D'Andre Swift Is A Paper Cut to A Defense.
Don't get me wrong, he's a terrific fantasy running back, this year — "this year" being the key phrase.
Detroit's lack of talent leads to game scripts where opposing defenses have the lead and their plan is to keep everything in front of them. Force Jared Goff and the Lions to drive the length of the field with time-consuming short passes and runs on passing downs, which is where Swift earns the most volume.
Opponents are playing the odds that by the time Swift delivers that 999th paper cut, the game is over.
When the Lions are in a competitive game script and they can run the ball between the tackles and use an expanded playbook, Jamaal Williams eats into Swift's production. If you want to understand why the most compelling runner between the tackles is Williams, you can click back to my preseason piece on Swift.
Although my assessment of the game scripts and Williams' injury led to an incorrect overall assessment of Swift's production value this year, the process and evaluation of the talents are correct.
This matters because the Lions have a good offensive line and they are 3-5 players away from becoming a competitive team that can play with leads and salt away games. Although Detroit could fail to acquire those 3-5 players in 2022 and Swift's tenure as a top PPR option could continue for another 3-4 years, the odds are more likely that Detroit can find at least three of those difference makers next year.
If and when this happens, the game scripts that require talents that aren't the best match for Swift's skills will become more frequent. While Swift is a worker and he could continue developing his game to the point that he becomes a true every-down back, the current philosophy in Detroit is fielding an "A-Back" and "B-Back."
Williams is that current A-Back when healthy and he'll be the runner earning touches when the Lions generate more "A-Back" game scripts — at least through the 2022 season.
Or maybe not. Williams' contract has a potential out after this season. As great of a teammate that he appears to be on the field, in practice, and in the locker room, Jermar Jefferson has flashed in limited time.
When the Lions drafted the rookie from Oregon State, one only needed to view the contracts on the Lions' depth chart and determine that Williams is the "flex-play" in the backfield's long-term plan. The two-year deal with the potential out after one gave Detroit the flexibility to get a proven contributor and all-around talent who could play multiple roles on the depth chart while drafting a runner they hope would develop into a productive option in 1-3 seasons.
One can easily imagine what they were thinking during free agency: Although Swift is the shiftiest runner and has strong top-end speed, Williams is a superior route runner and can catch and pass protect. If Swift gets hurt, Williams can play that role, still doing the heavy lifting between the tackles, and we can spell Williams with a back that we draft.
The Early Film on Jefferson
Jefferson became that draft pick and after two impactful appearances this month, it's clear that he can contribute immediately and he could have the Lions thinking that Williams' tenure in the Motor City doesn't need to be two years.
While I don't think the Lions will cut or attempt to trade Williams because he's far and away, the best pass protector on the depth chart, Jefferson's current work and potential to build on what he's done could change Detroit's plans.
Jefferson has a high ankle sprain, which will force him to miss at least 3-4 weeks. With injury always a heightened possibility with running backs, the rookie could return to health and find himself back on the field in Weeks 14-17 against Denver, Arizona, Atlanta, and Seattle — rush defenses not remotely on par with Pittsburgh.
What I know is that Jefferson has starter potential — lead-back potential if he can improve as a pass protector — and he's not only a buy-low in dynasty formats but also a player I'd be adding to the back-end of competitive rosters that might need a running back for a playoff run.
Here's seven minutes of film break-down that highlights Jefferson's understanding of how to run a variety of blocking schemes, his patience to manipulate defenders, his hip flexibility to efficiently change direction, his acceleration, and his maturity in the passing game.
Most of what Jefferson has shown as a rookie is an affirmation of what he showed on film at Oregon State.
Pre-draft, Jefferson is the back that I thought would be a great fit for the 49ers. He's fast, strong, and while the run schemes he operated in were limited compared to the 49ers, the potential for him to become a versatile runner who could create in a variety of run designs was strong.
Detroit is using him on gap style concepts like counter, wind-back, and Duo, which fits what he does well. Here's my pre-draft scouting report on Jefferson and the accompanying fantasy advice I gave for dynasty leagues.
As has been the case for the past 16 years, you can purchase the Rookie Scouting Portfolio Pre-Draft/Post-Draft publications at my site
RB Jermar Jefferson Scouting Profile
RSP Ranking: RB10
Height/Weight: 5-10/217 School: Oregon State
Comparison Spectrum: Robert Smith-X-Ke’Shawn Vaughn-Lamar Gordon
Depth of Talent Score: 79.6 = Contributor: With the right fit, he can deliver starter execution in a limited role. Jefferson is on the cusp of the Rotational Starter Tier, which means he can deliver starter execution in a role tailored to his strengths.
Games Watched (Opponent/Date/Link):
• 11/7/20 Washington St.
• 12/19/20 Arizona State
• 11/14/20 Washington
• 11/21/20 Cal
• 11/27/20 Oregon
The Elevator Pitch on Jefferson: Jefferson has starter upside in a gap-heavy scheme or as he transitions to a wide-zone offense. He has excellent top-end speed and smooth decision-making that belies the depth of his ability to read the field. He makes a lot of choices look simpler than they are.
The greatest issues with his game as a runner are his pad level and some inconsistencies with pressing the line deep enough to maximize the potential gains from those plays. The pressing of the line is improvable, but the pad level may be more problematic. However, there are plenty of areas outside of running the football Jefferson can refine to propel him into a starting role.
He offers a team a high-end sub-package runner immediately with refinable third-down skills. He has promising elements of route running he could further develop to make him a valued part of a passing game.
Where is the player inconsistent? His pad level can be more consistent. He worked through Washington’s line with good pad level to stay on his feet through incidental contact. Against Oregon and California, his pad level wasn’t low enough.
What is the best scheme fit? A gap-heavy scheme that allows him to run lots of Toss. Also, a wide-zone scheme would be an easier conversion to an offense with a heavy distribution of zone plays.
What is his ceiling scenario? If Jefferson addresses his pad level, he could enhance his power and contact balance. Couple this with better work as a pass protector, and Jefferson could emerge as a lead back with the potential to generate 1,500-1,800 yards from scrimmage and double-digit scores with a good support staff.
What is his floor scenario? If Jefferson doesn’t address his pad level, his pass protection doesn’t improve, and he regresses with his decision-making, he could be fighting for a reserve role and rarely see the field.
Physical: Jefferson has the size to win against contact. He finishes well at the end of runs, but I fear he’ll get lit up by NFL safeties early in his career because they have better pad level. He runs too upright and must make better pad level a habit. He’s vulnerable to more contact than he should take.
Technical: The in-set and peek techniques are nice demonstrations of technique without the ball in his hands. These are route techniques during a player’s stem where he baits the opposing defender into thinking that he’s setting up an inside break when he’s actually breaking outside or down the field.
Conceptual: If he can apply himself more as a pass protector, especially with gauging angles with more accuracy and better reaction time, he could make it a difficult decision for coaches to substitute him for a passing-down back.
Intuitive: He has a good feel for the perimeter running game and his choices with footwork are efficient. He’s a light-footed runner, which means his dynamic changes of direction look effortless.
Build: A well-built back, Jefferson has room to add more weight to his core. He could potentially play at 225 pounds and have more power to his game.
Vision: Jefferson reads leverage well and finds a cutback after pressing within a step of the line. He must do this more often. He’s leaving yards on the field when he only presses 2-3 steps from the line, which gives the defender room to shed a block and tackle.
He also finds the second lane in the hole and bounces it through tight traffic to the open field. Jefferson reads the unblocked linebacker’s movements and sets up the man with his press and late cutback. When he reaches the second level, he finds the cutback lane to work away from pursuit and extend the run long enough to flip the field.
His nickname should be “Toss,” because this might be his most productive play. He times his path behind pullers well enough to reach open field and once he builds up momentum, he plows through reaches or avoids contact with strong curvilinear movement.
Jefferson also runs Counter effectively, remaining decisive when considering two possibilities behind his lead blocker. He also runs wind-backs and interior zone plays with good press-and-cut principles, making decisive choices based on reading the leverage of his blocks and/or defender keys.
Elusiveness: Jefferson is a light-footed runner who can cut back a perimeter-designed run to the inside and while in the hole, bounce the run back to the outside in tight traffic. He bounces outside quickly with his ability to open his hips and turn outside. He also has a quick juke that sets up safeties while he’s in the hole.
When edge contain earns penetration, Jefferson can come to a quick stop within two steps and slide inside or outside the penetration. Jefferson also uses the jump stop to set up bounces and cutbacks. He’ll also flip his hips off the jump stop to bounce or cut back. He also has the ability to cut downhill with a wide stride.
He can transition and open his hips get downhill to reach a crease after bouncing outside. He also has the awareness to get one or both feet up to avoid trash that gets in his path late.
He’ll spin after contact to create extra yardage if he doesn’t make the defender miss.
He adjusts his stride to work away from pushes of blockers into the backfield and slides into open creases. Jefferson also displays curvilinear movement to bend runs to the backside.
Acceleration: Jefferson has the acceleration and speed to outrun box defenders and defensive backs in the box when working between the tackles. He can also pull away from safeties once he reaches the secondary. His perimeter acceleration is more suspect as a big-play option, but certainly more than adequate to contribute in the NFL.
Speed: Once Jefferson reaches the secondary, he can pull away from safeties and hold off a pursuing cornerback during the final 30-40 yards on a carry that covers 65-80 yards. His best marks according to the data source place him among the top 5-10 backs. His long speed marks on the field just edge Travis Etienne.
Power: Jefferson has a stiff arm to bounce off a reach in the crease. He pulls through reaches from defensive ends.
Jefferson’s pad level isn’t the strength of his game. He runs upright between the tackles and doesn’t get his pads down as a finisher. Unless it’s a short-yardage situation, Jefferson enters the fray with an upright style, taking a lot of contact to the waist that could be to his pads and then slides off.
When he uses his pads in the secondary (one play against Stanford for a 15-yard score out of several where he didn’t), he can bounce off hits and pull through reaches.
Direct Contact Balance: Jefferson can bounce off safeties head-on and force them to slide low and wrap. If a linebacker can’t wrap immediately, Jefferson also bounces off their contact head-on in the crease. If the linebacker wraps but Jefferson gets the first hit, the linebacker is going backward or to the ground.
Indirect Contact Balance: He bounces off indirect hits from linebackers and generates a push.
Routes: Jefferson will run at the off-coverage linebacker and use an inset to set up an outside break. He sets up breaks with an in-set as well as a peek. Against zones in the flats, he slows the tempo of his breaks to maximize the open window of the route.
Receiving: He can catch the ball below his knees with underhand technique and overhand technique at chest level. He also catches the ball away from his frame behind or ahead of his break path.
Blocking: Jefferson has to work on getting square to his opponents and being ready to engage with his hands and balance with his feet when attacking edge pressure. Even when he’s participating in a double team with a tackle, he has to commit with his position and hands. He seems a step late to process what he sees and there are reps where it appears as if he’s watching defenders run by him where he could have stepped up and stopped them.
He picks up the A-Gap pressure and can switch from one linebacker to the next. He delivers an uppercut punch with hip roll, tight hands, and elbows bent. He’ll move his feet through the contact and send the defender from the middle of the pocket to the edge.
He needs to do this more often. He did this well against Cal, but against Oregon and Washington, Jefferson either extended his arms and didn’t punch or he overextended and dropped his pads and his back was too flat.
Jefferson is often late with his hands despite earning position against edge pressure and shuffling his feet to remain with the opponent. He has to coordinate his hands so he can punch while moving his feet. Otherwise, being late to punch leads to defenders gaining the angle to the quarterback regardless of where Jefferson’s feet are.
Jefferson times his cut blocks effectively against interior pressure. He earns height at the waist and cuts across the opponent. He can improve the depth of the shot.
He chips edge defenders on his way into a route as an outlet receiver.
Ball Security: He carries the ball under his right arm and high to his chest. He doesn’t switch the ball to his left arm when bouncing a play to the left sideline. When the play design is to the left side, he’ll carry the ball under his left arm.
He swings the ball in the open field as he accelerates away from opponents, but the ball remains within a foot of his chest. His elbow is wide of his chest.
Jefferson can handle a hard chop to the ball from a pursuing defender who wraps and chops from behind. A well-placed helmet to the ball will force it loose. The same is true with a linebacker pulling the ball from his chest while wrapping the runner.
Jefferson lost a fumble with 1:42 left in the Washington State game on a 3rd-and-1 carry where he gained five yards and Oregon State was down by 10 points.
Durability: He missed one game in 2019 with a foot injury. He dealt with hamstring and ankle injuries during his career but played through them.
Pre-Draft Fantasy Advice: Jefferson will have fans in the media-analytics community—especially those who loved Tevin Coleman strictly for his speed and production share. Jefferson might turn out to be a better guesstimate for those who are all spreadsheets, no-film because he actually has a more well-rounded game that will require less developmental learning.
It means Jefferson could easily be a prospect valued among the top 6-10 backs in this class and seen as a sleeper. Anticipate that those who are smitten with Jefferson will be repulsed at the idea of Jaret Patterson and, depending on the reliability of their data source, Rhamondre Stevenson.
It means if you want Jefferson, you may have to consider him as the sixth-best back on the board. It also means that if Jefferson will naturally fall to you and you know someone who worships at the altar of “the spreadsheet, no film” arena of rookie valuation, you might want to broker a negotiation where you can trade down from this spot.
If you can move down 3-4 picks, you still might get a quality running prospect with production upside that the spreadsheet-only fantasy GM doesn’t value as much, and an extra pick. Just remember that these odds-playing, draft-capital, spreadsheet-only types also tend to be poker players so if you’re only wanting to move down 2-3 spots, they may realize you’re onto who they want and will call your bluff.
When it comes down to it, Jefferson is either a player you love and likely have to take earlier than my valuation and hope he reaches his upside or you don’t try to acquire at all and he falls to you as a part of good fortune. Most likely, you’ll have to overpay and hope for the best. I’d rather not—even if I see the potential on the field.
Boiler/Film Room Material (Links to plays):
Advice: This Year And Beyond
Unless there's a career-threatening injury to Swift, it's doubtful that the Lions will be selecting a runner in the first five rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft. They need receivers, a long-term quarterback (this draft is not looking great for one), linebackers, receivers, and more receivers.
Jefferson has shown enough during limited playing time that he can push for more work in 2022 if he returns to Detroit next spring and shows advancement as a pass protector and versatility as a receiver. If this happens, he can provide a breather for both Williams and Swift.
Although Swift may be faster with timed speed, Jefferson has superior acceleration and he's already proving he can manipulate creases between the tackles at least as well as what I've seen from Swift to this point.
Swift's best gains came on plays where the blocks create open-field behavior rather than forcing Swift to set up a specific blocking design: draws, perimeter runs, and clear passing-down scenarios where the Lions try to cross up the defense with a run.
Give Swift credit, he breaks the tackles one would expect an NFL runner to break (wraps and reaches from backside pursuit or smaller defenders) and he can make a defender miss when given enough space.
However, Swift is no A-Back. Forced into this role last week and despite the production he earned, he made multiple mistakes and left huge gains on the field. When you watch at least two of these plays below, you'll see that Swift's decisions were one of the differences in the outcome of this tie game.
Swift is a terrific fantasy runner based on game script demand, which is different from evaluating him on the same merits of talent as Alvin Kamara, Austin Ekeler, Christian McCaffery regardless of game script. While that won't matter for you this year, if the Lions become a better team, you may begin to see the difference in your fantasy production if Swift doesn't improve.
If you already have Swift, don't sell him unless you can get value commensurate with the names above. He'll at least deliver solid RB2 or flex value for you even if the Lions go from bad to good or bad to excellent in a short time.
If you don't have Swift, I wouldn't be buying into him as a foundational piece to a dynasty rebuild. Win-now? Sure, if your window is next year and maybe the year after.
But you should only offer value commensurate to 2021's production if you're counting on him to approach a similar production in 2022 and I'd prefer to see how free agency and the draft shake out before doing so. Beyond that timeframe, I'm not as optimistic.
As for this year, considering how tough the Lions have played despite their deficiencies, it's reasonable to expect Detroit to remain competitive against many of its remaining opponents. Yes, Steelers fans will mope about Pittsburgh "playing up and down" to the level of its opponents, but that's a narrative that doesn't fully apply to Detroit's ability to remain close against lesser defenses down the stretch.
Because of the potential for the Lions to play tough against softer run defenses, Jefferson should be that player you at least monitor for your waiver as we approach the playoffs. If Williams is slow to recover or there's another injury to Williams or Swift during this span, Jefferson can be a cheap and unlikely league winner based on what he's shown in limited time.
If you have great depth and an open space with no need for other talents, Jefferson would be that luxury-add right now and I'd hold him at least until you have a need elsewhere or the scenario I played out with Detroit doesn't occur.