Information Processing Speed

One of the most important attributes for a NFL draftee, and one of the most difficult to evaluate, is information processing speed, or IPS. Rookies are regularly shocked at how fast things happen at the pro level. They can't read and react fast enough. Experience slows the game down. It takes about three years for most players to get up to speed. Some players, however, have a lower baseline IPS. However much the game slows down for them, it doesn't slow down as much as it does for their peers. These are your Ryan Leafs and Joey Harringtons. Much has been made of Leaf's character but Harrington has no such issues. The truth is, both were talented enough to be top college players, but they couldn't think and react fast enough at the next level. Their IPS is relatively low. Conversely some players, like Tom Brady and - ahem - Terrell Davis, don't really come into their own until they join the pros. Their IPS is unusually high.

As the preceding suggests, IPS is probably most critical at quarterback. No player has to be aware of more things at the same time, all of it happening at warp speed. It trumps even accuracy and arm strength. If a QB can't read and react fast enough at the next level, tremendous arm strength is about as useful as claws on a snail. Of course, since we generally don't know which college QBs have high IPS, and since a strong-armed, accurate QB is as likely to have it as anyone else, it makes sense to draft based on what we do know and hope for the best. But what if there was a way to know? In the second play in this video Earl Bennett catches a long pass from Cutler down the right sideline. The play-by-play announcer exclaims, "Oh, what a great catch by Bennett!" But then the commentator interjects, "Did you believe what Jay Cutler just did there?! He laid the ball over top! He was under pressure! Look at that pass! You just cannot throw that!" And in the replay closeup you can see Bennett streaking downfield and the high-arcing pass coming down over his shoulder and nestling into his hands. A perfect pass. And then if you back up the video to the start of the play you can see the Sam linebacker shifting slightly to the right just before the ball is snapped, then firing in untouched, in on Cutler in a blink, who in that split second lofts that perfect pass. That's a clue.

Cutler's play the last two seasons makes it pretty likely that he does have that irreplaceable high IPS, in which case we're awfully lucky because arm strength alone and even coolness under pressure couldn't have guaranteed it. It makes it easy to call that one play a clue in retrospect, but what if a draft expert, reviewing the miles of tape on each prospect, were to consciously look for situations, not just for QBs but for all other positions, in which things developed unusually suddenly and unexpectedly? Perhaps draft experts who have a reputation for spotting diamonds in the rough, who see "something" they like, do that unconsciously. No doubt IPS isn't equally critical at every position, but I suspect it's important at all of them. You could easily make a case that it's important for John Lynch. In styg50's masterful four-part series (which can be found here, here, here, and here) he and hoosierteacher return again and again to the same theme, that Lynch's first step is always in the right direction, that he takes the right angles, that he shoots the right gap, that he reacts instantly in the right way at the beginning of the play and that this makes up for his lack of flat-out speed. Are they perhaps describing someone who has a high IPS, and who has therefore consistently achieved more than his physical capabilities suggest? We know that Broncos linemen and running backs, because their blocking assignments and holes aren't so fully scripted and fixed, must read and react on the fly. Surely that's why a lineman in the "Denver system" is rarely able to step right in, but has to wait a few years until the game slows down. Perhaps Shanahan and Turner are so good at finding linemen and backs who are good zone players because, immersed in that system, they've become adept at seeing "something" they like.

This has obvious implications for the draft. Do Williams and Clady, along with their quick feet and athleticism, also have the decision-making quickness that is apparently a prerequisite for Denver o-linemen? Or is this attribute more marked in one or two prospects we're hardly aware of, but who Shanahan has in his sights? Do he and Turner have backs targeted that we're not aware of? Was Doom a lucky guess, or can we hope to do as well on the defensive side of the ball? Does anyone involved with the draft have a good feel for defensive players? The Sporting News ranks players in a number of categories which they combine into an overall ranking. Run/pass recognition strikes me as possibly relevant to IPS. Looking down the list of DTs I see that Nick Hayden of Wisconsin, who's 18th overall, is 3rd in that category. Would that make him a good late-round sleeper pick? I think considerations like this might be more important than most fans realize. What do y'all think?

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