When a team uses a rotation of running backs, a player's snap counts can vary from week to week depending on the opponent and offensive strategy. As much as this sounds good in theory, it’s hard to keep the more talented player on the bench, as we saw with the Detroit Lions in 2020.
This is the second installment in a series of articles at Pride of Detroit where we will examine the snap counts for Detroit Lions rookies during the 2020 season. You can read the previous article in this series here: Jeff Okudah.
D’Andre Swift, RB: Round 2, Pick 35
Last year’s Lions’ regime drafted Kerryon Johnson in the second round of the 2018 draft and he claimed a starting role early in his career but was unable to stay healthy. Concerns over health almost assuredly led to the Lions drafting D’Andre Swift in the second round of the 2020 draft, as a way of hopefully stabilizing the backfield. Adrian Peterson was signed to round out the group and bring a veteran presence to the roster.
Despite Johnson being the incumbent starter, it appeared he was demoted to third-down duties, possibly as a strategy to help him stay healthy. Peterson was clearly not the back he was just a few years ago, but the Lions coaches seemed determined to lean on him and his experience early in the season, which, in theory, would allow them to bring Swift along slowly.
Swift’s 2020 snap counts
In the chart below, you can see the snap counts from Swift’s entire rookie season broken down by offensive snaps, percentage of offensive snaps, special teams snaps, and percentage of special teams snaps.
The first month of the season was used as an acclimation period for Swift by the previous coaching staff. During that time, he saw about a third of the backfield snaps, but only averaged just over six touches per game (12 rushes and 13 receptions over four games).
Coming out of the bye week, Swift’s snap volume didn’t increase but his production did. In Week 6 he had a breakout game against Jacksonville posting 14 carries for 116 yards (8.29 yards per carry), two rushing touchdowns, and three receptions for 7 yards.
The production versus Jacksonville earned him a bump in snaps, but Swift took a step back in production in Week 7 versus Atlanta. Despite the hiccup, at this stage in the season, there is one thing that is painfully clear, Swift was still the superior option in the Lions’ backfield.
In Weeks 8 and 9, Peterson continued to start each half, but once again Swift led the backfield in snaps. He had his worst output of the season against Indianapolis, but in Minnesota, he righted the ship against to the tune of 4.92 yards per carry.
In Week 10 named Swift was finally named the official starter. It was an inevitable move and left many, including Peterson, why it hadn’t happened weeks earlier.
Adrian Peterson said when he was told that he lost his starting job to D'Andre Swift, his reaction was, (paraphrased) "You should've done this 2-3 weeks ago."— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) November 20, 2020
Swift would reward the Lions with 5.06 yards per carry against The Washington Football Team, helping them secure their fourth win on the season.
A few days after being named the starter and having his best game of the season, Swift came down with concussion-like symptoms and missed the next three games.
Over the final month, Swift had outputs of 3.43 YPC versus Green Bay Packers in his return to full health, then rattled off games with 4.47, 4.5, and 4.5 YPC vs Tennessee, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota respectively to close out the season.
Swift’s role on special teams was relatively minor. In Weeks 3-10 he was lined up at the 20-yard line to block and protect against pooched kickoffs. But after his concussion, there was no need to risk putting him out there on special teams—as he was the clear starter—and he was replaced by Kerryon Johnson in that role.
Coming off the bench in 2020 Swift saw some inconsistencies but once he was given the starter role, he was consistently productive. Heading into 2021, there is no doubt Swift is the starter, although he will still split time with Jamaal Williams, who will come off the bench—something he did at a high level in Green Bay the past four seasons.
The coaches are already singing Swift's praises with offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn calling him “a three-down back” and assistant head coach/running back coach Duce Staley called him “super talented” noting that he is very “happy to be a part of his growth and his development.”
Stat projection models are predicting Swift could see anywhere from 830 to 1,003 rushing yards this season and upwards of 67 (!) catches, suggesting 1,300 to 1,500 all-purpose yards isn’t out of the question.
Many expect the Lions to lean heavily on the running game, but Swift (and Williams) proved in OTAs and minicamp, that he can be a weapon out of the backfield in the passing game and that has to have coaches excited about the possibilities.