It started last Friday. ESPN released an Insider article naming the 32 most underrated players on each NFL team. The list made sense for most teams. ESPN pointed out how many overlook Colts punter Pat McAfee and Packers guard T.J. Lang. But when it came to the Detroit Lions, a strange name popped up: center Travis Swanson. ESPN’s Vincent Verhei explains (subscription required):
Swanson blossomed in his first season as a full-time starter. A 2014 third-round pick out of Arkansas, Swanson was charged with only four blown blocks (including none in the running game) in 14 starts and 949 snaps. That's one blown block every 237 snaps, a rate that ranked sixth among centers and 17th among all interior linemen.
A fair case from Verhei, although there’s two problems here. First, those stats seem highly suspect. For a team that ranked in the bottom 10 in Football Outsider’s adjusted line yards when rushing up the middle, I find it hard to believe Swanson did not blow one block in the running game all year. Secondly, the article completely glosses over the fact the Lions drafted a center in the third round this year, Graham Glasgow.
But I was willing to forgive and forget. Swanson is probably given more flak than he deserves in Detroit. Many are thinking Glasgow is going to jump into this lineup immediately and send Swanson to the bench, but I don’t really agree. I think Swanson will enter the season as the starting center and it may not even be until 2017 until Glasgow is ready to take over. So in a way, yeah, Swanson is a bit underrated. Maybe not the most underrated, but for someone very likely to start the majority of games at center in 2016, he’s getting unfairly counted out by most.
Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar listed the top five centers in the league on Monday and Mr. Travis Swanson landed fifth on the list. Hold on, I need a minute for that to sink in.
Like "top" as in best? Or did all the centers get together and form a human pyramid and he was near the top? Is that what he meant? That’s got to be what he meant.
No? Okay, Doug, give me your best explanation:
The Lions have put Swanson to the test in his two NFL seasons—they throw the ball as much as any NFL team, and as such, Swanson is responsible for protections, and helping to fend off interior pressure on quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Correct. And over that same two year period, Matthew Stafford has been sacked 89 times, the fourth-most of any quarterback. Go on...
Last season, in 649 passing snaps, Swanson allowed no sacks and had just four blown blocks.
Wait, hold up. No. Farrar throws in the same "four blown blocks" stat that ESPN used and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. But that’s not the most egregious evidence used to support Swanson. No sacks allowed? To the tape!
Here’s Swanson failing to pick up a stunt, resulting in a sack:
Here’s Swanson allowing Aaron Donald to split a double team and eventually pick up the sack:
And worst of all is the first point Farrar made above. Centers are responsible for protection assignments, in fact, that’s what makes center such a drastically important position. Jim Caldwell spoke about this earlier in the offseason (emphasis added):
We put a lot on the center, a lot like we do on the quarterback. I think you guys are probably getting the sense of it. They run the show, and the two guys that have to be in sync and have to have a great understanding of everything that’s going on is the quarterback and the center. I mean, those guys direct traffic. The center directs all your calls that you give inside and out, he identifies the front, they make the key indicator calls along with your quarterback. If there’s something that one sees that the other doesn’t jive with, they have to be able to communicate well.
Swanson was undeniably horrible at that aspect of his job last season, especially during the first eight games. The Lions offensive line was repeatedly ceding unblocked rushers and giving up easy sacks. Just look at this breakdown of the seven sacks allowed against the Vikings. Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson concludes:
What initially looked like Detroit trying to second-guess Minnesota’s blitzes wasn’t actually the Lions trying to outthink themselves when it came to their protection, but rather, them just not thinking at all. They changed nothing to adjust to what the Vikings were showing them.
Not all of that blame falls on Swanson, but he is certainly culpable for some of the mistakes, along with Stafford and former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
But what is most offensive about both of these praises of Swanson is their over-reliance on this "four missed blocks" stat. Offensive line play is extremely complicated and often misunderstood by those outside of the huddle (myself very much included). The source both ESPN and Sports Illustrated is using claims Swanson never missed a block in the running game and didn’t allow one sack. Pro Football Focus, on the other hand, gave Swanson a -16.5 pass blocking grade and a -10.8 run blocking grade, making Swanson the second-worst rated offensive line on the team (behind LaAdrian Waddle) and the 34th ranked center in the league. Offensive line evaluation is hard and to praise simply based on an extremely subjective statistic is just plain lazy.
Just how lazy is it? Well, let’s take a look at a different opinion of Swanson from another Sports Illustrated article written half way through the 2015 season. The article is for the NFL’s Midseason All-Overrated team (emphasis added):
Offensive line: Detroit Lions
Last season, the Lions allowed 27 sacks and 173 total pressures on 667 passing plays, about middle of the pack in the NFL. This season, they’ve already allowed 12 sacks and 127 total pressures on 372 passing plays. According to Pro Football Focus, only the Chargers’ injury-depleted line has allowed more heat. There’s no question that the tackles are the main problem—right tackle LaAdrian Waddle has allowed more pressures than any other offensive lineman this season, and the team’s insistence that Riley Reiff could be an upper-level left tackle has returned mixed results at best. Center Travis Swanson has regressed, and the guards, led by rookie Laken Tomlinson and the formerly great Larry Warford, have not lived up to expectations.
The author of this article is none other than the aforementioned Doug Farrar.
I get it. National coverage is hard, especially when it comes to evaluating line play. I’m not going to act like I know how every single center in the league plays. In fact, I could probably only name a handful of starting centers. But that’s the point. If you aren’t going to take the time to really dive in and examine the play of each of these players, why bother making the list at all? The fact that both of these articles fail to even mention Graham Glasgow is asinine.