When the Detroit Lions picked Graham Glasgow out of Michigan in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, it was taken as a sure sign that the old regime’s center of the future was being chalked up as a mistake. Here were are in July talking about whether or not Travis Swanson is a top 5 center in the NFL. How did it come to this point? You’d think that a player is either a top of the roster player being overrated nationally (at worst), or that he’s a bottom half player who’s being underrated as worse by his fan base but certainly not both of those things. It isn’t very intuitive, but players can truly exist in that complete divide of top tier starter and falling off the roster completely. We’re going to explore some of those players on the Detroit Lions and it starts with the suddenly nationally known Travis Swanson.
Drafted in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Arkansas, Swanson joined a team that didn’t really know whether it wanted to be a man blocking or zone blocking team. The hybrid scheme originally ran under Scot Linehan by Jeremiah Washburn found success skating that fine line between schemes, and Arkansas ran a similarly hybrid that favored zone somewhat over man (In hindsight, this should have been seen as a red flag). The expectation was that a hybrid scheme would continue. Though he wasn’t the most athletic for his position (we’ve shown before that measurements are not a great indicator of success for centers), Swanson was considered more than athletic enough to start in the NFL.
Rating anywhere between first and fifth center in the 2014 draft, there was plenty of praise and criticism, but even his biggest supporters knew he needed to increase his functional strength to find success in the NFL. Knowing what we know now, it is a somewhat bitter pill to look back and see that pre-snap reads and the ability to make adjustments were some of his biggest selling points. Personally, Swanson was my No. 1 center that season, over Weston Richburg who was second, though my grade had more to do with reliability (he started 50 games) and that he looked more athletic than his numbers indicated. I’ll admit that part of me overlooked his flaws due to how well Larry Warford played despite more pronounced athletic concerns the year prior, and the Swanson pick was almost universally praised. He was a mixed bag as a rookie, and while he struggled in his second year, most have expected Swanson to enter the preseason as the starter at center and it would be his job to lose.
So what makes Travis Swanson a wild card player? While it’s possible, even probable that he could start every game at center in 2016, it is almost equally likely that he could be cut as the preseason draws to a close and not make the roster at all. Swanson was so bad at the center position in 2015 and the Lions so ill prepared with depth that the only player guaranteed a roster position right now is Graham Glasgow, by virtue of his draft selection. With a very clear preference to more athletic offensive lineman by Bob Quinn, and a pick spent in his first draft at the position, it’s possible any excuse could be looked at as reason to move on. Fellow 2014 alum, Gabe Ikard, took first team reps while Swanson sat out some this offseason. Ikard fits that more athletic profile Quinn appears to favor (one that New England had for his entire tenure there).
If Swanson struggles in the preseason or misses time to yet another injury, it’s not only possible but a likelihood that Bob Quinn brings in more competition at center. That spells bad news considering a succession plan is already in place with Glasgow.
However, Travis Swanson could come in and tear it up at center for the Detroit Lions; he could play just well enough to hold onto a job; he could lose his starting job to a promising rookie, but make the roster as a swing backup; or he could be cut completely if he is outperformed by either Gabe Ikard or a yet-to-be-signed free agent. With such a wide range of possibilities for his 2016 season and nothing guaranteed, he truly is a wild card for the roster.