D.J. Swearinger likes to talk. A lot.
But last night Roddy White added a wrinkle to the narrative: the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver said he thinks the Houston Texans safety has a ways to go before his walk is enough to back it up.
“Any guy that goes out there and talks all day — you know, you’ve gotta be able to play,” White said. “All that rah rah at the end of the day means nothing if you don’t go out there and make plays.”
So, how good of an NFL safety is Swearinger?
To this point, he’s a work in progress, especially in pass coverage.
Swearinger allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 68.9 percent of passes thrown his way last season, for 441 yards and one touchdown to only one interception for a 96.1 quarterback rating. His yards allowed were the seventh-most at the position, and his yards after the catch were fifth-most. Meaning, when Swearinger was beat in coverage last season (as he was often) it wasn’t even close, leading to plenty of catch and run for opposing receivers.
That’s part of the reason he was picked on so much in 2013. Only two safeties were targeted more often last season when you consider how often they dropped back into coverage: Aaron Williams of the Buffalo Bills was thrown at once every 8.1 coverage snaps, and Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs once every 8.7. Swearinger fell just behind at 8.9. (We’re using cover snaps per target, as opposed to overall targets, to account for how often a player was — or wasn’t — dropping back into coverage.) Swearinger also allowed a ton of yards and receptions on a rate basis. He wasn’t in coverage too often. But enough to be a problem, especially given his performance there.
To put it one way: Swearinger earned a minus-2.9 grade in pass coverage last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked 57th of 86 safeties.
Swearinger was also basically a non-factor on the blitz. Pro Football Focus uses a metric called “pass rush productivity” to quantify a player’s contribution when he rushes the passer, incorporating his number of quarterback sacks, hits and pressures on a weighted scale (in which sacks count for more than hits, and hits count for more than pressures) and rate basis. Swearinger in 2013 had no sacks, only one hit and three hurries — for an 8.3 pass rush productivity grade. That ranked third-worst among NFL safeties last season. For reference, Malcolm Jenkins’ 21.4 for the New Orleans Saints last season was the best.
Overall, Pro Football Focus gave Swearinger’s pass rush skills a minus-2.2 grade, which ranked third-worst among at his position one year ago.
All that said, some parts of Swearinger’s game are really good. Namely, run stoppage.
Swearinger’s 51 run tackles last season ranked second at his position, as did his 24 run stops. Better, Swearinger’s stop percentage — his number of stops divided by the number of running plays he faced — was the best in football.
There is, however, a but: Swearinger missed a lot of tackles last season — 11 to be exact. That was tied for 30th among 86 safeties last season, and it explains his mere plus-1.2 grade against the run, 31st of 86 players at his position.
It’s also worth noting that, with the NFL’s recent emphases on (in 2014) illegal contact/defensive holding and (in 2013) player safety, Swearinger needs to ensure he can play within the rules — especially for a player who struggles in coverage and relies on big hits for most of his contribution. That wasn’t too big of an issue last season; Swearinger was flagged four times, 13th most among NFL safeties, but with three coming in a dreadful Week 14 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. It needs to continue to not be this season.
That includes the jawing. No NFL team can afford to consistently be flagged for senseless unsportsmanlike conduct and taunting penalties, no matter a player’s talent or production. That was on display last night, when the Texans allowed four penalties, three in a row, on the Falcons only scoring drive of the night. One was on Swearinger, who apparently celebrated with Josh Victorian after a pass breakup with too much enthusiasm for head referee Jeff Triplette’s liking. However petty the call may have been — and oh, was it petty — that’s now life in the NFL, where officials seemingly have no tolerance for extra cirriculars.
Swearinger’s bravado is undoubtedly a part of who he is as a player, his playing personality. But it’s something he needs to learn to control if he wants to become one of the NFL’s better players at what is, increasingly, one of its most important positions.
Of course, Swearinger is entering only his second NFL season, after being drafted in the second round in 2013. The player he is today — and was yesterday — won’t be the player he is tomorrow.
At least that’s the hope.
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