Not As Swift As We Think
We crave certainty with our guidance. I can tell you with great certainty that you're not getting a definitive answer about D'Andre Swift in this article. It's ok to feel ambivalent about players. It becomes more commonplace as you gain knowledge about the game.
It's why there's great value in exploring the players who generate the most uncertainty for you. Swift is that player for me.
He was one of the most difficult evaluations for a running back that I've encountered in recent years. When studying his college film for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, Swift had a combination of skills and deficiencies one doesn't normally see from a future NFL starter in a draft class.
Swift had lapses with vision and decision-making that one wouldn't expect from a lead back. As good as his hands were in the receiving game, his routes had clear lapses that reduced his opportunities to make clean receptions.
Swift also had a strange athletic profile for a runner. Although his change of direction quickness was an asset, it was easy for draftniks to conclude from Swift's tape that he was "quicker-than-fast," which isn't a death-knell for a prospect's potential to become a productive NFL starter. This turned out to be false.
Swift is actually "faster-than-quick," when defining quickness as the player's initial acceleration to his top speed. This is more problematic for running backs because acceleration is one of the most important athletic aspects of productive running back play.
It's what Jim Brown always noted in his analysis of top runners and it's the common thread between disparate shapes, sizes, and styles of runners: from Emmitt Smith to Bo Jackson; Eric Dickerson to Walter Payton; Barry Sanders to Earl Campbell; and LaDainian Tomlinson to Marshawn Lynch. And whether you're examining games of today's stars -- including Nick Chubb, Ezekiel Elliott, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, and Alvin Kamara -- acceleration remains the unifying thread in their games.
Kamara is the player Swift is getting compared to this summer. However, Swift lacks top acceleration. He needs a longer runway of open space to reach his top speed.
This is a vital factor to remember when considering that Swift is supposed to earn a role that many think will give him Kamara's potential production. The same is true for comparing Swift with Austin Ekeler, the more accurate player-role considering that former Chargers Head Coach Anthony Lynn is the Lions' new offensive coordinator and has gone into detail with the Athletic about the defined roles he has for runners.
Ekeler and Kamara have the good-to-great acceleration that Swift has lacked. Good acceleration gets runners through tight creases fast enough to avoid or mitigate a lot of potential obstacles. Not only can a back's acceleration erase a good angle of pursuit from a defender, but it also generates enough power to pull through the reach, wrap, or hit from a tackler.
A back with strong acceleration can still generate gains of 30-50 yards despite lacking top-end speed. Emmitt Smith, Frank Gore, and Marshawn Lynch are prime examples and all three were elite runners with sustained excellence.
When a back lacks top acceleration, the longer runway required to reach top speed leads to more reaches, wraps, and hits from opposing defenders in the tight confines between the tackles. Box defenders also have an increased chance of recovering from bad angles and chasing down the runner, decreasing the optimal length of a run.
Although Swift has sweet footwork and short-area change-of-direction (C.O.D.) quickness, this requires lateral movement and the more often a back has to move laterally, the more opportunities exist for defenders to rally to the ball and limit the length of a run. The greatest exception to the rule has been Barry Sanders, whose acceleration and stamina to maintain a competitive rate of speed over long distances as a runner were as strong as his C.O.D.
Sanders is the exception that proves the rule. Although not as dynamic with C.O.D. as Sanders, Lynch's C.O.D. and stamina were also why Marshawn Lynch generated more big gains than many would expect from a back with his speed.
Swift's Rookie Year
When studying Swift's 2020 campaign, it's clear that he didn't have an ingrained stylistic identity. The analysis below shows plays I saw multiples times during his rookie year that illustrate Swift not knowing the advantages and limits of defender angles between the tackles, on the perimeter, or in the open field.
When comparing Swift's rookie year with his Georgia career, there's also evidence of him copying teammate Adrian Peterson's penchant for jump cuts -- an inefficient movement style that the freakish Peterson can execute productively over the course of a long career in ways that few running backs ever could. Swift's mimicry of Peterson was like a hummingbird trying to be a falcon.
When examining Swift's athletic ability, footwork, and decision-making solely on the basis of his rookie season, it's logical that the Lions signed a between-the-tackles banger like Jamaal Williams. Swift's Advanced Rushing Statistics are the product of the issues noted during his rookie campaign.
He earned only 1.7 yards after contact per attempt, 43rd among eligible runners in 2020. Devin Singletary is a back with strong C.O.D but a slow accelerator and Singletary generated 2.9 yards after contact per attempt -- second among eligible backs last year.
Swift's attempts-per-broken tackle is much better -- 12.7, which was 16th among runners. Attempts per broken tackle can have some value with the right context of examination but it isn't as valuable a data point for productive runners as yards after contact.
The reason is how stat sites track this data. They don't differentiate tackle types, which means there's a lot of baked-in variation within the data because this stat is prone to trackers giving equal value to a defender's slap of his hand on the thigh pad of a runner working through a crease at full speed and a backing bouncing off a head-on hit.
Think of it this way: If Saquon Barkley earns 75 yards after a defender slaps his thigh pad is it an equal or great expression of power and balance to Nick Chubb bouncing off defensive tackle's attempted chop of his knees at the line of scrimmage and then pushing a linebacker in the hole down hill for five yards?
We know that's not the case, but until stat sites are transparent about how they track this statistic, this is the type of variation that makes the data far less useful.
This year, the Rookie Scouting Portfolio began tracking every carry of running backs it studies to determine the success rate of breaking tackle attempts. The RSP's After-Contact and Contact-Avoidance Analytics even defines and tracks tackle attempts into three buckets of ascending difficulty: reaches, wraps, and hits.
Swift's 1.7 yards after contact per attempt fits the context of last year's running style. He may have made defenders miss at a high rate and needed fewer attempts than all but 15 of the NFL's weekly contributors to break tackles but the product of his work has been less efficient.
At first glance, Swift's 1.7 yards after contact per attempt doesn't appear to be a significant difference from Devin Singletary's 2.9 or the 2.2 figure both Kamara and Ekler earned in 2020.
Kamara is physically and stylistically in a different class of playmaker. In addition to this superior burst, he makes better decisions at this stage of their careers to set up defenders and he excels at slipping tackles while working downhill.
The idea that the offense will be like the Saints because Dan Campbell was a tight end coach in New Orleans makes a lot less sense than the offense having a closer resemblance to the Chargers when considering that Lynn will be the Lions' offensive coordinator and described the backfield dynamic in terms similar to what the Chargers implemented during Lynn's regime.
Ekeler and Swift, who are the most comparable players in terms of role and had similar attempts last year, had roughly the same number of carries (116 for Ekeler and 114 for Swift). Ekeler earned an additional 84 yards after contact.
Although it's only a difference of 8.4 fantasy points for the year in most leagues, backs that consistently display a lower-than-average rate in roles that don't feature them primarily between the tackles is an important layer of information to consider about that player's future role.
Especially when there's potential for Swift's No.16 PPR ranking 2020 compared to the No.26 Ekeler to be a red herring in the analysis. Ekeler played three fewer games than Swift last year, but that's not an important difference because they had similar touches. the potential red herring his Swift's eight rushing touchdowns.
It's easy to view this figure and conclude that Swift has a nose for the red zone that the Lions will encourage in 2021.
The Implications of Swift's "B" Back Role in 2021
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