NFL Offseason Coverage: A Swift Rebuild
Andrew Cooper takes a look at the Detroit Lions offseason and how it will have a major impact on D'Andre Swift's fantasy value in 2021.
If the Lions are smart, D'Andre Swift won’t be a great fantasy football asset in 2021. That feels like an absolutely loaded sentence doesn’t it? Lions smart? D'Andre Swift bad? It goes against pretty much everything our hearts and minds believe to be true. But let me explain.
(Swift dynasty owners “ready to listen”)
The Lions = Smart?
It’s pretty obvious what the Lions are doing. And I think it’s actually the smart thing to do. Matt Patricia and his greasy ear-pencil did not work out. That is done. Let’s look at the direction they’ve gone since.
The Lions fired head coach Matt Patricia, OC Darrel Bevel, and GM Bob Quin. They then brought in the Rams Director of College Scouting, Brad Holmes, as GM and Saints/Dolphins former tight end/assistant head coach, Dan Campbell, to bite knee caps.
They traded their quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Rams for two first round picks, a third round pick, and Jared Goff . You start doing the math on that one and that’s essentially trading your quarterback for draft picks. A lot of them.
They let the following veteran players all leave and sign elsewhere to multi-year contracts of at least $10+ million dollars: Kenny Golladay , Marvin Jones , and Jamal Agnew . They also let kicker Matt Prater leave to sign a 2 year deal with the Cardinals, Jarrad Davis went to the Jets for $5.5 million guaranteed, and someone will sign Everson Griffen . The only free agent of theirs that they have retained on a multi-year deal is defensive end Romeo Okwara . I’m serious - the next most expensive player they retained was long snapper Don Muhlback for 1 year $1.175 million.
They also have only signed one free agent away from another team to a multi-year deal. Jamaal Williams for 2 years $6 million. The next highest paid players are fill-in journeyman WRs on 1 year deals in Tyrell Williams ($4 mil) and Breshard Perriman ($2.5 mil). Yes, their third highest paid incoming free agent got 1 year $2.5 million.
They will carry the MOST dead cap of any team this season at ~$41 million. They also have the LEAST active cash spending of any team at ~$133 million. This allows them to still roll over money to 2022 that will easily be in the top 5 of rollover cash. Ghost ship.
If it’s not obvious yet - this team is trying their absolute hardest to come in dead last. In fact, it's damn near step by step what the Dolphins did in 2019. They traded their quarterback for picks (Tannehill). They let their veterans go elsewhere (Tunsil, Stills). And, most importantly, they made sure NOT to sign anyone to valuable contracts that would affect the compensatory pick formula so that they can potentially get back third, fourth, or fifth comp picks for guys like Kenny Golladay , Marvin Jones etc. They even lead the league in deap cap yet are rolling $20 mil over which is the EXACT same as the Dolphins (right down to the $20 mil). Now all they have to do is sit back and lose while they burn off all that dead cap and let this skeleton crew of one-year contract journeymen steer this ship down to Davy Jones’s locker where they can start again with a high end pick and a clean slate. Just like the Dolphins did.
And how good of a job have they done? Well, Vegas currently has them tied for the worst Super Bowl odds in the league with the Houston Texans at +15,000 (or put in layman’s terms, you bet a hundred dollars and, if they win, you get FIFTEEN GRAND). That’s right - they have the same odds of winning the “big game” as the team whose starting quarterback might actually go to jail. The over/under for total wins for the Lions set by the experts of all experts at the Vegas sports books is 5 games. In a season with 17 games. And, as of the writing of this article, you have to pay a premium by betting $122 to win $100 just to bet on the UNDER. Let me repeat that. The line is set at a 5-12 record and the current sentiment of gamblers is that they will be worse than that. As always, no one is better at being terrible than the Lions.
Now, there are some young assets in the organization that are under great, long term rookie deals that you want to have around for the rebuild. For example, D’Andre Swift. His cap hit this year is ~$1.9 million in 2021, ~$2.3 million in 2022, and ~$2.7 million in 2023. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, second round picks like Swift are eligible for a “proven performance escalator” which is a kicker that increases their fourth year salary based on the percentage of snaps a player plays in his first three years. I’ll stop short of saying the quiet part out loud that you may want to keep that number low in a rebuild because I personally never want to see the NFL turn into Major League Baseball in terms of greedily holding back young players to manipulate their contract. Ask Kris Bryant. What I will say is that this cheap contract means that Swift is guaranteed on the team for 3 more years unless they trade him and they shouldn’t because he’s good. You want him there for the years when you are actually competing so he’s not a guy you cash out or let leave like a Kenny Golladay who will turn 28 during the season this year.
The Rams drafted Jared Goff in 2016, went 4-12 that season, and then the following year won the division at 11-5, so a quick turnaround is possible. In fact, that turnaround was orchestrated in part by then Rams head scout Brad Holmes who is now the Lions GM. See - it’s all connected and we are all made of the same stuff as stars. During that tank and rebuild period, the Rams also saw their stud running back carry an absurd workload and grind his knees down to pulp. He went from being the unquestioned best runningback in the league to being outright released at the age of 25. Not traded - released. Gurley apparently did have an underlying knee condition but you know what’s also not great for that? Back to back to back seasons with 315+ touches. Ask guys like Priest Holmes, Shaun Alexander, DeMarco Murray . The 2016 Rams won 4 games that season and were NEVER in contention yet decided it was smart to give their young, stud running back 321 touches. And Brad Holmes, first hand witness to this unmitigated disaster, is now sitting there as the Lions GM with a 22 year old running back with three years left on his contract on a team that is a favorite to finish dead last. So what am I telling you? The same thing I said in the first sentence.
If the Lions are smart, D’Andre Swift won’t be a great fantasy football asset in 2021.
And the Lions might actually know it too. Let’s go back to the free agent moves. The Lions let all their high end guys leave and didn’t sign any high dollar, multi-year deals of players from other organizations because of the comp pick formula. Except for one. Their one incoming multi-year deal was to give Jamaal Williams 2 years, $6 million, with $3.25 million guaranteed. It may not seem like much to us but, not only is he the Lions’ highest paid incoming free agent getting the third most guaranteed money of any free agent running back, but it’s likely going to cost them a draft pick via the compensatory pick formula. It seems clear they brought in Jamaal Williams for a specific reason. Now, why do we think that is?
Last year D’Andre Swift broke out in the second half of the season as the Lions coaching staff slowly went from hopefully clinging to their jobs with a 4-5 record to out of contention and fired by the end of November. And, during that span of increased usage, Swift looked damn good. There was one aspect of his game, however, where he did not perform well. Pass blocking. Per Pro Football Focus, he graded out as RB #108 in pass blocking. For those keeping track at home, there are only 32 teams.
There is a reason some rookies struggle in pass blocking (not J.K. Dobbins or Zack Moss of course because they were great at it). And that’s because pass protection is not as simple as you may think it is. The far more simple play is when they just stick the ball in your gut and say “run left”. Modern pass protection schemes are complex. So the play isn’t usually “okay Gio Bernard, you are blocking on this play!” It’s more like “Gio you are going to line up in the slot and on the second ‘hut’ you are going to motion into the backfield to the right of the QB then when the ball is snapped you check to see if any of the five linebackers or cornerbacks are blitzing. If they blitz you need to identify that and stop them and, if not, you run a Texas route over the middle and settle in about a yard past the line of scrimmage but not too deep as to disrupt Hockenson’s drag route you got that?”
Some guys get it and some guys don’t. And if you are letting the quarterback get hit, you won’t be trusted with that job. Phillip Lindsay owners in fantasy know that pain. During his time with the Broncos, he was better than Royce Freeman was in essentially every phase of the game - aside from pass blocking. Rookie Royce Freeman graded out in the top 20 pass blockers while Lindsay graded out as RB #81, RB #141, and RB #122 in his three years. So, despite Lindsay being better at both catching and running the ball, they split snaps. That’s also part of the reason why Kerryon Johnson , who graded out as the 4th best RB in the league at pass blocking with a grade of 84.8 last year, played on 234 pass snaps while Swift, despite being better with the ball in his hands, played only slightly more pass snaps at 273. And graded out at 44.9 on his pass blocking assignments. Even though they already have Kerryon, the Lions decided to go against their plan of tanking and not giving anyone multi-year deals or guaranteed money to bring in Jamaal Williams , a guy who graded out as RB #2 in pass blocking in 2017 and RB #6 in pass blocking in 2019. Considering one sack hurts your grade pretty badly, don’t you think that’s a pretty impressive résumé in that category? Did I have to google résumé and copy/paste it because I don’t know how to type those weird E’s? These are the questions.
Now, at this point the angry mob of Swift owners might lean on their pitchforks and slyly say, “well that’s just fine - Jamaal and Kerryon can take those farty pass blocking snaps and my mans Swift can get all the fun catchy and runny ones”. High fives all around. Except it’s not that simple. As we talked about earlier, being trusted to be the guy in pass protection doesn’t always mean you will be pass blocking. Put another way, when you earn that role and are the guy out there, you don’t know on any given play whether you will be blocking or running a route. Kerryon played 234 pass snaps but only blocked 65 times. Aaron Jones played 311 pass snaps and blocked 50 times while Jamaal Williams played 274 pass snaps and blocked 59 times. Pretty even split. On the plays where you don’t block, you are an eligible receiver available for screens and check downs. Look up Gio Bernard 2020 highlights. Most of the plays are either designed screens where he fake blocks or plays where he peels off to the flat. Guys like CMC and Zeke who have high end fantasy upside don’t split those snaps - they play 500-600 pass snaps. So sure, you can’t catch the ball while you are blocking but you damn sure can’t catch it when you are on the sideline.
Swift Fantasy Value in 2021
Which brings me to D’Andre Swift. To be a top half RB1, you either need a boatload of rushing touchdowns (Derrick Henry , Aaron Jones ) or a boatload of targets (Alvin Kamara , Austin Ekeler ). Ideally you have both and you are CMC or Saquon. But the thing about rushing touchdowns is that running the ball is often the luxury of the winning team. Aaron Jones wasn’t Aaron Jones in fantasy just because he’s awesome (though he is). He was Aaron Jones in fantasy because he’s awesome and because the Packers are awesome. If you take Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams and put them both on a last place team, Aaron Jones doesn’t score 30 touchdowns over his last 30 games, I can assure you that. So, if you are on a bad team, what you really need is either every touch or a ton of targets. Don’t believe me? Look at this crudely made and color coded chart that I put together of the top 10 fantasy running backs of each of the last 5 years based on where they finished and how many receptions they had.
As you can see, the average number of targets is 54.8 with a median of 53 over that span. Last year was quite colorful compared to the others considering we lost Saquon, CMC, and Ekeler. Oh and there was a pandemic. The top left red ones on the chart are both Derrick Henry . The 2020 red one at RB 9 is Nick Chubb , and the other red one is LeGarrette Blount in 2016. Ask yourself - did Blount score 18 touchdowns on his own or did he score 18 touchdowns because he was playing with the greatest quarterback of all time?
To have high end upside in fantasy football on a bad team you need to be out there pretty much every play (or, at the very least, every pass play). For instance, the Jaguars released Leonard Fournette and then Ryquell Armstead missed the whole season with COVID which opened the door for James Robinson (and he didn’t even technically finish as a top half RB1 in pretty much any format despite his usage). Another example - the Cowboys were missing their QB, TE, RT, RG, LT, and backup LT for most of the season yet Ezekiell Elliott was still RB11 - how? Well, he’s the best pass blocker on his team, they were playing from behind most games, and the line was a disaster that needed help blocking so he played on the most pass blocking snaps of any running back in the league. And, partially because of that skill set, he played on more pass snaps than any running back in the league. And ran the third most routes of any running back in the league. Yes, he ran more routes and played on over 100 more pass snaps than Alvin Kamara in 2020. Yet, according to Twitter, Tony Pollard was his problem - not the fact that the Red Rifle was the quarterback and the offensive line was basically the Island of Misfit Toys. But I digress.
Now is the time for us to be honest with ourselves. The Lions are openly and notoriously doing their best to come in last place. Besides filling the roster out with a skeleton crew, the one move they made was to bring in one of the better passing down backs for the third most guaranteed money of any free agent running back available. A player who split passing snaps pretty much evenly with Aaron Jones . In our opinion, how much better is D’Andre Swift than Aaron Jones ? They also have Kerryon Johnson who is a 2018 second round pick and a serviceable player himself. In your opinion, should the Lions:
Use a committee backfield and spread the workload around in a year that the most historically accurate experts in the world expect them to go 5-12?
Run their one good, young asset into the ground Todd “DeMarco Murray ” Gurley-style to appease fans and fantasy gamers?
I own Swift in some dynasty leagues so I wouldn’t be disappointed if the Lions were once again stupid and went with option B. But all signs point to the Lions actually being smart for once. I think it’s a genius move by Brad Holmes to remember what happened to Todd Gurley and bring in Jamaal Williams to not only lighten the load but teach Swift the Art of the Pass Pro. That would be most beneficial for the day the rebuild is complete, the team actually ready to compete, and D’Andre Swift can shed his committee cocoon to have high end RB1 upside the way Joe Mixon is poised to this year in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, that plan of action would naturally come at the expense of D'Andre Swift’s ceiling for fantasy football in 2021. And that’s what this article is about.
P.S. The top comment on Reddit will no doubt be some joke about how the Lions are dumb so Swift will be good.