Niyo: Lions' Swift move may be quick fix for run game

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The Lions didn’t waste much time in making their first move Friday night. And if it seemed like they were in a hurry, there was a reason: They really wanted D’Andre Swift.

So when it was their turn, they quickly grabbed the Georgia running back with the 35th overall pick of the NFL draft, the third player off the board in Friday night’s second round.

Best player available? From the Lions’ perspective, it sure sounded like it.

“I was a little bit surprised last night when we went back and we said, ‘All right, Swift’s still up there,’” Lions general manager Bob Quinn said late Friday night at the end of Day 2 of the draft. “Kind of crossed our fingers for a couple picks. But going to bed last night, he was the guy that was on my mind the most. I was hoping we could get him.”

Georgia running back D'Andre Swift (7) struggles for extra yardage against Texas A&M in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Athens, Ga.

That they did probably came as a surprise to some. A mistake to others, I’m sure, considering it’s the second time in three years the Lions have used a second-round pick on a running back.

But while that’s less than ideal, it’s also understandable. Maybe even expected, if you were paying attention. Because the Lions clearly were in the market for help at the position this offseason.

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Swift noted in a conference call Friday night that he’d had more contact with the Lions than most other NFL teams. And though he didn’t know Detroit was where he’d land Friday night, his initial reaction certainly wasn’t shock.

 “Just relieved,” Swift said. “Excited, happy, blessed — everything all in one.”

And that’s part of what this move is about, really. All-in-one’s great, but two-for-all sounds that much better to a GM. Or a coach, for that matter.

Time will tell exactly how this shakes out, but Kerryon Johnson, the incumbent starter in Detroit, has spent two stints on injured reserve in his first two NFL seasons, missing 14 games combined. And while he looked like a real find as a rookie, averaging 5.4 yards a carry (second-best in the NFL in 2018), he couldn’t match that type of production last season even before he was sidelined with another knee injury.

That only reinforced the notion that he needed some help shouldering the workload.

“I think you always want a stable of backs,” Quinn said. “I’ve said that for a long time, that you can count on one hand (in the NFL) how many backs kind of carry the load. There’s not a lot of those guys walking around. We always need multiple backs. It’s a position where guys get hit, they take a pounding. So we just gotta make sure we’ve got good depth and guys that can go out there and make plays for us.”

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In Johnson’s absence last year, the Lions ended up using eight different ballcarriers, including six different starters. Names like Paul Perkins, Tra Carson, Wes Hills, and so on. Bo Scarbrough was another of those fill-in starters, and the second-year pro out of Alabama found the most traction among that group, but he’s certainly not a starter. Or even a No. 2, ideally. Neither is Ty Johnson, last year’s rookie sixth-round pick, though he was the only back besides J.D. McKissic — a third-down specialist who left via free agency — to play in all 16 games.

But it sure feels like they’ve landed one in Swift, though I’m well aware Lions fans have been sold that bill of goods before. For two decades running, actually.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the talent. Or the program that produced it. Swift managed to turn some heads playing behind Sony Michel and Nick Chubb as a true freshman at Georgia. Then, after those two moved on to the NFL, where they’ve already proven themselves as similarly high draft choices, Swift made a name for himself with the Bulldogs.

Georgia running back D'Andre Swift runs a drill at the NFL Combine.

The 5-foot-9, 215-pound Philadelphia native rushed for nearly 2,300 yards and 17 touchdowns the last two seasons, while averaging a whopping 6.6 yards per carry. That broke the school record previously held by Todd Gurley, another in a long line of high-profile running backs to come out of Athens.

Just as impressive, though, Swift also caught 73 passes, and when you combine that versatility with his instincts and explosiveness as a runner, it’s not hard to see why the Lions were enamored enough to stay put at No. 35 and make the phone call. Even with other prospects that likely were enticing along the offensive and defensive lines.

Quinn later filled some major needs with an edge rusher in Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara and a guard in Ohio State’s Jonah Jackson, whom he traded up to snag in the third round. 

Swift was the second back off the board in this year’s draft, after Kansas City took Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the final pick of the first round. But he’s arguably the most complete one in the class, ahead of the likes of Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, who went six picks later to the Colts, and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, who went to Baltimore with the 55th pick.

“This guy’s really good in the open field,” Quinn said of Swift. “Makes guys miss in space. Big-play ability. Catches the ball well out of the backfield. Good route runner.”

And that pass-catching ability allows coordinator Darrell Bevell even more options to diversify his offense, whether it’s two-back sets or simply a work-sharing tandem that keeps a legitimate threat in backfield at all times. That’s something that neither McKissic or Johnson offered last season. And it’s something Swift mentioned unsolicited Friday night as well, talking about how eager he was to show what he can do playing in space at the next level, maybe even lining up the slot, at times.

“I think they complement each other very well,” Quinn said.

And though he wasn't fishing for compliments the way he said it, here's a quick one, anyway: The Lions made the right call drafting Swift.