Davis had to prove he could stick at linebacker at every level until the highest one. At the doorstep of the NFL, coaches and evaluators shrugged at his size — about 230 pounds — and salivated over his speed. In another era, maybe just a few seasons ago, Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera would have viewed Davis as a defender who played outside and lined up opposite slot receivers. In April’s draft, because of how fast Davis plays, Rivera chose him 19th overall and made him Washington’s middle linebacker.
“Because of the game we’re in,” Rivera said, “you put him in the middle of your defense now.”
Speed in the NFL has been important since Elroy Hirsch earned the nickname “Crazy Legs,” since Al Davis turned Olympic sprinters into wide receivers. It has never mattered more or been in higher demand than today. In recent years, a swirl of trends has amplified the NFL’s emphasis on speed. At the dawn of the 2021 season, speed rules.
When the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers met in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, they were by advanced measures the fastest teams in the NFL. “Speed,” Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach said that week, “is the name of the game.” Upon being introduced as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ coach this past winter, after two decades spent dominating college football, Urban Meyer proclaimed, “My vision, my dream, is always to be the fastest team on the field.” In the NFL, the best team is usually the fastest team.
“Football is a speed game,” said Coach Kevin Bullis, who is 57-9 over five seasons at Division III powerhouse Wisconsin Whitewater. “A lot of times, people think it’s a game of big people. Well, no. It’s the fastest big people on the planet, is what it is. If you had an Olympics for 300-pound human beings and you had a 100-meter race, the guys in that race would all be O-linemen or D-tackles in the NFL.”
Cleveland Browns General Manager Andrew Berry, one of the NFL’s most progressive executives, attempted this offseason to bridge Cleveland’s gap between the divisional round of the playoffs and the Super Bowl. He was asked in January if he believed the Browns needed more speed on defense. Berry regarded the question as self-evident. “The short answer is yes,” Berry said. “Quite honestly, that answer would be yes every offseason.”
“The NFL more and more is a bit more of a space game,” Berry said after the draft, when he chose linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and wideout Anthony Schwartz, perhaps the fastest players at their positions. “Whether it’s offensive side of the ball or defensive side of the ball, we want guys who can really run and play in space.”
Former Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who was fired midseason last year, built some of the fastest defenses of the 2010s, units that now look like precursors. In his early days as GM, he watched 250-pound Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton attempt to cover division rival Reggie Bush, one of the fastest running backs in the league. “No way,” Dimitroff said. He drafted 225-pound Deion Jones in the second round in 2016, and as a rookie Jones played in the middle of a defense that went to the Super Bowl.
“If you don’t have a linebacker out there that can run with an Alvin Kamara or myriad other players like that, you are doomed,” Dimitroff said. “… I’m not saying it has to be all 170-pound receivers and 185-pound corners. Far from that. Explosiveness, quick-twitch, reactionary athleticism, that is very important to build a football team in today’s world.”
A steady evolution
At its essence, football is a battle over territory. Decades ago, large men attempted to wedge open a few feet so a smaller man could advance the ball through it. The geometric mission expanded steadily over the years, abetted by rule changes and stylistic advances. “Make ’em defend every blade of grass,” famed New England Patriots research director Ernie Adams once told Tom Brady.
As teams fight over the entire field on most every play, the vital weapon is speed. It allows the offense to make the field bigger and the defense to make it smaller.
Every recent advancement has placed a premium on speed. The prohibition of hits on defenseless receivers from youth football to the NFL may have been most pivotal. The middle of the field became a haven for smaller wideouts, hastening the flow of spread offenses from college to an NFL that was already becoming a pass-first league.
As offenses lined up smaller, faster wide receivers all over the field, they forced defenses to replace linebackers with defensive backs or find linebackers fast enough to cover them. Defenses that once imposed their physicality on small players now must keep up with them.
“It’s such a space game now,” Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. “There’s so many spread-out formations. Half the time now I know, especially in college, people don’t even know how to line up with that stuff anymore. It’s just because of the spread offenses, how people are going to attack you, you’re trying to get as much speed on the field as you can.”
The rise of year-round seven-on-seven leagues gave wide receivers and defensive backs more experience and skill than their predecessors. If the point is to put the best 11 players on the field, most teams will deploy more wide receivers and defensive backs. In the first two rounds of April’s draft, 23 players — 35.9 percent of the picks — were pass catchers or defensive backs.
“Right now in college football, all the best athletes are playing wide receiver and defensive back,” Rivera said. “Because that’s what’s being produced right now. That’s the style.”
The smartest team builders in the NFL study their most successful rivals to emulate them and to know what they need to keep up with. When Martindale described the prevalence of the spread, he named Kansas City. By surrounding quarterback Patrick Mahomes with Tyreek Hill and a fleet of supersonic skill players, the Chiefs have provided a template and a target.
“Kansas City has done it as well as anybody, showing everybody just how important speed is, how dynamic you have to be,” Rivera said. “You have to be able to match that.”
The NFL’s lean toward analytics has refined and enhanced its emphasis on speed. In evaluating draft prospects and their own rosters, NFL teams enlist staffs and an ever-growing arsenal of metrics, many of them gleaned from data harvested by player-worn tracking devices.
“In a general sense, speed has always been an important part of football,” said John Pollard, vice president of business development for Zebra Sports, which provides player-tracking data to the NFL. “Now it’s accentuated a bit more, because we have more information about how to quantify and contextualize speed inside of game scenarios.”
Evaluators have long employed the term “football speed” to differentiate fast players from those who post the best times in the 40-yard dash, which for years has been the speed standard applied to NFL players. There are now ways to measure it. Teams have weaponized those insights to add more functional speed.
“Downhill tackling, downhill running, nose for the ball — we’re now able to put numbers next to all of those adjectives and those descriptive moments in a differentiated way,” Pollard said. “I still suggest it’s fairly early for teams to really utilize it as a commonplace thing. But it’s picking up steam.”
Teams know how much ground a pass rusher covers on average in the quarter-second after the snap. How quickly does a linebacker respond to a play-action fake? Tracking data provides tangible evidence. Scouts have long identified running backs who possess balance; teams now have access to the average mph a ballcarrier achieves after first contact.
“We weren’t just looking at 40 times,” Dimitroff said. “Your owners nowadays, you can’t just sit there and say: … ‘I like this guy. I think he’s fast. He ran a 4.3.’ He has to play fast, too. These owners are so much more versed now.”
Big-picture analytical insights also have abetted the league’s speed obsession. Turnover margin has long been known as a bellwether for which team wins, but the number of explosive plays that gain 20 or more yards is nearly as predictive and also more stable.
“Speed helps those happen,” Presbyterian College Coach Kevin Kelley said. “As people start to believe those numbers, they start to recruit, draft, whatever, to fit those numbers.”
Kelley resides on the extreme end of football innovation. At Pulaski Academy in Arkansas, he gained niche fame for almost never punting. He is a proponent of designed downfield laterals after passes. (“If we don’t run one a game, I may fire myself,” Kelley said.) His ideas sound goofy until they start infiltrating the sport. No NFL coach is as aggressive as he is on fourth down, but fourth-down convention has crept closer to his outlook.
Kelley just started his first year at Presbyterian, a Football Championship Subdivision school just outside the highest rung of college football. He brought with him from Pulaski a freshman pass rusher named Futa Shinkawa who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 162 pounds but whom Kelley said stands just 5-8 and weighs 150.
“The kid’s going to play,” Kelley said. “It’s sheer speed and quickness. He may have been the one who put me over the top in thinking like this.”
When Shinkawa was a 5-6, 130-pound sophomore, Kelley believed he could develop once he added size. He kept making plays at practice, and Kelley decided he needed to play. Kelley tried Shinkawa at wide receiver and defensive back before deciding to experiment with him at rush end. Shinkawa became a three-year starter and eventually the Arkansas 5A defensive player of the year.
“We played two teams last year that had tackles with Alabama [scholarship] offers,” Kelley said. “Neither one of the guys could block him. He’s literally too fast off the edge for them to block. If you have enough speed, it doesn’t matter who the guy is that he’s got to go against. The speed overcomes.”
In Shinkawa’s success, Kelley sees a hopeful lesson for NFL teams that use undersized players among line-of-scrimmage behemoths. Shinkawa never missed a game. Kelley believes his durability is derived from his speed. Small, quick defenders can protect themselves with speed because it’s so difficult for blockers to plant them with a destructive hit.
“They’re not getting hit squarely and taking the same impact of a bigger kid,” Kelley said. “Would you rather have a 220-pound linebacker that takes a beating because he takes on a pulling guard in the hole?”
In college, Kelley sees Shinkawa playing everywhere on defense. He could blitz from the middle. He could drop into coverage. And, at literally half the weight of a lineman he is trying to beat, he could rush the quarterback off the edge.
“If you’re a strategic coach,” Kelley said, “there are a lot more ways you can use speed than you can use size and strength.”
The next big thing
If NFL coaches agree on anything, it is that nothing is new and the game cycles through strategies. Like many coaches, Rivera sees a day when offenses deploy extra tight ends and linemen to exploit smaller defenders. He pointed at Tennessee’s success with big formations, and the possibility it could spread to Atlanta now that former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith coaches there.
“Everything is about speed, speed, speed,” Rivera said. “You’re going to start seeing these smaller guys coming into the league. … All of a sudden, people start running the ball again.”
Even Dimitroff, whose Falcons defense came within one calamitous sequence from winning a Super Bowl, said he believes there is a limit to how much a defense can sacrifice size for speed.
“We used to think we wanted that inside linebacker at 240 pounds to be able to run the 4.5,” Dimitroff said. “Now we’re getting guys who we think we can get at 215 running 4.4s, which is a really big positive. And yet when they’re mixed in the fray and they get blocked and moved around inside by anyone — tight ends, even bigger receivers — it becomes a little more complicated.”
For now, the amount of speed on the field is only increasing. The most fundamental reason may be the players themselves, who continue to get faster in stunning ways. In the preseason, the Ravens deployed rookie Odafe Oweh — an edge rusher listed at 251 pounds — as a gunner on their punt coverage team. For three years, New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton has used backup quarterback Taysom Hill and his 4.4 speed on special teams and as all-around offensive weapon. Washington rookie offensive tackle Sam Cosmi ran the 40 in 4.87 seconds at 6-6 and 314 pounds.
“The difference in what we were looking at when I was an area scout was wildly different,” Dimitroff said. “The importance of fast-twitch explosiveness at every position, even at the offensive line position, to me that’s another big thing. If you get a big offensive lineman who runs a 4.9 … it was an anomaly. Now it’s not.”
Davis, Washington’s rookie middle linebacker, is part of that evolution. He is among a cohort of young linebackers — Fred Warner, Devin White, Patrick Queen — who are changing the position. Davis prefers not to view it that way, instead choosing to focus on being the best version of himself.
“Now,” he said, “I just want to try to bring a new speed to the game.”