By Bryan Stauffer
The NFL is evolving at a rapid pace.
The age of pocket passers, power formations and one-dimensional players on offense is steadily morphing into a dynamic, speed-based approach involving mobile quarterbacks, spread formations and dual-threat athletes who can wreak havoc from multiple spots on the field and are match-up nightmares for opposing defenses.
Even defenses are adapting to the changes on the offensive side of the ball by drafting speedy linebackers who can cover ground as opposed to the hard-nosed, run-stopping linebacker that has been so popular in the past ” I’m not saying there aren’t those type of linebackers anymore, but the emphasis lately has been put on athletes who can cover ground. Players are being asked to defend the “read option” and contain mobile quarterbacks, with some acting as a “spy” to keep an eye on quarterbacks who are a threat to break off long runs.
Changes are being undergone in the secondary, as well. Defenses are putting an emphasis on having taller cornerbacks who can match-up with these tall, physical wide receivers, much like what the Seahawks did when they had Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner as their starting corners, both of whom are at least 6′ 3″.
One evolving area that really grabbed my attention on the offensive side was sparked by a comment made by NFL Network analyst and former head coach Brian Billick.
Billick, who has covered the NFL combine event for 25 years, talked about how offensive lineman were considered “fast” if they ran a 5.5 or so in the 40-yard dash. Recently, around five to 10 years ago, they started running around five seconds flat in the 40 and that was considered near ridiculous. Now, lineman are running sub-five second 40 times, just a few tenths of a second behind some running backs and wide receivers. Now that’s moving.
A former head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, Billick credits the college system and its “no-huddle” approach to the quickness and speed that these linemen are showcasing. Players are being asked to move the ball at a rapid pace, leaving little to no time for rest, which in turn forces these offensive lineman to stay on their feet and keep their legs churning play after play to fight off blitzes, pass protect and open up running lanes. That’s a lot to ask of a 320-pound tackle or guard, but it is what has transformed offensive lineman from guys who have mediocre speed and might struggle with the quickness of players at the next level into ones who have the stamina, agility and necessary experience, especially in the new-age up-tempo offenses, to succeed at the NFL level.
For example, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, one of five lineman to post a 40 time under five seconds, had the top time for offensive lineman at the combine at 4.87 seconds. That mark is just .17 seconds slower than the time Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey posted and is .06 seconds faster than Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron’s 40 times.
It’s not so much speed that is important for these offensive linemen, but their 10-yard split times, which shows how fast they get off the line and plow through 10 yards. This gives coaching staffs and front office personnel a good idea of how explosive these players are off the line and how beneficial they could be pulling out and getting downfield for screens.
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