn’t give him many snaps given their arsenal of backs. But Lewis is the type of guy who leaves you no choice. He’s that good. He’s that determined to prove his worth.

Whenever he gets the chance, he’s going to show he belongs. A fumble by Mike Gillislee during the Jets game opened a door for him in Week 6, and Lewis hasn’t surrendered the top spot since.

Between essentially becoming the lead back of the group, occasionally catching the ball out of the backfield and taking kickoffs, he’s moved way up the importance meter.

Lewis is a forgotten man no more.

“It feels good (now),” Lewis said, following practice at the Air Force Academy, where the Patriots are training this week. “I just have to continue on. If things don’t go your way, you just have to keep fighting, no matter what it is. That’s what I try to do. Whenever I get an opportunity, I try to make the most of it.”

Does he ever.

Lewis always knew his time would come, and that he would shine when given the opportunity. He has that type of confidence in his abilities. He has made big plays, both in the running game and kicking game. His 103-yard TD kickoff return set the tone in Sunday’s 41-16 blowout over the Broncos at Mile High. He also had a rushing touchdown.

The Raiders, next on the docket in Mexico City on Sunday, haven’t fared well against the run or the pass. Given how well the Patriots have done with a more balanced attack, there’s no reason to think they’ll abandon handing the ball off to Lewis and using their backs to set up the passing game.

Lewis can also be effective catching the ball out of the backfield. We’ve only seen that in glimpses. He says he’s healthy, now completely back from the ACL injury he suffered during the 2015 season. He certainly has been making would-be tacklers miss, but others who have watched him believe there’s even more to come.

“With all the stuff he’s overcome injury-wise, his can’t-quit attitude, from all the different stuff they ask him to do, I would say there’s a lot of respect and a lot of trust from Bill (Belichick) toward him, and that’s valuable,” said NFL Network analyst Heath Evans. “That’s something that comes over time, and it comes from making big plays in big moments, and doing the right thing even if the ball’s not in your hands.

“I honestly think week to week during the season, we’re going to see more of him. We haven’t seen quite what we saw two years ago, before he got hurt,” Evans went on. “We haven’t seen that type of crazy athleticism, those type of crazy plays. I think those will only come as he gets more touches and as he gets more involved.”

Lewis has said he feels “night and day” better than he did last year when he first came back from the ACL surgery on his left knee. He feels more comfortable moving and cutting on the knee.

“I feel good. I’m running around making plays,” he said. “My body doesn’t really hurt. I’m just trying to get better each week. I still can get better at a lot of things. Hopefully I keep getting better.”

Taking the ball 103 yards and outracing the Broncos down the left sideline to the end zone was a good sign. Cutting, shifting, and slipping into the end zone on an 8-yard run was another.

It’s all been good for Lewis this season. The trick is keeping him healthy for the long haul.

“Hopefully, he’s saving the best for last. I mean, I’m sure the knee is perfect, but (2015) was like a highlight reel. I was like, who is this kid?'” said Evans. “But then you research his history and find out about the injuries, and see he really hasn’t had an opportunity to shine.

“Last year, he was a spot player. This year, it was hit and miss, but now he’s got it. Sunday was huge.”