If I had a laboratory fitting of a mad scientist, Football Outsiders’ Speed Score would have its application. What about now?
Futures: The 2014 Speed Score Leaders
By Matt Waldman
Indulge me in a bit of fantasy. Imagine an old football field. It’s a practice field at the rear of an abandoned high school with woods surrounding it on three sides. Behind the north goal post is an equipment building no bigger than a backyard storage shed with a green tin roof, white cinderblock, and a steel blue door held three-quarters shut with a rusted chain and pad lock.
Squeeze inside this dark, dilapidated building and you’ll find Craig James’ concussed son -– wrong story. Let’s try again…
Squeeze inside this cobweb-filled space and you’ll find nothing but a bench press station with a torn vinyl cushion. Reach into the tear of the cushion and there’s a switch that opens a trap door in the floor near the entrance that reveals a long, torch-lit spiral staircase made of stone that leads to the secret laboratory of M. Waldman, mad scientist of offensive skill talent.
The demented (but good) doctor is pouring over plans to create Bo Jackson 2.0. He has set up shop in the southeastern United States because of regional and socio-economic factors that point to it as the best area to produce a rare athlete for the game. He’s hacked into the medical records of pediatrician offices and narrowed the field of candidates to boys who are projected to develop into young men between five-foot-nine and six-foot-one and have the skeletal-muscular potential to carry 210-to-225 lbs.
Like a formula to determine the tensile stress of a material for an engineering firm, Football Outsiders’ Speed Score would have an ideal application in M. Waldman’s secret lab. The problem wouldn’t be constructing the running backs, but preventing Nick Saban from breaking them before they reach the NFL.
In the reality of the NFL Draft, the Speed Score provides a layer of analysis that illuminates the players with desirable physical skills. The idea is a fine one: if they’re big and explosive, they’ll have the strength-speed-agility to measure on a spectrum that ends with terminates at Bo Jackson.
But we know that good running backs come in all shapes and sizes. Darren Sproles and Brandon Jacobs illustrate how the range of height, weight, speed, strength, and agility of successful players at the position is wider than any in the NFL.
The differences in size are also indicative of the specialization of the position that has evolved over the years. The New Orleans Saints three different types of runners on its depth chart:
- Darren Sproles — A hybrid of a scat-back, slot receiver, and return specialist.
- Pierre Thomas — A utility back that does his best work in pass protection, draws, and screens.
- Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson — Traditional power backs who do best with a high volume of touches.
The Patriots, Cardinals, Bengals, Colts, Chargers, Panthers, Lions, and Falcons have at least two runners with roles that may blend in some places, but have distinct separation of labor in others. Based on recent drafts, one could argue that the Packers, 49ers, and Washington had similar aspirations.
Specialization offers more avenues for a variety of physical talents at the running back position to earn a roster spot. However, it doesn’t create more opportunities for running backs overall.
There’s a lot of talent on the street that can enter an NFL locker room, exit the tunnel to the field on Sunday afternoon, post 80-100 yards, and help a team win a game. The fact that Thomas and Robinson -– two UDFAs -– are viable options is a testament to this point.
Joique Bell, Alfred Morris and Arian Foster’s numbers all sound the refrain that a quality NFL running back often requires a lot less of what we emphasize as “good foot-speed.” There’s another type of speed that these three possess that is as important as foot-speed, agility, balance, and vision –- “processor speed.”
It’s an attribute often linked with vision –- a quality that is difficult to quantify unless one deconstructs “vision” into definable components. I still link processor speed with vision –- it’s the mental speed that a football player sees the position of the players on the field, links it to the game situation, and executes the appropriate physical reaction to the this environment-stimuli.
Processor speed enhances on-field speed. Watch a tentative or confused player and subtract tenths of a second of his execution time. While you’re at it, begin subtracting positive plays, playing time, and ultimately a contract with the team.
Clean, consistent technique is another factor that enhances on-field speed. There are receivers with 4.3-speed that cannot separate from cornerbacks because they cannot run clean routes. However, there are much slower pass catches whose routes are so good that they earn separation as if they had great foot-speed.
There’s no silver bullet or code to crack that will yield accurate projections of rookie prospects with quantifiable precision. Because the mad scientist’s football laboratory is only a pipe-dream, it’s important to view players that score high on Football Outsiders’ Speed Score within the context of the rest of their skills.
Nevertheless, the 2014 version of the Speed Score offers an intriguing quartet of players at its top: Oklahoma’s Damien Williams, Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon, Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney, and Notre Dame’s George Atkinson. I’m not convinced all four have a place in the NFL, but even before Aaron Schatz asked me to write about them, I thought each offered an intriguing storyline.