So the Bucs scooped up safety DJ Swearinger off of waivers today after he was unceremoniously dumped by the Texans. Word on the street is that the former Gamecock star wore out his welcome with a high-strung, self-impressed makeup that allegedly led him to walk out of a Texans’ Special Teams meeting because he thought such duties were beneath him. Is that true? Who knows? There’s also conjecture that Swearinger was a bad influence on freakish DE Jadaveon Clowney, and that he kicks defenseless puppies.
I watched a lot of Swearinger at South Carolina, and he was one of my favorite SEC players of the last decade. I can attest to the fact that he displays epic levels of swagger, that he runs smack constantly, and that he thinks a lot of himself. And that last characteristic concerns me. The NFL has become a league chock full of annoying prima donnas, and, well, they suck. Lovie Smith seems to think that he can love the bad right out of me-first guys with dubious character (see Jameis Winston). The Bucs are gambling that in a locker room with grounded types like Lavonte David, Major Wright, Gerald McCoy, etc., Swearinger will come around. There’s probably some truth to that.
Beyond the character stuff I have few concerns about the guy. Yes, he had occasional lapses in coverage as a pro and his tackling was sub-par at times last season since he tends to head-hunt rather than wrap, but those things can be fixed with reps and coaching. At 23 years old, he’s young and physically gifted. He has a ballhawk’s mentality and a knack for the interception, and he’s versatile too, showing the ability to play both safety roles and even run with receivers in space as a corner, on occasion. Despite his occasional struggles in space versus speedy wide receivers, he’s extremely good in coverage against backs and tight ends. But his best trait, far and away, is his physical play. He has a thick, muscular build and explosive power. Unlike many DBs, Swearinger seems to relish battling against big blockers, and the collisions he initiates are concussive. Receivers and backs who venture into his territory live to regret it, since the guy hits like a swung bat. And he always seems to be pissed off about something, with a genuinely reckless approach to contact and a tendency to mix it up after plays.
Check out the clip below of a hit he delivered as a Gamecock. It sums up everything about the guy in one clip: his closing speed, his athleticism, his teeth-rattling striking ability, his ballhawking skills and his tendency to run his mouth and showboat.
Some folks will see this clip and immediately be reminded of former Buc Dashon Goldson—and their tendency to de-cleat guys is similar—but Swearinger is a more active, instinctive, versatile player. In fact, his angry, in-your-face style reminds me most of another former Buc: middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson. And I can’t think of a higher compliment.
Does his tendency to launch into his tackles concern me? Anything but, actually. Despite new rules intended to
gut the spirit of the game protect players from injury, football is still a contact sport, and every great defense has a player who sets the tone in terms of attitude and physical play. The Bucs have underrated talent on the defensive side of the ball, but their star players (McCoy, David, etc.) are not vicious guys. A junkyard dog like Swearinger can be invaluable in mano-a-mano slugfests where teams line up and try to pound each others’ brains out—the sort of games that are common come playoff time. Swearinger can wear down backs and tight ends with big hits, make receivers flinch and drop balls over the middle, get into a QB’s head with a constant stream of verbal abuse, and fire up his teammates so they play with intensity down after down. Despite gobs of talent the NFL has very few legit alpha dogs and intimidators—and this guy is one of them.
I believe Swearinger has a very real chance to claim the starting strong-safety job in 2015. He’ll need to beat out incumbent Bradley McDougald, a player who more closely fits the mold of the modern NFL safety, with better top-end speed and a longer frame than the vertically-challenged Swearinger. It will be an interesting battle, and I grant McDougald the edge early on give his experience in the complex Tampa 2 scheme. But I give Swearinger the edge over time since he is simply a more dynamic presence.
Reminds me of: former Eagle/Bronco safety Brian Dawkins.
The verdict: Though it’s a clear gamble, I applaud the addition. This defense is on the verge of being special, and one of the things it requires to get there is a mean-spirited, in-the-box presence. If the Bucs can inject a little humility and patience into the guy—without altering his wonderfully fierce approach to the game—the Bucs’ stole a helluva player. In scanning sports sites it’s clear that many alleged “experts” see this as the ho-hum addition, but they are wrong. Swearinger will be an essential part of the Bucs’ eventual rise to title contention, which is why I give this signing a solid 8 out of 10 on the Scrappy Scale.