NFL Draft 2013: Dallas-2 Means Emphasizing Speed and Quickness Scores

Look no further to see the new Dallas defensive prototype - Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

As the Cowboys shift to Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme, they'll surely be looking to assemble a collection of speedy, quick defenders. So, as we prepare for the offseason in earnest, it behooves us to consider what that might actually mean.

In a recent interview on Sirius Radio, DeMarcus Ware was asked what new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin had told him about the style of defense he wanted to implement in Dallas. Ware replied, "The main thing he told me is he wants the defense to be fast. Guys that can pass rush, guys that can stop the run, and create the big plays. I think that's what they're really going after..."

Indeed, this supports what we have seen of the new scheme from the looks Coty has provided inside Kiffin's 1998 Tampa Bay playbook. In particular, I refer to Kiffin's global statements on "Defensive Team Philosophy" that Mr. Saxman has gleaned for us. There are ten of these, three of which are pertinent to today's discussion. I've italicized the particularly relevant sections:

  • 3. Be a Physical Defense: Playing defense allows you the opportunity to be physical. This is what defense is all about and you can become known as a physical defense. It is a mindset but it must be a total team effort. A physical defense is one that is flying to the football and the opponent is going backward not falling forward.
  • 5. Quickness: The quicker the defense, the harder it is for the offensive team to score. It only makes sense [that] if your defense has overall team quickness the better the opportunity to swarm and gang tackle. The best of both worlds is size and quickness, but if something has to give, take the quickness.
  • 9. Gang Tackling: Eleven guys getting to the ball. Nothing is more discouraging to an offensive back or receiver [than] knowing he is going to get machine gunned by the Buccaneer defense

As we can see, a core Kiffin philosophical ideal is defensive speed or, more properly, quickness. To my mind, this immediately recalls the defenses we saw on the field in Dallas from 1989-2003, all of which were in the Jimmy Johnson style, which was predicated on speed, speed, and more speed. Johnson came along in an era in which massive, bruising defensive squads like those in New York, Washington and Chicago were all the rage, and turned the NFL on its head by going small and superfast. At first, they laughed at the "college coach." Then they scambled to adopt his system.

The 90s Cowboys wore teams down not by beating them up (although they were physical; see line item number three on Kiffin's philosophical statement) but by beating them to the ball or to the corner. Countless times, an opposing running back tried to bounce a run to the outside only to find himself outrun by linebackers to the edge. Many a quarterback found holes in zones close much more quickly than he could deliver the ball.

This philosophy, of course, impacted the way the Cowboys drafted. Jimmy looked for linebackers he could turn into defensive ends and safeties he could turn into linebackers. He took guys that other teams undervalued - players like UTEP's Tony Tolbert, LB Dixon Edwards of Michigan State, and Arizona State hybrid 'backer Darren Woodson - and made them part of a fast, swarming unit. Each year, to ascertain who Dallas was likely to draft, all one had to do was look for guys who were among the speediest at their respective positions.

Now that we face a return to a similar style of defense, we'll likely be looking for similar players. So, now that the offseason has officially begun, its time to begin identifying Cowboys targets in earnest. This will remain largely speculative until the Combine later this month, when we'll be gifted with more official (and more comparative) forty and agility drill times.

As we prepare for these to be released, then, perhaps it would behoove us quickly to review what will be asked of the eager young prospective draftees in Indianapolis. Although the 40-yard dash remains the media darling of Combine drills, scouts and coaches place as much, if not more, import on good drill times, fluid lateral movement and the ability to quickly change direction over raw speed - especially if they represent teams who value quickness.

The two shuttles (long and short) each challenge a player's athleticism, balance, and change of direction. That said, the big daddy of all agility drills is the three-cone drill, which combines aspects of all the other tests in one devastating package. The three-cone is an agility test where players run around three cones placed in the shape of an "L," with five yards between each cone. Each prospect starts in a three-point stance, then sprints from the base point of the L to the "elbow," touches a line, and goes back to the starting point. He then runs to the elbow, cuts around the outside, weaves through the top of the L, goes back around the elbow and finishes at his starting point.

This peculiar circuit tests a prospect's ability to bend, pivot and shift body weight without, it is hoped, losing speed. As we begin to develop our short lists of future Cowboys, we must keep Kiffin's emphasis on quickness in mind and look for the fastest and quickest players at each defensive position, but most importantly at defensive end, linebacker and safety. With that in mind, here are position-by-position ranges for forty and 3-cone drill times from the 2012 Combine, with the top forty times from 2011 thrown in as a helpful comparative.

Please note that not all players participate in all Combine tests, so these likely don't represent the entire range.

Defensive line:

Forty:
Fastest: Shea McClellin (Boise St.): 4.63
Slowest: Akiem Hicks (Regina): 5.23*
2011: Jabaal Sheard (Pitt): 4.69

3-cone:
Quickest: Bruce Irvin (West Virginia): 6.70
Slowest: Quinton Coples (UNC): 7.57
Off-the-charts slow: Hicks: 7.75*

*Hicks is now a defensive tackle in New Orleans

Linebackers:

Forty:
Fastest: Mychael Kendricks (Cal): 4.47
Notably speedy: Zach Brown (UNC): 4.50
Slowest: Vontaze Burfect (ASU): 5.09
2011: Dontay Moch: 4.40

3-cone:
Quickest: Nathan Stupor (Penn St.): 6.84
Slowest: Sean Spence (Miami): 7.36

Safeties:

Forty:
Fastest: Trent Robinson (Michigan St.): 4.43
Slowest: Phillip Thomas (Syracuse) and Sean Catthouse (Cal): 4.74
2011: Jeron Johnson (Boise St.): 4.53

3-cone:
Quickest: Robinson: 6.55
Slowest: Christian Thompson (South Carolina State): 7.33

As you watch prospects and wonder to yourself whether a guy might look good in the star, think less about his size (recall Kiffin: "The best of both worlds is size and quickness, but if something has to give, take the quickness") and pay special attention to his forty and three-cone times. If he's linebacker, for instance, his 40 time should be closer to 4.5 than to 5.0; his agility score must be under 7.0, and preferably closer to 6.75 than an even seven.

After the combine, we'll revisit this idea, with the hopes of identifying a few guys that, due to their speed and quickness, should be on our radar. I'm willing to bet that the Cowboys scouting group has already begun to hone in on them in earnest.

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