This is the third in my series, taking a deeper dive into the fantasy ramifications of some of the top positional battles in the NFL. This week, we are looking at the Detroit Lions fantasy running back battle between third-year running back Kerryon Johnson and rookie D’Andre Swift. Two will enter, but only one will leave victorious! FIGHT!
Lions Fantasy Running Back Battle: Johnson vs. Swift
2018-2019: Kerryon Johnson gets his chance but doesn’t do much with it
When the Detroit Lions drafted Kerryon Johnson out of Auburn in 2018, it felt like they finally had their running back of the future. Fantasy players everywhere lined up to draft him in rookie drafts that off-season, even though he was going to be playing behind a bruiser in LeGarrette Blount.
Overall, Johnson played in 10 games, rushed for a team-leading 641 yards, ran in 3 touchdowns, and helped out in the passing game as well. He was starting to prove his worth. In terms of fantasy, he finished 2018 as RB33 in PPR leagues. He definitely wasn’t a stud, but at least he made a name for himself.
2019 saw the retirement of Blount and the anticipated elevation of Johnson to the starting role. Johnson didn’t come out of the gate strong, only getting over 50 yards rushing once in Week 4 before a knee injury in Week 7 forced the team to place him on IR. Johnson missed the next eight games with the team and finished the season with only 403 yards and 3 TDs on the ground, en route to a pretty dismal finish of RB47 in fantasy PPR leagues. Even worse than his rookie campaign.
The big question heading into the NFL draft was whether or not the Lions felt like they could rely on Johnson as a workhorse back. Knee injuries tend to linger, especially for running backs, so everyone was curious if the Lions would go back to the well and find another RB for 2020 or if they felt confident with what they’d seen from Johnson in the past two years.
A new challenger has entered the arena: D’Andre Swift
To start things off, the Lions selected CB Jeff Okudah with the third overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to replace the loss of Darius Slay, who they traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. No big surprise there. The real surprise, however, is what they did early on day two when they selected Georgia RB D’Andre Swift with the 35th pick overall.
Swift was widely considered one of the best backs in this class, alongside other names like Jonathan Taylor and Cam Akers. PFN’s Tony Pauline called Swift “[t]he only sure-fire first-round back on my board” and went on to say he had “the toughness to grind it out on the inside as well as the speed to turn the corner, and he’s a terrific pass catcher out of the backfield.” Clearly, the Lions weren’t messing around with this pick.
If you watched any film on Swift, it’s clear why he was thought of so highly. His raw talent and abilities were on display every game behind one of the best offensive lines in all of college football. Swift racked up a whopping 1,218 yards on the ground as a Junior and entered the draft as a clearcut option to take over whatever backfield he went to. But what about Johnson? Is he still a Lions fantasy running back worth owning?
Johnson vs. Swift in 2020
If the Lions felt like Johnson was their back of the future, they sure didn’t act like it by selecting what some considered the best running back available. An action like that sure sends a signal that they plan to go in a different direction, maybe not immediately, but definitely down the road.
In his piece discussing the Lions 2020 schedule, Cole Thompson brought up a great point to help temper expectations for Swift this season:
The question is, will the line hold up long enough for breakaway plays? Keep in mind, the former Bulldog was playing behind the NCAA’s top unit last season, which provided ample running lanes for success. That likely won’t be the case during his rookie season.
From a fantasy perspective, this could be even more worrisome. It’s very possible that both Lions fantasy running backs will split carries this year, and being behind a porous offensive line, it’s also possible that neither back will carry enough value to see starting lineups.
Currently, we have Swift ranked as RB18 and Johnson as RB36 in Superflex dynasty leagues, meaning both have flex appeal at the very minimum, but will either one be worthy of an RB2 start week in and week out? It’s hard to say for now, but given Swift’s pedigree and draft capital, it makes sense that the team is willing to let the two battle it out on the field.
If you have already had your rookie draft, there’s no way you’re trading away Swift, and it’ll be difficult to get him in a trade from someone else as well. There’s just no reason to move him. He’s a clear hold for me.
Johnson, on the other hand, could be seen as a buy-low candidate, especially if his current owner is freaking out about Swift and wants to get out. He should start the season ahead of Swift on the depth chart and provide some early season points in your lineups, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s benched forever and Swift takes over.
Winner: D’Andre Swift but probably not immediately
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Andrew Hall is a writer for PFN covering the NFL and Fantasy Football. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndrewHallFF.