Slack and Forth: D'Andre Swift Versus Jonathan Taylor in Fantasy Football
In a couple of weeks, we're going to get some answers on this year's crop of incoming rookies. The NFL draft will give us a glimpse at how evaluators view these players, and that should have an impact on how we values them, as well.
But waiting ain't no fun, especially when we're all locked in with nothing to argue about. So let's stir this pot right now.
One of the bigger debates is at the top end of the running back landscape. D'Andre Swift is the favorite to be the first back off the board, based on the numbers at FanDuel Sportsbook, but Jonathan Taylor has been a Twitter favorite and has had his draft pick total shoot down to 37.5. That'll happen when you bust out a 4.39 40 at the combine.
Eventually, we'll be able to decide whom we prefer from a fantasy perspective thanks to signals from the NFL, and most rookie drafts will take place after that time. But for right now, who should be higher on our boards?
I was conflicted on this, personally, so I wanted to chat on Slack with numberFire's Managing Editor (and my podcast co-host), Brandon Gdula, to see where he stood.
jimsannes: All right, Brandon, I can see the cases for ranking either Swift or Taylor higher right now. Who's your preferred guy heading into the draft?
brandongdula: Yeah, this is really just nitpicking between these two. They both rank as the 1A and 1B in my prospect model, which is focused on fantasy football production potential. Taylor is the 1A, but these two are a cut above the rest to me. So I lean Taylor.
jimsannes: What's the tie-breaker for you between them?
brandongdula: Primarily the production. Both are stud athletes for their size, but Taylor’s dominator rating is in the 96th percentile in my model, and that’s tough to beat. A lot of that is based on situation, but it’s just hard to argue against it. Where does Taylor line up relative to Swift -- and possibly others -- for you?
jimsannes: I dig data a lot, and most of the data seems to favor Taylor. I just have some slight question marks about Taylor that make me question things.
Mainly, it's the pass-catching. He was super involved in the passing game as a junior, but the first two years, he had a total of just 16 receptions. He was awesome when they did throw to him, so it could have been just a mistake on Wisconsin's part that he wasn't getting the ball in space initially. But it gets your attention, at least.
Swift, though, is a lock to get work as a pass-catcher. Back in 2017, he was a true freshman and playing alongside Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Even with them there, Swift still had 17 catches, more than Taylor had through two seasons.
Maybe it's nit-picky. But it at least gives me some pause on Taylor.
brandongdula: Definitely a valid point. I just don’t think we can understate how rare Taylor’s blend of athleticism and production are. Adjusting his 40 time for his size, he has a speed score of 117.9. His dominator rating -- the percentage of yardage and touchdowns of his team’s offense he had -- was 41.8% in 2019. The only three other prospects in my model with a speed score of at least 113 and a dominator of at least 40%: Adrian Peterson (the good one), Chris Johnson, and Derrick Henry. It’s hard to hate that trio when we’re looking for fantasy football outliers.
Taylor still ranked ninth among 23 combine-invited backs with at least 20 targets in yards per target this year. He was just half a yard per target shy of Swift in 2019. He may not be a game-changing receiver, but if he lands in a plus offense, he could be a dominant fantasy asset.
jimsannes: That's Arizona Cardinals legend Chris Johnson to you, bud.
The other thing worth pointing out on Taylor (again, nit-picking) is that dude fumbles all the gosh darn time. He had 18 fumbles in his career, and it actually got him benched in a game they lost to Northwestern in 2018. I, personally, don't care about fumbling, but I know the NFL does.
It's stupid, and it doesn't push me off Taylor. But ya know.
What concerns do you have around Swift?
brandongdula: My guess is that any team drafting Taylor plans to use him and is aware of the fumbling. Hopefully coaches give him a long leash, but that’s a definite issue with Taylor. We can never predict coaching.
But, again, I don’t have much to hate about Swift, who is a great athlete and whose receiving can make him a phenomenal fantasy asset. The biggest red flag is the production.
It’s typically hard to carve out a big role at a school like Georgia, yet we did see Todd Gurley post a dominator rating of 34.0% in his final season. Swift’s was 20.9%. Is that a fair comparison? No, not really, but we’ve seen plenty of athletic backs from SEC schools with tepid dominator ratings in recent years — Felix Jones, Mike Goodson, Matt Jones, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb. There are hits, and there are misses in there.
And if we’re going to talk about coaching, we also have to consider that not every coaching staff can maximize the receiving potential that Swift has.
jimsannes: I think the production question is valid for Swift, especially because one of his biggest reported red flags is durability.
That durability definitely hurt his market share numbers, too. He basically didn't play the final two games (even though he was active) because his shoulder was hurt. He got a lot of work earlier in the year in close games, but it wasn't Taylor-esque. That's very fair.
Part of the reason I brought up the pass-catching was because it meant Swift would have better odds of being an every-down, 80% snap rate back at the next level. But you are right in that Taylor was the one closer to that in college, which does matter.
One extra question I'd have there is whether you'd still favor Taylor if Swift were to go higher in the draft. Let's say there's a 10-pick gap between the two, and they go to pretty equal situations. Would that tilt the scales, or would you still go Taylor?
brandongdula: Definitely would change things. A bit of a cheat code with prospecting is that draft equity plays a huge role. We learn a lot about how much a team values a player based on when they draft him. That’s not ground-breaking, but it’s true. The talent gap at running back in the NFL isn’t that great between most players, so opportunity is key.
If Swift does go half a round earlier, it would do enough to sway me. Landing spot also matters, but we can’t really get into that right now before the draft.
Let me flip this on you: if Swift falls and Taylor goes significantly earlier, would you be on Taylor or Swift?
jimsannes: Oh, yeah, absolutely. For a lot of the same reasons you mentioned above.
If a team takes Taylor early, it means they don't really care about the concerns I mentioned with the fumbling and pass-catching. That can allow me to lower the weight I put on those and just drool over his data, which I'd be happy to do if those aren't red flags anymore.
So it seems like we're both high on these guys, but there isn't a big enough split for us to just ignore what the draft tells us. Anybody else sniffing this tier for you?
brandongdula: Not quite. Next up for me are JK Dobbins, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Cam Akers. I’m quite high on AJ Dillon, but he’ll be landing spot dependent for sure. I just have Taylor and Swift in the top tier, and I think it’s silly to take a pre-draft stand in case either of them get drafted very early. What about you?
jimsannes: Yeah, they're in a tier of their own to me.
I'm glad you brought up Edwards-Helaire, though, because he's so freaking fun. He catches a boatload of passes and just kinda pinballs off of everything that touches him. If he were to surprise and go high in the draft, I'd buy in with no reservations. That just seems unlikely to happen.
All right, I'm feeling pretty good about where things stand now. It's going to be a fun draft at running back just because we're definitely going to have surprises around landing spots that are going to shake up the fantasy landscape. But it'll be a treat to watch guys like Taylor and Swift at the next level. No matter which one you prefer, it'll be sweet to see another injection of talent into the fantasy football player pool.