Joe Sargent/Getty Images (Brady), Tim Warner/Getty Images (Hopkins), Rob Leiter/Getty Images (Bosa)

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  • Every one of these players ran slower-than-average 40 times at their respective NFL combines. But collectively—and led by Tom Brady—they would make a competitive NFL roster.
By Andy Benoit
May 29, 2019

In pro football, speed matters—but not always as much as we think. Here we’ve comprised a team only of players whose 40-yard dash time at their NFL combine was .05 seconds slower than the league average at their position. This is an imperfect science, especially given that a 40 time, as it relates to football, is grossly flawed. Nevertheless, a 40 is still how the NFL measures speed in draft prospects, and .05 is not an insignificant chunk of time to be below average.

This team is comprised of the NFL’s best slow players. Let’s examine who they are, how they prosper and what kind of time you could build with them. And please share your thoughts and counter-arguments with us.

Quarterback

(Average 40 time: 4.81; Minimum time to qualify for this team: 4.86)

Tom Brady, Patriots

Philip Rivers, Chargers

Brady’s pitiful-looking 40-yard dash has become NFL lore, but it’s a reminder that even with the really good quarterbacks, speed is irrelevant. The NFL remains a dropback pocket-passing league, and Brady’s pocket poise and fundamentals are the very best. Second-best would be Drew Brees’s, but with a 4.83 time, he’s too much of a “burner” to qualify for this team. And so we go to the third-best pocket mover in Rivers, whose first two NFL seasons happened to be as Brees’s backup.

Running Back

(Average: 4.53; Minimum: 4.58)

Le’Veon Bell, Jets

Devonta Freeman, Falcons

Mark Ingram, Ravens

Home run speed is just a bonus with an NFL running back; what really matters is his short-area agility. Bell’s is tremendous, and when you factor in his acceleration, you understand why he runs so patiently. Bell can slow down while reading blocks because he’s able to immediately speed back up.

Freeman also has deft stop-start ability, though not like Bell. Instead, he presses his blocks and has excellent balance when turning the corner, which makes him one of football’s best outside zone runners. Ingram is on this team strictly for depth. One could argue the roster needs a third-down back – with James White being not quite slow enough to qualify, the nod would go to Detroit’s Theo Riddick. But with a first-stringer like Bell—football’s second-most valuable receiving back behind Alvin Kamara—you don’t need a specialized scatback. And it’s not like Ingram can’t contribute on third downs anyway. He’s a sound enough blocker and, thanks to keen spatial awareness, a better backfield receiver (especially on screens) than his skill set suggests. 

Wide Receiver

(Average: 4.49; Minimum: 4.54)

Antonio Brown, Raiders

DeAndre Hopkins, Texans

Tyler Boyd, Bengals

Davante Adams, Packers

There’s no position at which speed is more overrated, and there were enough options that we could afford to choose players whose styles of play meshed well together. (Players left off this team: Keenan Allen, Michael Thomas, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jarvis Landry, Jamison Crowder.) Speed is obviously important for some players, and outright everything for others (see Ginn, Ted), but with a complete receiver, it’s not as critical because a receiver sets the pace of play. In other words, he might be slow, but defenders still must react to HIM. And so other attributes for getting open—body control, route running mechanics, sheer strength and ball skills, etc.—become critical. (A corner, on the other hand, has a more difficult time overcoming subpar speed because he can’t dictate the tempo of play.)

As a football player, Brown has made a living on quickness and body control, which is showcased in how he gets in and out of his breaks. He also has an unbelievable feel for exploiting a defender’s body mechanics. He knows how to subtly, but effectively, bump, grab and nudge cornerbacks downfield. Hopkins, on the other hand, has freakish ball skills. No player, especially at the short and intermediate ranges, is more potent on 50-50 balls. Even 40-60 balls favoring the defense are likely to wind up in Hopkins’s possession. And instead of trying to separate, he seeks contact early in the down, using his strength and mechanics to separate late.

Boyd grew up last season and became a consummate slot weapon. He has great acceleration that quickly plateaus, like a golf cart. But in the slot, that’s all you need, as long as you’re shifty. As for Adams…even if you’re a slow offense, you’d like to threaten downfield from time to time. Adams plays faster than his 40 time and will still influence safeties—at least a LITTLE—on vertical routes.

Tight End

(Average: 4.75; Minimum: 4.8)

Nick O’Leary, Dolphins

Jesse James, Lions

Kyle Rudolph, Vikings

You wouldn’t guess that tight end is the first position where speed really matters, but judging from the crop of available players, it is. None of these three are quality starters, and the only other notable players in contention were veteran backups Marcedes Lewis and Dwayne Allen.

The really damning part is that none of these three are great blockers. O’Leary is our starter because, with tight ends like these, we’re liable to be in a three-receiver set 99% of the time. But we still want to run the ball out of that grouping. O’Leary is less likely than James and Rudolph to lose as a blocker.

Offensive Tackle

(Average: 5.24; Minimum: 5.29)

Trent Brown, Raiders

Mitchell Schwartz, Chiefs

Rob Havenstein, Rams

On the All-Undrafted team a few weeks ago, we delineated between left and right tackles. Here we don’t because, not surprisingly, the only decent “slow offensive tackles” all play the right side. Fortunately for us, Brown, who is more of a right tackle, thrived on the left side in New England last year.

At least we’re clearly strong at right tackle. In today’s NFL, right tackles and left tackles have similar responsibilities and equally significant assignments—especially when the quarterback is Tom Brady, whose pocket poise can camouflage protection problems.

On the right side in our line, Moses’s high-cut body would, you’d think, make him vulnerable to bull rushers, but he has become a very sound pass protector. Havenstein, on the other hand, is more compactly built. He thrives when allowed to quick-set, attacking a blocker at the snap rather than dropping back and waiting on him. That approach is fine as long as your offense gets the ball out quickly. And with Brady, ours will.

Guard

(Average: 5.27; Minimum: 5.32)

David DeCastro, Steelers

Kevin Zeitler, Giants

Similar issue we had at offensive tackle: all the choices play only on the right side. Zeitler beat out Oakland’s Gabe Jackson because Zeitler would likely transition better to the left side. DeCastro could probably transition even better than Zeitler, but he’s too valuable at right guard. In fact, it’s astonishing he’s eligible for this team given that his greatest asset is his mobility, around which the Steelers have built much of their ground game.

Center

(Average: 5.21; Minimum: 5.26)

Travis Frederick, Cowboys

Rodney Hudson, Raiders

Two more players who, like DeCastro, thrive on their mobility. Frederick is a superb reach-and-seal blocker, meaning he can consistently cross a defensive tackle’s body and pin that D-tackle back inside. That’s what makes your zone ground game go. With less athletic guards and tackles, however, we might not run much outside zone. Frederick is good enough to flourish in any scheme, but if for whatever reason he struggles, we have a strong second option in Hudson. He, too, is more of an outside zone blocker, though playing between mauling guards like Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson the past few years in Oakland, he understands a north/south running game. Hudson could also play guard off the bench better than Jackson could play center, which is why Hudson, not Jackson, is our seventh offensive lineman.


Defensive Line

(Average: 5.08; Minimum: 5.13)

Jarran Reed, Seahawks

Brandon Williams, Ravens

Eddie Goldman, Bears

Michael Brockers, Rams

Finding run defenders with poor 40 times isn’t hard, and we have four great ones here, starting with Goldman and Williams, who would be our first and second down base players. But most of today’s NFL snaps occur out of nickel. Reed plays on the balls of his light feet and can really maneuver through trash. So can Williams, though he hasn’t been quite as effective as he was two years ago. Brockers is a sound veteran who has played everywhere along the Rams D-line. None of these guys are a natural 3-technique, but Williams or Reed can still more than flourish in that role.

Edge

(Average: 4.81; Minimum: 4.86)

Calais Campbell, Jaguars

Joey Bosa, Chargers

Trey Flowers, Lions

Markus Golden, Giants

Flowers, a master technician, became one of football’s highest-paid players this offseason, and yet he’d rotate in off the bench on this team, as Campbell and Bosa both play with such destructive strength and sharp acumen on designer four-man rush concepts. Typically you would run more 3–4 structures to help get Flowers on the field, but too much of our front seven personnel fits a 4–3, especially given the pitiful depth at linebacker. If we DID go to a 3–4, Golden might sneak into the lineup, given that he played out of those fronts in Arizona. Most of Golden’s work, however, has been in sub-packages, and those have predominantly 4–3 principles.

Linebacker

(Average: 4.72; Minimum: 4.77)

Danny Trevathan, Bears

Vontaze Burfict, Raiders

Denzel Perryman, Chargers

Tight end was the one position where speed seems to really matter on offense, and clearly, linebacker is the position where it seems to matter on defense. At least we’re strong at the top; Trevathan is solid in all aspects and very smart. Behind him, Perryman is not a great openfield mover and Burfict is an outright poor one. Within the box they’re highly effective, but with the prominence of bubble screens and outside zone runs, pro football today is often played on the outside.  We for sure will play a lot of three-safety dime (like Perryman’s own Chargers do with Adrian Phillips at the hybrid safety/linebacker position). The concern is that if we're so slow in the middle, we also must play a lot of zone. None of these players can handle tailbacks in man coverage.

Cornerback

(Average: 4.47; Minimum: 4.52)

Xavien Howard, Dolphins

Pierre Desir, Colts

Justin Coleman, Lions

Marcus Peters, Rams

We left off three big-name outside corners: Richard Sherman, Josh Norman and Joe Haden. All three still perform at high levels, but none are what they were a few years ago. If our linebackers don’t dictate that we play zone coverage, our corners will. All four are better zone defenders than man defenders. Peters is the biggest playmaker of the bunch, but he takes the “better in zone than in man” thing so far that we’ll pencil him in as a backukp for now and see how things go with Howard and Desir. Matchup-wise, those two fit well together; Desir takes the bigger receiver, Howard takes the shiftier one. In the slot, the ascending Coleman solidifies that position, but again more from a zone sense than man sense. (Which, by the way, makes his mega contract in Detroit interesting, considering the Lions predominantly play matchup coverage.) If Coleman gets hurt, we’re screwed, as Peters, Howard and Desir are strictly outside corners.

Safety

(Average: 4.55; Minimum: 4.6)

Keanu Neal, Falcons

Tony Jefferson, Ravens

Kenny Vaccaro, Titans

John Johnson, Rams

Neal and Jefferson are both better in the box than in centerfield. That could be a problem because if you play zone coverage with one deep safety, that safety must have range. (Earl Thomas’s centerfield speed, for example, allowed the Legion of Boom to play with its trademark aggression.) Vaccaro might be worth a look in centerfield, though more likely, our lack of depth at linebacker and slot corner will demand he play the box. That would leave John Johnson as the backup choice for centerfield, with either Neal or Jefferson taking those duties with the first string, given that they’re more instinctive than Johnson.


Takeaway

This roster has plenty of fire power at the skill positions, but the biggest concern is the defensive back seven, where deficient speed is most problematic. Our only hope is that our pass rush is disruptive—it’s a talented all-around D-line, but Bosa is the lone true edge bender. Everyone else is better at rushing from the inside and on designer tactics like stunts and twists. Still, overall expectations are 12-13 wins, as long as Brady or Rivers is under center. Give us a middle-tier QB, however, and this is more like a 10-11-win club.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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