Detroit Lions 2020 Running Back Preview – D’Andre Swift Leads

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Running back D’Andre Swift, the Detroit Lions second round pick out of Georgia, will help revitalize the run game in 2020 and beyond.


The Detroit Lions have largely struggled to run the football since Barry Sanders retired as the best running back of all time. Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn attempted to change that with Kerryon Johnson, and now look to continue to invest in the run game with D’Andre Swift.

While Johnson has been effective as a runner for the Detroit Lions when healthy, he has continued his struggles to stay on the field for a full season that go back to his high school days. Additionally, while Johnson has the talent to carry the load as a runner, as football moves forward into the 2020’s running by committee has regained steam as the way of the now, and the future. D’Andre Swift is a fantastic complimentary piece to Johnson, and will be critical to rebuilding the Detroit Lions rushing attack moving forward.

The immediate impact of D’Andre Swift for the Detroit Lions

D’Andre Swift was the top running back in this year’s NFL Draft according to most film watchers, and this writer had him as the top running back overall in this year’s class. Swift figures to be an excellent system fit for the Detroit Lions for a number of reasons. His most notable area of impact is his ability to catch passes out of the backfield.

D’Andre Swift was an excellent receiver at the University of Georgia last season, an alma mater that he shares with Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Swift only had 3 drops last year on 76 targets, giving him a 96% true catch rate last season. His dual threat abilities also led him to the top spot among all running back last season on Pro Football Focus’s big board.

What’s most exciting about Swift as a receiver is his versatility. He can line up in the slot or even out wide, run routes better than most running backs, and has top notch hands, ball tracking, and run after catch ability. One way the Lions could look to maximize this asset is by utilizing running back and tight end route combinations with Swift and last year’s first round selection T.J. Hockenson. The New England Patriots offensive system thrives on the abilities of the pass catching running back and tight ends playing off of each other. This has led to key contributions on Super Bowl winning teams from players like James White and Rob Gronkowski among others.

Meanwhile, Swift isn’t limited to a sole role as a receiving threat. He is also a respected pass blocker who can rotate with Kerryon Johnson in backfield protections, and he is also a great runner of the ball as well. One Detroit Lions player of recent memory is Theo Riddick, Swift is much more of a complete player than Riddick ever was, and is much more dangerous.

Swift has elite vision and mental processing, a critical trait that (especially in recent years) has typically been a critical identifier for immediate success at the running back position. His ability to find and quickly attack open rushing lanes is similar to that of Aaron Jones of the Lions’ divisional rival Green Bay Packers, one of the top running backs in the league.

Swift is also an elite athlete who has the ability to hit an explosive second gear in space, but also create yards after contact, which he added 576 in 2018, and over 700 last season while at Georgia. While his move set may be one of his bigger weaknesses, he makes up for it with his overall athleticism and rushing power. His elite contact balance in combination of the power he plays with allow him to extend plays at a very high level.

D’Andre Swift has the potential to bring an Alvin Kamara like impact to the Lions rushing attack moving forward with his ability to impact both the passing and rushing elements from a variety of alignments, formations and packages.

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Kerryon Johnson is still a factor

While Kerryon Johnson has had his struggles staying on the field, he is still someone to be on the lookout for when he is. Johnson was 11th in the league last season in success rate per Football Outsiders (with 52%), a metric that measures a runner’s ability to consistently pick up yards needed to stay on schedule, extend drives and keep the offense on pace for a first down.

Johnson also has earned the respect of other defenses as well. He finished just outside of the top ten in loaded boxes of rushes with eight or more defenders in the box, with 29.2% according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats. He also spent only 2.73 seconds behind the line of scrimmage in 2019, the 12th fewest in the league, down significantly from the 2.96 number of his rookie season which was 8th longest. This is a good sign for Johnson’s adjustment to the speed of the game, quickened mental processing and vision, as well as improved decision making. If he continues that trend and is able to slow things down even further mentally he could continue to improve at a dramatic rate once again.

Johnson’s growth under new running backs coach Kyle Caskey and new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was not just limited to his mental traits though, either. His growth as a receiver was also significant last season as well. His DVOA (Defensive Adjusted Value Over Average) as a receiver last year per Football Outsiders has him at 29.3%, up from -4.8% as a rookie, which was ranked 31st. If his 29.3% held, he would’ve finished 4th among true running backs behind only Mark Ingram of the Baltimore Ravens, Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers, and Austin Ekeler of the Los Angeles Chargers.

He also looked much better as a pass protector last season as well. His PFF grade signifies this improvement jumping up from 65 as a rookie to 70.9, which was 15th among running backs last season. His growth in this area, like as a receiver, has been strong as he continues to learn, grow and develop in the Detroit Lions development program under coach Matt Patricia and staff.

If running back Kerryon Johnson can just stay healthy on the field this season, he will have a much bigger role and impact than people currently expect in 2020, and could be a major part of a Lions revitalized rushing attack. He will definitely be feeling pressure from D’Andre Swift and other running backs if he doesn’t stay healthy. Another year of injury could cost Johnson a great deal.

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