It's that time of year when a major concern of the coaches and of us, the fans, is judging college talent as a prelude to the draft. About nine months ago, just before last year's draft, I wrote a piece titled "Information Processing Speed". The impetus was my desire to understand why some can't-miss players, like Ryan Leaf, flame out and why some late-round nobodies, like Tom Brady, unexpectedly blossom at the next level. I suggested that a key factor was the upper limit of the speed with which a player is able to process information, to track who's where and what's happening in the pellmell chaos of a developing play and react decisively and fortuitously. What clued me in to the possible utility of such a category were the frequent remarks by players that what shocked them most when they turned pro was how fast things happen; and critiques of third or fourth-year quarterbacks who'd shown dramatic improvement that amounted to some version of, "The game has slowed down for him."
Naturally, familiarity with game situations and with the ways various plays develop - experience - enables any given player to see more and react faster and more effectively than he did as a rookie, but my point was that some players have a relatively low limit to how much faster they can become with experience, and how fast they are initially (so as to make the team in the first place). A lower limit negates other abilities. Leaf might have been more accurate than Brady in practice situations involving only himself and the receiver, but not in game situations in which he had to track not only the receiver but also the back covering him, perhaps another defensive back coming from the opposite direction (in a crossing route), and a linebacker cutting underneath, all the while avoiding the rush or getting rid of the ball just in time, with all this taking place in a frantic few seconds.
Wondering how to translate this idea into practice I noted that "The Sporting News ranks players in a number of categories" and that "[r]un/pass recognition strikes me as possibly relevant" to information processing speed. I then remarked "that Nick Hayden of Wisconsin, who's [ranked] 18th overall [at DT], is 3rd in that category. Would that make him a good late-round sleeper pick?" In the give and take that followed one reader, r8erh8er, offered that Hayden was one of his value picks, which led me to respond that "I think I’ll make a mental note to see how well he does just to satisfy my curiosity."
And that's the last I thought about that. Until now. With the draft just around the corner I decided to do a little googling and discovered an article titled "Panthers' Hayden learning quick". It turns out he was drafted in the sixth round by Carolina, was on the practice squad for much of the season, and then was added to the team late in the year and started a couple of games when the Panthers had injuries at DT. In his first game, against the Giants, he was schooled, but in his second game, against the Saints, he did much better. That was the "learning quick" part of the title. So far his career trajectory has been much like Barrett's, developing on the practice squad and then coming in late in the season and contributing. He's done surprisingly well for a low-round pick.
Marcus Thomas also scored high in run/pass recognition - if I recall correctly he was ranked first in that category - and he played extensively this last year. Now it might be remarked that our run defense, due in no small measure to our play at defensive tackle, was awful, and also that Carolina's run defense tailed off badly at the end of the season. But it's also true that at defensive tackle even a successful rookie is often much less productive that an ordinary veteran. If he starts at all during his first or even second year, even if not very productive by veteran standards, he's probably going to be pretty good when he gets another year or two under his belt.
It occurs to me that for a nose tackle information processing speed is especially important because it's a read and react position. He has to diagnose the play in a heartbeat and react appropriately rather than just charge into a single assigned gap. That's why Warren couldn't adapt. He was quick enough to penetrate his gap and disrupt plays, but he couldn't diagnose plays rapidly enough to decide which to focus on when he was responsible for two. When I renew my subscription to The Sporting News war room I'll be following with interest the run/pass recognition rankings of the various defensive linemen, especially the tackles. The fact that Hayden has done relatively well for a low-round pick, and that Thomas is still on track to being a pretty good lineman, isn't conclusive, but is intriguing enough to make it worth using run/pass recognition rankings as a way of looking for sleepers in this year's draft.