Eisenberg: Recent Drafts Are a Testament to Speed

WRs Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay

For the record, I did notice that Ravens GM Eric DeCosta watched parts of games from the sidelines last season.

Even though he was low-profile about it, stayed away from the coaches and players and attracted zero attention, there'd be times when he was in the background of a camera shot, or near a player who ran out of bounds, and I'd spot him.

I didn't think anything of it. If he wanted to watch the game from the sidelines and it somehow added to his understanding of the team, by all means, he should be there. He's in charge of the roster.

In my experience, watching an NFL game from the sidelines does offer an eye-opening perspective. I've always thought anyone who believes safety-minded rules have "softened" the game should spend a Sunday on the sidelines. They'd feel differently after seeing up close how hard the players hit each other.

DeCosta already knew about that, but his time on the sidelines still impacted him. It was "really valuable for me; you get a different perspective on things," he acknowledged during the draft.

What the up-close view most emphasized to him, it seems, was the importance of speed in today's game.

"What I noticed a lot with the best teams is just the absolute explosive qualities that they have," he said. "The best teams, they're so fast at all the positions, and they just seem to be playing at a different level. To me, that's something that should stand out in anything you do, is your speed – running to the ball, running through the ball, blocking, tackling and all that stuff."

DeCosta and the rest of the front office already understood speed was important; it has been at the forefront of NFL thinking for decades. In the 1960s, the Dallas Cowboys drafted Bob Hayes, an Olympic sprint champion known as "the World's Fastest Human," hoping he'd become a wide receiver defenses couldn't cover. (They couldn't and some historians trace the development of zone defenses to Hayes' emergence as a threat.) The Oakland Raiders' Al Davis won Super Bowls with speedy playmakers.

Now there's speed-tracking technology that provides far more sophisticated data than 40-yard combine times. According to NextGen Stats, the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers were the NFL's fastest teams in 2019 based on "average maximum speed of offensive ball carriers." Those teams met in the Super Bowl.

Football will always be about brute force, but speed also determines plenty of outcomes these days.

The Ravens' recent draft classes are a testament to that. Their 2018 and 2019 first-round picks were Hayden Hurst, Lamar Jackson and Hollywood Brown – a tight end, quarterback and wide receiver who were immediately ranked among the fastest in the league at their positions.

But although those drafts helped increase the Ravens' overall speed, this year's draft was even more focused on it. Months after spending all that extra time on the sidelines (mostly the first half of games, he said), DeCosta produced a rookie class brimming with speed.

It includes another wide receiver who can fly, Devin Duvernay, but this year the Ravens also went for speed at different positions not always associated with that quality, such as inside linebacker (Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison) and defensive tackle (Justin Madubuike).

"We try to find guys that are big and fast at every position, and I think that's a critical factor in how we try to build the best team," DeCosta said.

Head Coach John Harbaugh zeroed in on the new blood on defense. "All of these guys are bringing us a lot of speed to our defense," he said. "All three of these guys add a lot of explosive speed to our defense."

I'm not sure there's a metric reflecting a team's overall speed at all positions, but rest assured, the Ravens are working on it.

They haven't always fit the profile of a classic speed team, what with their history generally ruled by dominant defenses and strong running games.

But the story is changing fast, no pun intended.

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