Damian Swann’s career is off to the kind of start most fifth-round picks can only hope to get, a breakout rookie playing a nickel role the Saints consider to be a starter in today’s pass-happy NFL.
But he wants more.
Now that Swann has carved out a permanent role in the lineup, the rookie is already setting his sights on proving he can play the outside, the island that shows a team trusts a cornerback implicitly.
“That’s what every corner wants,” Swann said. “When you feel like you can be that every-down corner, or you can be that corner that’s in every package, whether it’s nickel, base or goal-line. When you find yourself in all those roles, that means you’re doing something right.”
Swann, initially drafted to compete at the nickel and provide depth as a potential emergency safety, found himself forced into action in the preseason by a rash of injuries at the cornerback position. When the regular season opened, Swann had been installed as the Saints’ third corner, instantly thrown into the fire against an Arizona team that targeted the rookie right away.
For the most part, he held up under the barrage, and he’s kept getting better as his rookie season progresses. Swann has proven he can handle a physical player like Carolina tight end Greg Olsen inside — the rookie stymied the Panthers veteran twice on a day when the rest of the Saints secondary struggled — and showed in the opening week that he can cover a burner like Arizona’s John Brown down the sideline.
Swann averaged 32.2 snaps through the first five games of the season, producing 17 tackles, three pass breakups and a tackle-for-loss, the product of physical play in and around the line of scrimmage. The fifth-round pick, something of an afterthought on draft day, has already proven his worth among a standout rookie class, although a concussion suffered against the Eagles forced him to miss the Saints’ upset win over Atlanta last Thursday night.
“I’m the nickel, I come in when they go three wide, four-wide,” Swann said. “Sometimes I’m covering people, sometimes I’m covering an area. My role isn’t big. I just try to do my job.”
Swann, right now, is the junior member of a cornerback group that has plenty of veteran experience available when everybody’s healthy.
Veteran Keenan Lewis, who has been slowly recovering from a sports hernia, is a starting cornerback at full strength, and the Saints brought in Brandon Browner to play opposite him, only to see a different newcomer emerge as a revelation.
Delvin Breaux, the CFL product whose remarkable story of perseverance has captured the admiration of Saints fans, has emerged as a full-fledged shutdown corner. Among that group, Swann knows he has to pay his dues.
“I’m a young guy,” Swann said. “Whether I get a shot on the outside or not, my opportunity is going to come. All that’s going to come with time, and when it does, I just need to be ready.”
Healthy again after being cleared over the weekend, Swann expects to resume his usual role against Indianapolis and its fleet of speedy wide receivers.
The Colts could give Swann a few chances to prove he can help on the outside if needed, too. Beyond big-bodied veteran Andre Johnson, the Colts possess three fleet-of-foot deep threats in T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and rookie Phillip Dorsett.
Browner, a big, physical player, has done his best work against big receivers, a bill that Johnson fits, and Browner has had his issues against burner types like Tampa Bay’s Louis Murphy and Carolina’s Ted Ginn. If Browner matches up against Johnson or one of the Colts’ tight ends, as he’s often done in recent weeks, that means Swann could find himself in deep coverage against one of the Colts’ burners on play after play, whether or not he’s lining up in the slot or outside.
Swann said he isn’t worried about what his role will be. Whatever the Saints need, that’s what the rookie is going to try to provide.
“I’m pretty much focused on, what is my job this week?” Swann said. “What does this team need me to do? And how can I be good at it?”
Swann’s approach is paying off so far.