An awful lot goes into scouting NFL Draft prospects. That goes without saying. The player’s mental makeup, character, work ethic, and many other off-the-field traits are essential when betting on success at the NFL level.
Size, speed, strength, physicality, agility, balance, and many other physical traits are significant as well. And for the most part, every player must have the baseline physical traits to even survive as a professional football player. But let’s focus on just one physical aspect of this game, and if we are only to choose one, it might be the most important — burst.
Scouting offensive NFL Draft prospects by burst
Think about how football is played compared to other sports. In this sport, players go extremely hard for a few seconds and then get a rest between plays. Hence, football is played in a series of extreme spurts.
Along those lines, the NFL Combine bench press test really isn’t a great indicator of football strength or upper body power. In fact, it is more of a test of endurance rather than extreme power over a very short amount of time, which is what we look for more when scouting NFL Draft prospects.
You will read the words explosion, burst, and “quick twitch” consistently in this article. So let’s examine why being explosive is so important at every position on the field.
Well, this wouldn’t apply to the quarterback position, right? Wrong. First off, think about how twitchy and dangerous running quarterbacks like Michael Vick, Lamar Jackson, and Kyler Murray are once they decide to take off and run. They are instant accelerators. Those movement skills pose immense problems for opposing defenses.
But also think about a guy like Drew Brees. Brees wasn’t a great runner, but he had decisive, sharp movements within the pocket to buy himself time while keeping his eyes and focus downfield. Brees was an excellent tennis player as a young man, and you can see those types of abrupt movements you see in tennis from Brees in the pocket.
Running back is an obvious one. Think of all the zone runners that show patience, then “stick their foot in the ground” and explode downhill through a hole that took an extra beat to be created.
But what about Le’Veon Bell? Even in his prime, Bell was never that fast. Still, his unique running style is an excellent example of the importance of burst. Bell took it to a new level by actually stopping his feet in the hole or in crowded quarters, and then — boom — taking off with elite burst.
There are also many examples in history of smaller backs that are just pure electricity with their sudden movements. Darren Sproles sure comes to mind.
Wide receivers also are somewhat obvious. Getting off the line of scrimmage with suddenness and changing gears downfield throughout a route is crucial. Think about how a great receiver comes out of his break, often at a 90-degree angle. For example, Bell’s former teammate, Antonio Brown, really epitomizes this.
Brown has lost little to no speed on such sharp routes. At his best, he’s almost like a Ferrari that doesn’t have to hit the brakes when making a 90-degree turn when he explodes out of his breaks.
Similarly, for the pure speed that Tyreek Hill has, he has another gear to pull away from defenders that makes him more frightening.
Tight ends can get by without great suddenness to some degree. That being said, if you find tight ends that have some burst out of their breaks during a route, you really have something. For instance, think about the explosion in which George Kittle unlocks his hips, erupting into a defender when blocking.
That hip snap, of course, also applies to offensive linemen coming off the ball. Their explosion comes in more of a short area, but think about the immense power some great linemen create with a short, brutal six-inch punch.
Additionally, it has been proven time and time again that the short shuttle drill has translated very well to NFL success for offensive linemen. The short shuttle is obviously an agility drill, but it also demonstrates the ability to change direction quickly, and in this case, go search out a smaller target in space.
Scouting defensive NFL Draft prospects by burst
Scouting a player’s burst for the NFL level is just as important on the defensive side of the ball.
Explosion is significant for defensive linemen. Whether it is coming off the edge or operating on the interior, a great “get off” can immediately give the defender the advantage.
Aaron Donald is the obvious example, but there is a long line of amazing 3-technique players throughout NFL history. Warren Sapp and John Randle caused massive problems in their prime the instant the play started.
Lawrence Taylor would showcase that extra gear when he beat his blocker (or blockers). Like a great white shark closing in on a seal, Lawrence would chase down opposing quarterbacks with amazing burst and finishing ability.
Burst is massively important for all defensive players, but you really see it with linebackers. Go back in time and think of Dick Butkus annihilating a blocker, then quickly blowing up a ball carrier with great ferocity. Linebacker is a cerebral position — now more than ever — but having a great burst to the ball can really help make up for mental mistakes. It can also cause big problems for the ball carrier upon arrival.
Devin White is a great example. Contrary to some popular belief, White is still learning the position. That is something that takes time for every linebacker in today’s NFL. His speed really shows, but White’s burst is amazing. Even if he missteps, once White zeroes in on a target, he gets there unbelievably quick.
There are several examples of safeties. For starters, was there a more “bursty” strong safety than Troy Polamalu? Kam Chancellor used his burst to close with force and violence.
A healthy Derwin James is explosive in everything he does, which is rare for such a big safety. But how about Ed Reed or Earl Thomas from a deep centerfield position? Those guys would roam far from the line of scrimmage, giving quarterbacks the impression that they could fit the ball into their receiver. Instead, Reed and Thomas would close with such burst (sometimes flat-footed) to break up the pass or even intercept the ball.
Lastly, cornerbacks also need to be quick-twitch athletes. This goes for the quickness in their hips to quickly change directions or turn and run with receivers. Some big zone corners don’t seem to be overly twitchy. Yet, they often must stick their back foot in the ground and drive on the ball.
Then there were the great takeaway artists, such as Deion Sanders and Darrelle Revis. It’s rare, but those shutdown cover corners could actually bait the QB into throwing the ball, only to show off their incredible ability to close, jump the route, and grab an interception in stride as they took off with the ball going the other way.
So much goes into scouting NFL Draft prospects. There are certainly examples of players having success at the highest level without great burst, but explosion is something you should focus on a great deal since it applies to every position on the field.
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