It was a “pick your preference” kind of running back class in 2020. That’s what we were told for months, almost years. Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, D’Andre Swift, Cam Akers, Clyde Edwards-Helaire; any conversations where someone was arguing for one of those backs being better than the other usually just resulted in a mutual agreement of fit being an important factor to which one of these players ends up having the best start to their career, knowing each was capable of being the top performer.
As for the fits themselves, you had to be happy with most of them. Taylor went to a situation where he could be a complementary piece to speed backs like Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines while running behind what was expected to be the best offensive line in football. Dobbins joined what was the best rushing attack in the league last year. Edwards-Helaire was drafted to a situation where he needed to play right away on a team that could lean on all of his diverse talents as a rusher and pass-catcher. Akers found himself being paired with the offensive genius that is Sean McVay in a running back room that had some names, but no feature presence with Todd Gurley now gone.
And then there was D’Andre Swift.
Swift was seen as one of those top running back options in the draft -- was RB1 for some -- but the situation in Detroit was odd. The Lions already had Kerryon Johnson, who had only started 14 games over the last two seasons due to injury, but had more than 1,000 career rushing yards through those two years. The team also opted to sign veteran running back Adrian Peterson late in the offseason. While Swift was clearly prioritized by the Lions since they used such a high second-round pick on him, there were some questions about where the playing time would come from.
As we know now, Johnson has been relegated to RB3 duties and while Peterson still leads the team in carries on the season (371 to Swift’s 331), Swift has out-snapped Peterson in each of their last four games, and out-carried Peterson in each of the last two. Swift is also the top pass-catching option out of the backfield for the Lions on the season, reeling in 31 of 39 targets.
Swift is on the up after an impactful all-around performance this past weekend where his contributions in both the run and pass games were crucial parts of the Lions building their initial lead and then hanging on to win against Washington in thrilling fashion with a field goal as time expired.
Here’s how it looked from Swift’s side of things.
It was a good day on the ground for Swift, as he gained 81 yards on 16 carries. He started out hot out of the gate with three straight runs of 10-plus yards, all for first downs.
The play above was his third carry of the game. Where the hurdle at the end is what gave it the flash that most people will remember, it was Swift’s patience at the line of scrimmage that really impressed me on this play.
The Lions were aligned in an offset I-formation to the strong side pre-snap. This typically means there’s going to be a run play to that strong side. But on this play, the fullback in the offset alignment went across the line of scrimmage and into the weak side A gap. This was going to take time to develop, and though the Lions got a good double team in the middle with a good climb by the center, Swift still needed to be patient for the real running lane to form.
He did just that, and instead of hammering the sprint button and running into the back of his fullback like many of us do in Madden, Swift kept his feet loose and was able to find the daylight when it formed.
Patience proved to be a common theme for Swift as the day went on.
Swift was the single back in the backfield in the play above in 11-personnel with one tight end on the line of scrimmage. The Lions ran a duo blocking concept on this play where they were able to manufacture two double teams in the middle with the backside tackle taking the backside end and the tight end taking on the frontside end (Chase Young) one on one. Detroit once again got pretty good control from their double teams, but asking a tight end to block Chase Young is tough. Swift was able to help his tight end out by not making it clear whether he was going to run inside or out, and in doing so forced Young to stay attached to the block long enough for Swift to fool him and find the space.
Once again, patience made the play.
Things started to really open up for Swift as the game went on and he became more confident in that pivot foot in the ground.
Swift was a one-cut wonder at Georgia. His college highlight film is clip after clip of him doing what you see above; putting his foot in the ground and breaking defenders’ ankles. The more confident he’s running, the harder those cuts are.
This is something that makes Swift such a tough assignment in open space. But space is limited in the NFL. Where college film can be filled with making moves in the open field, those instances are hard to come by in the league unless you can really set them up. It was Swift’s earlier runs between the tackles that really opened things up for him in the passing game, as seen above.
Swift finished the game with 149 total yards on 21 total touches, and the most encouraging aspect of his game was that as it went on, he got better -- as both a rusher and a pass-catcher. I know the Lions like to keep a good rotation of backs in and out of the game with both Peterson and Johnson on the roster as well, but it would be a tough argument to take the ball out of Swift’s hands moving forward.