Merlin's Magic: Functional Speed Edition

As we continue the ramp up to the draft, I want to talk about the concept of functional speed. The Combine is fast approaching, so we are going to get inundated with talk about someone’s time in the 40 yard dash. However, when you listen to NFL scouts, they will use the concept of ‘functional speed’ weighting that more than someone’s track speed. How do we, as fans, figure out what player has functional speed versus good track speed?

There are many factors involved, so let’s break two players down. To keep emotions out of it, I will call them Player A and Player B. Both these players carry first round grades but play different defensive positions. Neither one plays on the defensive line, so run and pass support are both issues. I am going to take some quotes from their scouting reports done by the fine folks at New Era Scouting. I will reveal the players names and link to their full scouting reports at the end of the article.

Both players have very good 40 yard dash times. So, on pure track speed, they are pretty much the same. What happens when we look further? Let’s go through a hypothetical play and see how they stand up.

First the player has to recognize the play. Player A “ Likes to play it safe, which causes late reaction in the passing game.” So, Player A tends to wait a bit, to diagnose the play. This is an area that downgrades a player’s functional speed. What about Player B? “ Recognition skills are at an elite level.” So far, Player B has a bit of an edge. He recognizes fast, while Player A tends to wait a bit.

The play has been recognized. Do the players take the right angle to position themselves properly? Player A “ Takes outstanding angles”. This is very positive for Player A. He is smart and takes the right angle when he diagnoses the play. How does Player B stack up? “Is never out of place….He takes correct angles to the ball carrier. Both players score well here. Once they have recognized the play, they know where they need to be and how to get there.

Now the player needs to get there. How do they rate with acceleration and quickness? Player A “While he does really get going when running deep, his acceleration rate is average.” So, Player A can run with many players, but his acceleration is average. What about Player B? “Has a great first step off the snap that amplifies his ball recognition skills.” Player B keeps getting better. With Player A, it seems to take him some time to get up to his elite speed.

When I read the full scouting reports on these players, I get two very different pictures. Player A impresses me as the type of player that has performed well on the college level because he is a very good athlete. I question his ability to grow into a good football player in the NFL. For me, one really bad sign is this part of his scouting report: “gives a huge cushion because of his lack of ability to change direction”. This may kill him at the next level. You can’t give NFL receivers a huge cushion and a lack of ability to change direction will get you burned early and often.

Player B shows great skills that will translate well to the NFL level of play. He diagnoses a play fast, takes the right angles and gets going fast. This is the type of player that plays faster than his 40 time. Player A is the type of player that plays slower than his 40 time.

Personally, I wouldn’t touch Player A. He is fast and takes the right angles. However, he waits to make his decision and does not accelerate well. He will probably do very well during the Combine. So, I am waiting for the stories of his draft stock rising. I think the moral to this story is that track speed is only one factor in assessing a player’s functional speed. We should all keep that in mind every draft season.

Who are these players? Player A is Taylor Mays. Player B is Rolando McClain.

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