The 2020 Detroit Lions went into the season with promise but quickly faded, finishing fourth in the NFC North and well out of the playoffs. That led to plenty of off-season changes, as the Lions welcomed Dan Campbell as coach and traded Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff at quarterback. The team also began re-making its backfield.
In 2020, the team had veterans Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson play in all 16 games, but it was rookie D’Andre Swift who impressed the most. Swift managed to finish as RB18 despite appearing in only 13 games. Now, Swift is poised for a huge 2021 as Peterson and Johnson are off the roster. But the question is whether the Lions’ offense, and other competition, will hold him back.
The Case for Swift
Swift was a productive running back at the University of Georgia, where he rushed for 2,885 yards and 20 touchdowns in three seasons. He also added 73 receptions for 666 yards and five touchdowns. Swift rushed for more than 1,200 yards in his final season at Georgia in 2019, which is part of why the Lions made him the No. 35 overall pick, snagging him in the second round. Despite the presence of other backs, Swift made his presence felt.
The Lions limped to a 5-11 record and struggled with injuries, but Swift made him impact felt when on the field. He had just 114 carries in his rookie year but turned that into 521 yards and eight touchdowns. His 4.6 yards per carry was more than half a yard better than Peterson, who finished as the team’s leading rusher, and more than a yard per carry better than Johnson. But that wasn’t the only place Swift returned value.
The rookie running back was a major factor in the passing game as well. Swift saw 57 targets, fourth most on the team, snagging 46 receptions for 357 yards and two touchdowns. That receiving work combined with his efforts on the ground where what helped him finish as a mid-tier RB2 despite missing three games.
This season, Swift seems poised for even more. Assuming a full season, it’s not hard to imagine Swift getting more than 200 carries as the lead back in the backfield. Johnson and Peterson combined for 208 carries in 2020. Meanwhile, given the dearth of quality receivers, Swift figures to continue to be a weapon out of the backfield for Goff. That’s a notion backed up by Campbell, who previously coached with the Saints and has said he envisions Swift filling an Alvin Kamara role.
The Case Against Swift
While it would seem to be wheel’s up for Swift in 2021, there are some obstacles. The Lions signed former Green Bay Packers’ running back to a two-year, $6 million deal this off-season. Williams brings plenty of experience, having run hard for the Packers the last four seasons. And new Offensive Coordinator Anthony Lynn has spoken highly about Williams and his skills. Williams has shown his ability as a rusher and receiver. In his four seasons, Williams has had at least 107 carries and 25 receptions each season.
The addition of Williams and consistent rumors that the Lions have explored signing other backs, including veteran Todd Gurley, suggest the team plans to use a committee approach. Using a mixture of backs to carry the load combined with a potentially low-volume offense in Detroit could cap the upside of both Williams and Swift.
Williams is a decent and talented back. In 2020, he carried 119 times for 505 yards and two touchdowns, adding 31 receptions for 236 yards and a touchdown. That was good enough to finish as RB38. I could see him easily making a similar contribution in 2021, and it still not diminishing the ceiling for Swift.
While Williams was RB38 in 2020, his teammate Aaron Jones was the bell cow, finishing as RB5. In 2019, Williams finished as RB34, adding 460 rushing yards and 39 receptions. Jones finished as RB2 that season. Williams, throughout his career, has been a great contributor while his teammate has been the higher producer. That’s what I expect to continue in 2021 with Swift.
In 2020, Johnson and Peterson combined for 208 carries and 31 receptions while Swift added 114 carries and 46 receptions. That workload combined—322 carries and 77 receptions—could easily be split between Swift and Williams, and Swift can still take a step forward. He finished as RB18 in 2020 and could easily move into the Top 12 with around 200 carries and 60 receptions. Williams could easily come in and carry 120 times and catch 30 passes to contribute as well, putting him in line with his career production. And outside of tight end T.J. Hockenson, both backs are by far the best options in the offense.
I like Swift’s talent and skillset, and I think he’ll contribute even more in 2021. I expect him to get an increase in carries and remain a vital part of the passing game, giving him RB1 appeal. At his current ADP of RB16, that makes him a value.
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus2Canton network.