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D’Andre Swift is a first-round talent and a second-round bargain for the Lions

Swift’s lack of carries at Georgia isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

Artwork of NFL RB prospect D’Andre Swift running the ball at Georgia, superimposed on a gray and white background with black dots and lines
D’Andre Swift is the favorite to be the first RB drafted in 2020.

The Lions selected D’Andre Swift with the 35th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Here’s what Christian D’Andrea had to say about Swift ahead of the draft.

D’Andre Swift only had 2,885 rushing yards in his University of Georgia career — less than half what Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor accomplished in the same three-year span. Those limited reps, and a history of success from recent Bulldog alums, may peg Swift as the safest tailback bet in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Swift has emerged as a favorite among mock draft experts to be the first running back off the board this spring. In many cases, he’s the only player out of the backfield to hear his name called in Round 1.

A spot on Day 1 is an increasingly rare honor for a college running back. Only 16 have been drafted in the first round in the past 10 years. In the past five seasons, players like Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Josh Jacobs have rewarded that faith with explosive starts. They’ve helped erase the negligible impacts of runners like Trent Richardson or Jahvid Best and stem the tide of “never draft a running back in the first round” takes.

That puts even more pressure on the first-round backs who follow them to perform. Swift has the chops to pull it off — and the limited NCAA mileage to sustain a long career at the next level.

Georgia brought Swift along slowly thanks to a wealth of RB talent

Like cornerback Jeff Okudah at Ohio State, Swift was a blue-chip prospect who had his path to immediate playing time blocked by future NFL starters. As a true freshman, Swift played behind Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and still managed to rush for 681 yards (and a stellar 7.6 yards per carry).

In 2018 he entered a 50-50 split with Elijah Holyfield in which both players ran for more than 1,000 yards on 6.4 yards per rush. Swift finally ascended to an unquestioned place atop the UGA depth chart in 2019 and responded with his most productive season yet: 1,218 yards despite averaging only 14 carries per game.

While he was part of a platoon when it came to carries, Swift was the top receiving option out of the backfield from day one. He led the Bulldogs’ tailbacks in receptions in each of his three years in Athens and averaged more than nine yards per catch as a well-deployed linebacker-roaster on screen passes and wheel routes.

You can see those skills on film. His lateral speed helps him break off routes to create space; great focus and good hands combine to turn short plays into big gains from there.

Once the ball is secured, Swift is a compact, grinding runner who churns through contact and presses toward the chains even with two or three defenders stuck on his back.

He’s good at just about everything; his acceleration, vision, and top speed are all NFL-worthy, especially after being honed in three years against SEC defenses. He’s comfortable inside the hashes and out. He can also pick up blitzers and upend charging linebackers and safeties to keep his QB’s pocket clean.

These are all wonderful attributes for an NFL where passing is king but, as Derrick Henry and the Titans proved in 2019, running remains vital. Swift’s relative lack of touches at Georgia may raise concerns about his ability to be a workhorse back — he only had eight games with more than 16 carries over the course of his college career — but it also kept him fresh. In a league with tailback burnout is a concern, Swift’s low-mileage odometer will be seen as a plus.

He’s got competition if he wants to be the first running back drafted this year. Taylor is coming off a Wisconsin career in which he ran for more yards in his three seasons than anyone else, ever. LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire had nearly 1,900 total yards — including 453 through the air — for the reigning champions. Ohio State’s J.K Dobbins ran for more than 2,000 yards last fall (and more yards per carry than the other three) in 14 games.

You could make the argument for any as 2020’s top back. Swift, used to life as the home-run hitting threat in a platoon, may be better suited for the NFL than all of them.

Will teams be wary of spending a first-round pick on a good, but not necessarily great back?

Drafting running backs in Round 1 briefly fell out of favor in NFL circles. After Richardson famously bilked both the Browns and Colts out of first-round picks (the first at the draft, the second via trade), teams became reticent to spend Day 1 selections on runners; no back was selected in the first round in either 2013 or 2014.

While that launched a thousand thinkpieces on the value of runners in a league trending toward backfield platoons, the trend didn’t stick. There’s been a first-round running back each year since 2015, with multiples selected in ‘15, ‘17, and ‘18. The aforementioned successes of guys like Elliott and McCaffrey have helped restore the value — and fend off some of the knee-jerk criticism — of selecting a first-round RB.

The Rams’ recent Todd Gurley saga may cause some teams to pause before investing premium draft capital on a runner. The All-SEC back peaked as one of the game’s top weapons after the Rams selected him 10th overall in 2015. His career in spiral horns ended after five seasons when Los Angeles released him after an injury-affected, low-impact 2019.

That left the Rams without a feature back, a massive chunk of dead salary cap space, and a cautionary tale for the rest of the league. But Gurley came into the NFL with major injury concerns after tearing his ACL in his final season as a Bulldog. Swift has no similar high-profile injury concerns, though he did have offseason surgery to repair microtears in his groin in 2018 and played through some nagging maladies in each of the past two seasons. He had 70 fewer career carries at Georgia than Gurley in 13 more games.

That history should only serve to raise Swift’s stock even after a year when former first-round picks like Gurley and Melvin Gordon sputtered their way through down years and offseason relocations. The Georgia back may never sustain a stretch of games with 20+ carries, but that’s not a prerequisite for success in 2020’s NFL.

Instead, he’ll provide a team with above-average production as a runner, receiving, and blocker. His versatility makes him three players in one — and that should be enough to make him a coveted prospect.