Entering the 2022 season, hope and potential for Detroit Lions running back D’Andre Swift was sky-high. Swift’s blend of agility, acceleration and pass-catching ability seemed like a great fit for new offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s diverse attack.
Things started off swimmingly for Swift. In Detroit’s Week 1 loss to the Eagles, Swift ran for a career-high 144 yards on only 15 carries. The third-year back also added three receptions for 31 yards. All those first-round picks in fantasy football drafts seemed shrewdly valuable.
Since that Week 1 outburst, it’s been a largely disappointing season for Swift. He missed three games with a sprained ankle and has also dealt with a shoulder injury. It took Swift exactly seven more games to match the Week 1 output once he returned. He has 208 rushing yards on 55 carries in Detroit’s last nine games while splitting duties in Detroit’s backfield-by-committee with regular starter Jamaal Williams and third-stringer Justin Jackson. Both Williams and Jackson have better yards-per-carry averages and first down percentages in that time than Swift, and that includes Jackson netting minus-1 yards on his only carry in Sunday’s loss to the Panthers.
In his three seasons in Detroit, we’ve learned pretty well what Swift is. He’s a versatile back capable of an outstanding outburst once or twice a season, games where he very much looks like a budding star. Week 1 against Philadelphia proved that. The rest of the time, Swift is a below-average runner with poor vision and a low level of rushing toughness, going down too easily on first contact and misreading blocks. A full 33 percent of his production in 2022 came in that one game, and that fits his career pattern.
The question for the Lions is, how do they value that?
Swift has one year left on the rookie contract he signed after being the Lions’ second-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft. He’ll earn just over $2.7 million in salary and guaranteed bonuses in 2023. There is a clamoring from many in the fan base to dump Swift, but it’s not so easy.
First, there’s the matter of the depth chart. Williams, Jackson and Craig Reynolds are all pending free agents. Swift and undrafted rookie Greg Bell (on IR in 2022) are the only RBs the team has under contract. Reynolds is a restricted free agent, but the Lions have zero control over Williams and Jackson once the 2022 season ends.
Swift is pretty affordable as a No. 2 RB option with his expiring contract in 2023. Getting a guy with the potential of going off for 125 yards on the ground and 40 more in the air for under $3 million is solid value, even if that might only happen twice in a year — which is Swift’s track record.
And there’s the rub. Swift and RB coach/assistant head coach Duce Staley have battled over Swift’s role and relative tenacity for two years, famously highlighted on Hard Knocks. It’s not clear that Swift has the trust of Staley, Johnson or even head coach Dan Campbell beyond a third-down back, Theo Riddick-type of role. Swift’s drop rate of 13 percent in his last 17 games (spanning back to 2021) is not good in that role, however.
The Lions would eat about $950,000 in dead money by cutting Swift, freeing up about $1.75 million in cap room in 2023. That’s not a significant enough figure on either side to move the needle or force a decision one way or the other. Swift is a good teammate, so there’s no need to ship him away for addition-by-subtraction purposes.
Trading Swift is another option, but not a very realistic one. Put the GM cap on for another team and ask yourself what trading for Swift does for your team. Why are the Lions, a darn good offense in 2022 and one paper-thin at RB heading into 2023, so willing to let Swift go?
In a year with what looks like a strong RB draft class and outstanding free agent class, it would be quite the feat for Lions GM Brad Holmes to find a trade partner for more than a conditional Day 3 pick in 2024. Supply at RB far exceeds demand in the coming offseason and that’s even if every team (including Detroit) needs at least one new RB.
It leaves Swift and the Lions at an awkward crossroads entering the offseason. Swift having another one of his excellent outputs in one of Detroit’s final two games would help ease the tension — and that’s certainly possible given how bad Chicago and Green Bay’s defenses have played lately. That would be a very welcome addition to the Swift equation conundrum.