The 2022 Lions Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installment in the series, on the New England Patriots, can be found here.
I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball in general, and then dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:
Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)
The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.
The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the amount of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.
Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)
Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.
Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)
Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.
Relative Success Rate (RSR)
Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.
Team Rushing Volume
After running the ball the third-fewest times in the league in 2020, the Detroit Lions upped their rushing volume a bit last season under new head coach Dan Campbell. Two years ago, they averaged 22.9 attempts per game. In 2021, they ran the ball an average of 25.1 times per contest. That average ranked No. 21 in the NFL, and was a carry-and-a-half lower than the league-wide 26.6 average.
In their ideal world, Detroit would probably run the ball more than they actually have. According to rbsdm.com, the 2021 Lions called runs at the second-highest rate in the league (57.1-percent) on early downs in neutral Game Script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent). Also per rbsdm.com, they called run plays more frequently than would be expected (based on historical league-wide play-by-play data) in nearly every down-and-distance situation, and 5-percent more frequently than would be expected overall.
The relatively low carry total for last year’s Lions was not due to a philosophical commitment to throwing the ball. Rather, it was due to a consistent, circumstantial obligation to pass given how often the Lions were losing. Whether they are competitive enough in 2022 to make good on an apparent desire to establish the run is yet to be seen. I would bet against it. They will likely continue to be a philosophically backwards team that corners themselves into disadvantageous situations by running the ball when they shouldn’t. As an ironic and paradoxical result, they will therefore run the ball fewer times than they would like.
Five running backs took handoffs in Detroit last season. All five — Jamaal Williams, D’Andre Swift, Craig Reynolds, Godwin Igwebuike, and Jermar Jefferson — did so at least at 15 times. Here are the full rushing efficiency profiles for those five runners:
Now what does all this nonsense mean?
Let’s get the auxiliary players out of the way. The numbers here suggest that both Igwebuike and Jefferson were incredibly efficient in low-volume roles. Igwebuike saw extremely light box counts relative to the other guys on the team. But he was both efficient and very consistent even when accounting for those light fronts. Jefferson saw slightly higher box counts than the rest of the team and was more efficient anyway. I wasn’t really a Jefferson guy in last year’s rookie class. But anyone keeping the light on for him in dynasty should find reason for optimism here.
Reynolds is a guy with a name that sounds like it was pulled straight from the roster of the 1989 St. Louis Cardinals. He also went to Kutztown University, so he might be a fake player for all I know. Either way, he was relatively consistent on his 55 attempts but wasn’t offering much value in the run game overall. The average Reynolds carry was worth nearly 10-percent less output than the average carry from all other Detroit backs.
Williams did basically what we would expect a steady-but-unspectacular veteran like himself to do: provide consistency without much dynamism. His 8.2-percent Relative Success Rate is a quality mark, but he wasn’t really bringing anything else to the table.
Now To The (Supposed) Goods
Surprisingly, D’Andre Swift was not very good last season relative to some backfield teammates that nobody would mistake for a group of Pro Bowlers. He averaged 0.23 fewer yards per carry than they did while seeing lighter box counts than theirs. Given those box counts, he was both less efficient overall and far less consistent than other Lion runners. I have not yet collected efficiency data for every team. Among the 17 teams I do have numbers on so far, Swift’s -12.8-percent Relative Success Rate is easily the lowest mark among guys who were top-two on their respective teams in rushing attempts. He wasn’t just bad compared to other Lions backs. He was bad compared to at least half the high-volume runners in the league.
So Now What?
What does such a poor performance on the ground mean for how we should view D’Andre Swift in dynasty? Maybe nothing, maybe something. Let’s zoom out and see what his numbers looked like in his rookie season. Here they are next to his 2021 stats:
Obviously, he was much better as a rookie than as a sophomore. Zooming even further out, his college numbers suggest he has a profile as a pure runner somewhere in between awful and elite. At Georgia, he had a positive Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating of 114.9-percent, but that was just a 55th-percentile mark. He had a negative Relative Success Rate -1.2-percent that landed in just the 36th percentile. Those numbers were posted relative to a group of running back teammates that collectively averaged an 81st-percentile 3.93-star rating as high school recruits. That’s a really solid group, but hey, he’s playing with NFL-level guys now, too.
Swift was solid but not great as a college runner, and through two seasons handling subdued volume as a pro, he’s been really good and then really bad.
But Really, Now What?
What matters more for fantasy football than efficiency is production. And D’Andre Swift has posted quality numbers in his first two NFL seasons. His rookie season 23.6-percent Dominator Rating is an 81st-percentile mark for 21-year olds. And the 25.8-percent Dominator Rating he notched as a second-year guy is in the 85th-percentile for 22-year old backs. Despite ceding touches in the running game to other players, he’s been as productive as he has because he’s a quality receiver. His career 14.6-percent Target Share is a 96th-percentile mark.
In PPR points per game, Swift has finished as the RB16 and RB10, respectively, in the last two years. Quality finishes, but in order to ascend to a high-end RB1 level in fantasy, something’s gotta give. Either Swift needs to earn a larger share of Lions’ rushing attempts, or the team needs to improve to the point where there are simply more fantasy points available in the offense as a whole. And maybe both need to happen.
The odds of that second criterium coming to fruition don’t seem great. But situations are notoriously unpredictable, so who knows. The first criterium might be dependent on Swift just improving his own play. It’s hard to justify him seeing a larger share of the rushing workload when, at least in 2021, he wasn’t providing any value on his carries relative to the other backs on the team. The possibility that he steps it up is reflected in the upside he showed as a rookie. Let’s hope he’s more that dude than the one we saw last year.
The problem is that the odds of all those things going right doesn’t seem to be factored into Swift’s cost. He’s currently trading as the RB2 and No. 11 overall player on KeepTradeCut. And he was the RB3 and No. 5 overall player by ADP as recently as February, per Dynasty League Football.
I don’t want to overreact to one season of poor play. But at this point in D’Andre Swift‘s NFL career, the 2021 season represents 50-percent of his games played. And almost 60-percent of his total carries. I loved Swift the prospect as much as anyone. That’s not technically true since I correctly had Jonathan Taylor at RB1 in that draft class while some other folks insisted on pumping Swift up to that spot. But let’s exercise some caution. Don’t crown him just yet.