The aptitude for superior in-game speed may seem obvious to the naked eye, but in fact trying to figure out which college draft picks or potential free agents possess it in a way that will regularly show up on the field can be tricky. Nonetheless, it is a foremost aim of every N.F.L. team.
“It’s talked about all the time because it is a complex assessment,” said Scott Pioli, the former general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs who was also a top executive with the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots and Jets. “We can all see what a player’s pure speed is when he’s running in a straight line in shorts at the league’s combine. But football is not a straight line game, it’s a lot of stopping and starting, it’s change of direction, it’s instincts and angles.”
Pioli said Patriots scouts were perpetually asked to not only report a player’s timed speed, but his “playing speed,” as well.
“The scout’s report might have a player running 4.5 in the 40, but the scout adds that he’s played faster than that,” said Pioli, who is now an analyst for CBS Sports HQ. “Or slower when he has pads on because football isn’t played in shorts.”
There are outliers, and they can get lost, or found, in hours of film study conducted by pro personnel directors. Coming out of college, former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was considered fast but was not necessarily projected to become the game-changing presence he turned out to be. Three linebackers and eight other defensive players were taken ahead of him in the 1996 draft. Wes Welker, a 5-foot-9 wide receiver who played for five N.F.L. teams and ranks 22nd in career receptions with 903, was not even invited to the N.F.L. scouting combine and went undrafted in 2004.
“Lewis played much faster because of his intelligence, which helped him to read opponents’ tendencies,” Pioli said. “Undersized receivers like Welker, they also play faster because of their quickness. You have to look for all those attributes.”
Teams are increasingly using tech help to recognize and verify those unique qualities. But it doesn’t always work as intended.