D'Andre Swift is a good running back. He’s an NFL-caliber player with starter ability when projecting for development and optimal scheme usage.
It's always important to start there. When we break down the weaknesses of top-flight players in the NFL draft, it can feel like we're making mountains from molehills and often, we are.
This RB class is extremely good. Swift is a good, quality player, and so are about six other runners in this group. Swift may even be a great player, and so are about four other runners in this group.
Our molehills become mountains; our nitpicks become the question mark from which tricky evaluations hang. If J.K. Dobbins isn't going to be a successful NFL back, it will be for a lack of elite long speed to generate chunk plays; if Johnathan Taylor doesn't reach his ceiling, it will be for some ancillary but critical stuff: ball security and receiving chops.
And if Swift doesn't pan out at the next level, it will be for his difficulties creating space between the tackles.
When we talk about running backs that create space, we have to understand their role within the gestalt of the running game. Offensive lines create space in the running game, first and foremost. They move the bodies in the way, cut off second-level defenders with leverage and pave the roads for chunk gains that speedy, elusive, powerful backs execute and finish.
But it is not so easy to say that five offensive linemen block five defensive linemen and linebackers, one tight end grabs another linebacker and then the running back keeps his jersey clean until he meets a safety. Defenses add bodies and those bodies win their battles, plugging up gaps and knifing into the backfield. As such, runners are often responsible for creating their own space in the running game.
It can look simple like it did for Swift against Auburn this year. Here, what looked like a zone read really isn't as Jake Fromm seemed completely unaware and uninterested in pulling this ball and keeping it for himself — which he should have given that the weakside defensive end for Auburn spiked into the B-gap to fill against a Swift run. Swift, to his credit, immediately recognized that his blocker didn’t have leverage to the inside, so he bounced outside to space just vacated by the spiking defensive end.
That space wasn't so much created by Swift as it was created by the Auburn EDGE defender, but that's okay. Swift was responsible for breaking the chalkboard structure of that zone run once the Auburn EDGE spiked inside. He took the space he was given and created a positive play.
The backside of zone flow should be Swift's best friend when you consider his profile as a runner. Swift's best traits are his instantaneous burst and sharp footwork when redirecting on a vertical path. He doesn't necessarily have the best change-of-direction skills, but when it comes to running in that knifing, angular, slashing style typified by urgent zone runners, he has all of the tools and many of the same tendencies.
But yet, Swift is inconsistent when it comes to taking the backside of zone flow. Consider a split zone like this play against Florida. The left guard and left tackle double-teamed the Florida defensive tackle (No. 88) beautifully, turning his back to the sideline and driving him upfield. Meanwhile, an EDGE (No. 58) stayed wide to the football, in large part due to the reverse action behind Swift, which allowed the motion tight end to seal No. 58 off from the inside.
The entire design of that play lends itself to the creation of that big, gaping hole to Swift's left. With his elite burst and quality profile as an urgent, vertical runner, that exact hole on that exact play should be his best friend. And it's not.
I'm not entirely sure why this is, but what I know is that Swift's guilty of getting tunnel vision behind the line of scrimmage. He’s also guilty of tethering his run to the chalkboard path when playing with more free instincts that should help him maximize his athletic ability and generate explosive plays. One of Swift's best films of 2019 was against Kentucky. Georgia had him outside of the tackle box a lot, moving him laterally at the snap, whether via pitch plays or designed stretch runs, and that offered Swift more time to execute a clearer read to create his own cut lanes.
And on pitches, like this against Florida, Swift has his most impressive runs. Period.
Both plays ask of Swift to use pacing and footwork to manipulate the paths of second-level defenders to create more space. Against Kentucky, Swift initially went wide so the outside corner was forced to respect the threat of him running around the corner. It allowed him to plant his foot and shoot upfield. Against Florida, Swift instead went upfield so that he can go wide. He ran to the inside shoulder of his blocking tight end to make the closing safety take too tight of an angle, and Swift jump cut outside of him to work into open grass.
Accordingly, I don't believe Swift is lacking for the ability to attack backside cutback lanes nor do I think Swift fails to understand how to outright generate his own space. But things happen quicker between the tackles because there's less room to manipulate and more trash to sift through. Swift struggles to translate his open-field skills in manipulating defenders to the tackle box, and that limits his ability as a true power runner — something I think both he and Georgia fancied himself as.
Just as Kentucky was Swift's best game, so Tennessee was his most disappointing. Swift was used as a hammer between the tackles, often in loaded boxes, which minimized his skill set. However, Swift did himself no favors. When given a stretch run, Swift at no point pulled his eyes, shoulders or hips away from his aiming point — which is the outside hip of his pulling center. Watch the Tennessee linebacker (No. 35) track Swift comfortably throughout the play, scraping across open gaps without ever settling his feet.
Swift is responsible for that unblocked linebacker. If he had keyed him and attempted to manipulate him, Swift could have potentially used his aggressive pursuit to cut back upfield once his outside path was disrupted or attempted to keep him backside with his eyes or footwork. Swift acted like he isn't there.
Swift's unwillingness to help his linemen out by manipulating defenders is a regular occurrence in his film. Against South Carolina, Swift dove forward into two double-teams that are still developing, which allowed the Gamecock linebackers to flow into the space generated by the initial push of the Georgia offensive line. Nobody is there to really wrap Swift up. He stayed upright for several more seconds and the play is whistled dead before he is tackled, but he burrowed himself into that traffic jam.
Swift had the opportunity to set up his own blockers by letting the Gamecock linebackers fill the initial hole. If he had run with patience and pace, his blockers would have worked off of their double-teams and created leveraged running lanes to escape into the second level.
Running backs create space in a number of different ways. They can break structure behind the line of scrimmage as a response to defensive activity, choosing to immediately take a numbers advantage on backside cuts — this is something Swift does, but inconsistently. They can manipulate would-be tacklers in space, confounding their angles and forcing them into bad tackle attempts — this is something Swift does regularly, and it is a key part of his best plays. They can manipulate second-level defenders behind the line of scrimmage, helping their blockers get more advantageous angles or forcing unblocked defenders into mistakes — this is something Swift fails to do.
Swift's imperfections here push me into believing he needs a space offense to be successful: a system that will give him outside zone runs, as well as pitches and sweeps. He can win as a one-cut, plant-foot-and-go slasher who can finish runs in the secondary with his violent, bursty playstyle. But it also pushes me into ranking him just a tick below the top-tier running backs in a stacked class. I'm not sure how much I trust him on any given down to maximize the offensive line at his disposal.
Swift is a good player, but only in the space provided him. For him to become better in the NFL, he must become better at creating his own space.