You watch football with your heart. You play fantasy with your head. That can lead to some interesting internal battles when it comes to player evaluations. Sometimes, you see what you want to see from a player. Welcome to an occasional series on Fantasy Rorschach Tests.
"Nothing in the world causes so much misery as uncertainty." – Martin Luther
The 16th century Protestant Reformation bears some resemblance to the 21st century Detroit Reformation. Both involve groups of true believers expressing frustration over the failings of the status quo. Both may also end in excommunications if things go poorly.
Our interests are not in the divine. Rather, we'd prefer to divine if D'Andre Swift's fantasy acts will lead you to heaven or hell in 2021. The former Georgia star was considered one of the top running back prospects in the 2020 draft. His Motor City landing spot didn't generate excitement akin to Clyde Edwards-Helaire going to Kansas City, though they had nearly identical fantasy totals after 16 weeks.
Swift's story was one of progression. He began the season behind Adrian Peterson on the Lions' depth chart. After nearly two months, Detroit decided to increase Swift's workload. By Week 10, the rookie had become the starter -- a move that Peterson himself said should have happened sooner.
Our desire for linear development means we want to project bigger and better for D'Andre Swift. In words and deeds, the Lions are suggesting otherwise. Or are they?
Through Week 6, Detroit's backfield belonged to Adrian Peterson. The veteran played 41 percent of the snaps and handled more than 14 touches per game -- a number skewed by his 22 carries in Week 3. Contrast that with Swift, who averaged close to 10 handles per contest in that stretch. By season's end, the turntables had turned. Swift was on-field 40 percent of the time and handling nearly 15 touches per game. Peterson had dropped to 26 percent and eight touches per contest.
Those numbers could have been even more lopsided toward Swift. He missed three games midway through the year, leaving Detroit to turn to Kerryon Johnson.
The phrase "new year, new me" applies to both the Lions and that person on social media you keep meaning to unfollow. Every season feels like a reboot in Detroit. This year is no different. A new coaching staff, new players and new roles in the offense are afoot. That could put a damper on hopes that Swift is meant for something more. Also … Jamaal Williams.
The former Packers back signed as a free agent, complicating the Lions running back riddle. Williams was the stumbling block to Aaron Jones being a true workhorse in Green Bay. He averaged 155 touches per season, five fewer than Swift had in his entire rookie campaign. With Peterson (free agent) and Johnson (Eagles) out of the mix, Williams will see plenty of work.
You don't need to take my word for it. New offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn made waves by calling Williams an "A back". We can debate Lynn's exact meaning of the phrase, but the intent is clear. Any hope that Swift will dominate the opportunities in Detroit's backfield is minimal.
Before we let go of the rope with Swift's 2021 fortunes, history can be a guide. The last time Lynn was an offensive coordinator was 2016 with the Bills. That season featured an offense with a quarterback known for checking down (Tyrod Taylor) , a tight end as the top target (Charles Clay), and some theretofore underwhelming wideouts (Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin). Then there were the running backs.
LeSean McCoy was the star with Mike Gillislee as his understudy. It was Shady's last outsized fantasy run with more than 1,600 scrimmage yards and 14 total touchdowns. Gillislee, meanwhile, had nearly 1,000 fewer yards but nine total scores.
D'Andre Swift is no LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Williams is an upgrade over Mike Gillislee. You should expect those yardage splits to be much smaller. You should also expect those touchdown totals to be much lower. Last season, the Lions were middle of the pack with 44 offensive touchdowns. It's optimistic to think they could reach that number in 2021 with the litany of stout defenses on their schedule. Sharing limited scoring opportunities is not the business.
One upside is that the Lions were one of the league's most up-tempo offenses in 2020. It's what you do when you never have the ball and are almost always behind. Those factors could still be in play this year. So…hooray?
Fit and Usage
Detroit asked a lot of Swift last year. Being a third-down playmaker was not one of those things. The rookie lined up on less than a quarter of the team's third-down snaps. Not great on a team figuring to see a lot of third downs this year.
The good news is that this year's offense will be different from last year's. The bad news is that Swift could still be on the short end of third-down snaps.
"I like to break the backs down into 'A' and 'B'," Lynn told The Athletic about Williams. "My 'A' backs are normally my bigger backs. They can run between the tackles, block probably a little better than a 'B' back, they can also run the perimeter. I can leave those guys in there for all three downs."
That doesn't sound like a coach looking to expand the role for a second-year back. The most generous reading suggests Detroit could go with a hot hand approach, which is our worst fantasy nightmare. Could more targets be incoming? Don't count on it. Only Ben Roethlisberger targeted running backs at a lower rate than Jared Goff last year.
The only known in the Lions offense is the unknown.
We all want the best for D'Andre Swift. (Not talking to you, fans of other NFC North teams.) But seeing him come off the board in the range of a high RB2 feels … aspirational. There is more unknown than known. And what we think we know feels icky. I'd rather take my chances with Chris Carson, James Robinson or Kareem Hunt, thank you very much.