The Detroit Lions made a surprise decision in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft, when they selected Georgia running back D’Andre Swift, adding the SEC star to their already talented stable of running backs.
While Detroit already has a few great players at the position, Swift will likely step in and be an instant contributor. He will probably be one of the team’s top offensive weapons and will feature heavily in both the running and the passing game.
Swift may not be a first-round pick, but he is still a big-name rookie with the potential to have a stand-out rookie year. And a stand=out rookie year could give him a chance to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, an award the Lions have not won since Barry Sanders did so in 1989.
Three out of the last five and four out of the last seven Offensive Rookie of the Year winners were running backs. Of those four, two were drafted on Day 2 of the draft, like Swift was. Eddie Lacy won the award as a second-round pick for the Green Bay Packers in 2013, and Alvin Kamara won it in 2017 after the New Orleans Saints drafted him in the third round. Those two, and the other recent winners in Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley, all fall into one of two distinct categories as to how they ended up winning the award.
The bell cow win
1,000-yard rushers do not happen as often anymore. 2019 proved to be an outlier with 15 running backs hitting the mark, but as teams begin passing more than ever, the total number of players reaching quadruple digits has shrunken. Majority of teams now use a stable of running back instead of just a single, do-it-all guy nowadays, and that makes it harder for individual running backs to truly stand out. The big statistical milestones running backs were managing regularly only a few years ago now seem long gone. That makes it special when a player does hit these milestones, especially when they are a rookie.
Lacy won rookie of the year off the back off of an 1,180-yard, 11-touchdown season with the Packers. Two years later, Gurley won the award after a 1,106-yard, 10-touchdown season with the Rams. Gurley was much more efficient that Lacy in his ROTY campaign, averaging 4.8 yards per carry compared to Lacy’s 4.1.
Both posted impressive rushing totals, but neither were a one trick pony. Gurley proved to be a decent third or fourth option at receiver with 21 receptions for 188 yards—a respectable 9 yards per catch for a running back who usually caught checkdowns. Lacy’s receiving totals are probably higher than one would remember. In his rookie season, the big running back caught 35 passes for 257 yards. Neither were standout talents as receivers, but both had to at least contribute in the passing game.
While it is a path, this does not seem like the way that Swift will be winning the award. He is not a very big guy, and he may not have the durability to be an every down back. There is also the existence of Kerryon Johnson, who is still likely to get a larger number of carries (assuming he is healthy throughout the year).
He can compete for ROTY in another way, though...
The do-it-all offensive weapon
Saquon Barkley took the league by storm when he arrived in 2018. The hyped up Penn State running back took off after arriving for the New York Giants. He had over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns. The running back dominated highlight reels and was really the only worthwhile thing the Giants offense had going for them.
The rookie managed up to live up to the hype from Day 1 and was a top receiver and rusher for the team. One of the all-time great running back prospects almost instantly lived up to expectations and ended the 2018 season by winning Rookie of the Year.
While Swift certainly is not going to do what Barkley did, becoming a do-it-all, versatile offensive weapon is his best chance to end the year with a Rookie of the Year award. Kamara is probably the closest template to what Swift can do in his first NFL season.
The Saints running back had 728 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, but really made an impact through the air where he caught 81 passes for 826 yards and five touchdowns.
Swift will likely feature more as a receiver than as a running back as long as Johnson is around. He will play a ton of third down snaps, motion out to the slot—and sometimes even out to a wide out—and play all over the field—similar to how the Saints initially used Kamara when they had Mark Ingram in the stable.
Swift’s path to getting league-wide attention and winning Rookie of the Year probably lies in his ability as a receiver. He is a speedy player with route running ability and the elusiveness to cause defenses matchup nightmares. While the Lions’ talented receiving corps will absorb a lot of targets, the existence of so much talent at the receiver positions may open things up for the rookie running back.
Luckily for Swift, winning is rarely an important metric for these awards either. While Dak Prescott’s NFC topping record is what earned him the award in 2016, for the most part the winners come from bad teams. Kyler Murray in 2019, Barkley in 2018 and Gurley in 2015 all won despite poor team records. It makes sense, too, as by nature a good rookie will end up on bad teams.
Detroit may not be very good in the upcoming season, but their young running back has a real chance to bring silverware back to the Motor City this season.