Almost exactly a year from the day he was drafted in the fourth round by the Dallas Cowboys, former Tar Heel receiver Ryan Switzer was told by his coach and general manager that he was going to be traded to the Oakland Raiders for defensive tackle Jihad Ward. This move surprised just about everybody who heard about it. Switzer himself was caught more than a little off guard, as he tells 247 Sports in this interview:
Oh, no question it did [feel like a gut punch]...
Honestly, man. I don’t know [what I could’ve done better]. I did everything I could. I was one of those “get there early, stay late” [players]. You know I had great practices. When I got my opportunity at the end of the year against Philly, I produced.
It’s easy to see why the trade was confusing. While Switzer didn’t earn a ton of playing time on offense (just three games with more than 10 offensive snaps, one of which was that Philadelphia game), he immediately started on special teams and became one of the NFL’s better return men. He averaged nearly 9 yards per punt return (good for 12th in the league) and 25 per kickoff return, good for 3rd in the league and making him one of few players in the league for whom a kick return was a better outcome than a touchback (Please, NFL, find a good alternative to kickoffs). He had one memorable punt return for a touchdown that might have been more impressive than any of his ACC-record 7 in college and cemented him as a weapon:
And, like he says, Switzer did produce offensively when given the opportunity. He saw 7 passes come his way all season and caught 6 of them for a total of 41 yards, and while that’s underwhelming, 5 of those targets were in the Philadelphia game. He caught four of those for 32 yards, putting up a pretty typical slot receiver line. As a receiver and a returner, he did just about everything North Carolina fans saw him do for four years. Where his production didn’t carry over was in the gadget plays he saw fairly heavy use on as a Tar Heel. He had four carries on the season on plays such as jet sweeps and reverses, and they went for 3, 3, 3, and -4 yards. Despite his agility and speed that were on full display in the above video, Switzer isn’t made for running the ball in the NFL. He’s small and doesn’t accelerate in a straight line quickly enough to turn the edge consistently. And that’s not a knock on him, because very few NFL players should be expected to be able to play multiple roles well. Switzer already has very good skills as a return man and at least decent skills as a slot receiver. That’s already a ton of value.
These are things that are clear to me, as somebody who has never played organized football and doesn’t have a job in the NFL, but has watched the vast majority of Switzer’s snaps since college. On the surface, it seems like Dallas picking Switzer made perfect sense. Their previous return man, Lucky Whitehead, offered very little outside the return game, had pedestrian averages, poor ball security, and hadn’t scored a touchdown in 30 games before Switzer took over. They promptly released him before the 2017 season started. Their current starting slot receiver, Cole Beasley, will be an unrestricted free agent next year and will likely demand a fairly huge contract after being the team’s leading receiver in 2016. Switzer had a role on the Cowboys ready-made for him to jump into after two years, or so it seemed.
It seems that Dallas saw things a little differently. Granted, this is just Switzer’s side of the story and it’s heavy speculation on his part, but it’s not that far-fetched:
The more I think on it, I think that they had a different plan for me than what I was capable of doing. I don’t know. Looking back I had two or three rushes in the NFL before receptions and I was taking reps at running back at times. I don’t know if they were trying to use me as like a scat-back or what. There was a lot of talk about my high school days and being a [running back] and I don’t think I ever fit that mold as a change-of-pace back or someone with slide sweeps and carries. I don’t know if that’s the plan they had for me [because] it was never spoken, but when I try to piece these things together - that’s kind of what I’m thinking... That’s about as good of a guess as I have.
For those of you who need a reminder, here’s Switzer’s recruiting profile from 247 Sports. Though he did play running back in high school, even this profile makes it clear that he was going to have to play receiver or cornerback at the college level. Additionally, playing running back against a bunch of comparatively inferior athletes, Switzer was able to work himself into being the 474th-ranked prospect in his class. Playing receiver against much better athletes, Switzer impressed enough to be taken with the 133rd pick in the NFL Draft. It should be clear that his work as a college receiver was much more projectable and impressive than his work as a high schooler. Switzer is right; he took 3 carries in the NFL before he was targeted at all as a wide receiver. One of those was actually with him lined up as a running back. On all of them, he ran to the sideline, as the play was designed, and failed to turn the corner. Clearly, this wasn’t a role he was meant to play. I, and many others, could’ve told the Cowboys this the second they announced their selection of Switzer. It apparently took them until the end of October. Fine, give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were just seeing what else he could do to maximize his value. But even without that in his game, he still offers plenty, particularly for a quarterback in Dak Prescott who loves to throw short-intermediate. How soon we forget this drive:
A possible explanation for this move is that the Dallas organization is preparing to give Cole Beasley everything he wants next year. He’s not yet 30 years old, so he’ll play for a long time at the level he’s at right now, so in a vacuum you could say it’s going to be a good investment. But when you had the opportunity to get essentially the same player with punt/kick return value on a rookie contract for two more years, I have to question your understanding of economics. And that’s not even getting into the possibility of lineups with two slot receivers. The Patriots make hay with it, and while not every team is the Patriots, a lot of tight ends are just big, glorified slot receivers. Dez Bryant is gone. Jason Witten is gone. Terrance Williams is inconsistent. I like draftee Michael Gallup out of Colorado State, but he’s going to be a rookie, and he was inconsistent in college. There’s a very good chance that Switzer and Beasley would’ve been the Cowboys’ biggest aerial threats next year, and you’d think any offensive coach would want his two best threats both on the field as much as possible.
Of course, the move is done now. Switzer clearly doesn’t want anybody to have an impression that he’s dissatisfied with Dallas, as he replied to a clickbaity headline thus:
Such a misleading and bad headliner. Out of everything said in a positive article, that’s what you make the title.— Ryan Switzer (@Switz) May 7, 2018
(This headline is also just wrong, as you can see in the full quote above that Switzer was talking about his impression of the Cowboys’ plans rather than what he was asked to do his rookie year, but I digress)
But that’s all in the past. Switzer can be forgiven for being a little confused about it, but as he notes, the NFL is a business and sometimes business doesn’t make sense. All he can do is focus on the future, and he’s doing so:
At the end of the day you know I realized the work that I put in isn’t [going] to waste. It’s just going to be for another team now. I know the work that I’ve put in will, regardless of me being traded or not, make me a better player.
[The trade’s] not something that’s going to weigh me down and create a negative. I feel more so that it’s going to be something that propels me and not that I needed any external motivation, but this is kind of nice. I gave my all to Dallas. I gave everything I had to the organization and I plan on doing the same thing in Oakland. Any day of the week no matter what I play [and] no matter what I do, I would bet the house on me.
Oakland is a very interesting landing spot for Switzer, as the team is undergoing a pretty radical rebuild this season. Amari Cooper is entrenched as Derek Carr’s #1 target, but Carr is another player who very gladly takes short-intermediate options when they’re available, and with Michael Crabtree gone as the player who was previously Carr’s primary underneath target, Switzer has a real chance to break into heavy rotation. Jordy Nelson is old and Martavis Bryant is a deep threat. New coach Jon Gruden absolutely loves guys like Switzer who overcome physical obstacles to play at a high level. He absolutely has a shot at playing and playing a lot, and he knows it, saying he’s “really excited to be somewhere I’m wanted.”
We, as Tar Heel fans, know exactly what Ryan Switzer brings to the table. Dallas missed out, but hopefully Oakland won’t. Hopefully he’s cast at what he’s good at this time around, and we look forward to seeing him continue to make opponents look silly every time he gets the ball in space.