Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens: Speed Kills (Our Sensibilities for Understanding RB Play)

Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens profiles a pair of runs from Saquon Barkley and Malcolm Brown to illustrate why speed is over-emphasized in some circles of scouting the running back position.

Speed is the cleavage of football analysis. No matter how much the NFL tells you that they’ve evolved and speed is simply one of many traits they examine, their actions speak louder when they see a great 40-time — especially with running backs.

It’s stupid to think you’re not going to notice—even personally admire it—but you have to learn appropriate time, place, and priority or it ruins everything.

If the evaluation process were like a traditional interview, I could imagine the following scenario:

I can pick up the cross blitz, work the intermediate seam as a receiver, run gap or power equally well, and… [RB prospect stops talking and stares at the GM in silence, hoping the man across the table will lift his gaze to eye level–something that hasn’t happened the entire interview]

Mr. Snift? 

Hmmm? Uh, yes, I was just thinking about those…ahem…THAT 85-yard run you had against UCLA [eyes drift below the player’s gaze once again].

You’re going to be a great fit around here. Our staff will work on your pass protection.

Speed is nice to have and a great tiebreaker, but it remains a raw material in football. Despite what scores of analysts and football types tell you, they’re still captivated by it—often for all the wrong reasons.

The ability to identify and process valuable information into executable athletic movements that incorporate strong acceleration, footwork, hip mobility, and change-of-direction quickness is how I would summarize the most important facets of running back play. If a group of running back prospects you’re evaluating have game that can be encapsulated by the above sentence, then speed can be a tiebreaker.

Malcolm Brown and Saquon Barkley were both big-time college prospects. Barkley has great speed, Brown doesn’t. However, both have game that can be encapsulated in the sentence I used to summarize the most important facets of the position.

I’m not equating the total games of Brown and Barkley, but Brown is an underrated runner who has been long capable of earning significant playing time and performing at a high level despite some writing him off as slow and sloppily conflating lack of long speed with a lack of other essential skills.

The NFL’s selection of raw speedsters early enough to create a draft stock bias equates to less-deserving opportunities and has limited the initial opportunities of superior players while hurting the overall production of the offense.

Here are similar examples from each player from Week 2 of the 2019 NFL season. The plays are different but the display of diagnostic skill, technical skill, and athletic execution are essentially the same and an illustration of skills that are vital to the success of the position at the pro level.


Brown’s cup size…ahem…40-time was 4.62 seconds. But his viable work skills including a 6.86-second three-cone drill, 4.15-second 20-shuttle, and film that showed how these skills translated at Texas.

The voluptuous Saquon Barkley? He had 4.4-second, 40-yard dash but his 4.24 20-shuttle was almost a full tenth of a second slower than Brown. In fact, Brown’s physical skills that translate best to the essential sentence describing running back play above are closer to Le’Veon Bell who had a 4.24-second, 20-shuttle, and a 6.75-second three-cone.

Take the eyes off the cleavage of the spreadsheet cell and view the entire body of work.

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