D.J. Swearinger knows when people see him on the field, many things come to mind – none of which are him staring at his iPad for hours, breaking down video of his upcoming opponent.
"They just see a guy who goes crazy on the field, who hits people, who talks a lot of trash," the Cardinals safety said with a chuckle. "But first and foremost, I'm a student of the game."
Coach Bruce Arians has said Swearinger "blows everybody away on the team" in terms of how much video he watches (the team's video system can measure time spent). For Swearinger, it dates back to college, when he and a teammate saw a story about how much video Ravens stars Ed Reed and Ray Lewis consumed.
If it worked for Reed and Lewis, Swearinger figured, it would work for him. Knowledge is power, and it's been his longtime belief. Even in high school, Swearinger said his legendary coach Shell Dula – who led prep teams for more than 30 years in South Carolina – called him the smartest player he had ever coached.
"That was something I always wanted to be, a smart player first," Swearinger said.
Maybe that didn't always include the smartest decisions, which is how the former second-round pick of the Texans was cut just two seasons after getting to Houston. He didn't last long in Tampa last season either, and when the Cardinals signed him as December began, it was only for a practice squad spot.
"It's been a long journey for me," Swearinger said. "Up-and-down roller coaster. God teaching me to stay humble in certain situations. I think I had a big head in Houston. Going to Tampa and handling things the right way but it just didn't work out. Coming here to the practice squad, knowing I should be starting somewhere but understanding I had to go on my path to get to where I am at.
"I appreciate everything I have been through. I don't regret it at all because it's made me who I am."
Swearinger was only on the practice squad a week, elevated quickly because of injuries first to Rashad Johnson and then Tyrann Mathieu.
Now, Swearinger is a key component of the Cardinals' secondary, especially with Tyvon Branch going on injured reserve and Mathieu struggling in his return from knee surgery and now suffering a shoulder injury. Swearinger has made key plays – his end-zone interception against the Jets, his huge forced fumble in the regular season against the Packers last season – but it is his passion that is brought up first by teammates and coaches.
"He's really into football," Mathieu said. "He loves it, and he's playing like it this year. It's a big year for him, a lot of people doubted him, and he's just trying to put it all together on and off the field."
Swearinger will be a free agent after the season, as will fellow safety Tony Jefferson. His future in Arizona is up in the air, although he has put himself in a good position never again to be on a practice squad.
He has adjusted his game to better fit within the current rules, still delivering the heavy hits he is known for but working to do it with his shoulder and in the "target area" of receivers coming across the middle.
That effort has been evident, defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. So too has the passion, although Swearinger admitted he has to watch "overcelebrating" on the field after Arians talked to him about potential penalties.
For Bettcher, the hitting and celebrating are just part of Swearinger's game – a part often needed to succeed. As for the studious side of Swearinger, that impresses Bettcher most of all.
"The way you can tell guys who are real about how much tape they watch is when they come to meetings and ask questions, sometimes before you have answers," Bettcher said.
"He's not a guy who sits back in his chair, half-asleep. His eyes are wide open and he's engaged. He's earned a ton of respect from his teammates carrying himself that way."
Images of the Cardinals at the annual Kingpin Challenge bowling night at Kyrene Lanes, which benefitted Cardinals Charities