Speed Kills… But How Much Can it Help the Steelers?
by Rebecca Rollett
I started doing some research for an article on running back Dri Archer last season. In the course of my research I ran across a couple of players who also caught my eye. Said article was never completed, and so I’m revisiting it to see what happened to the guys I was writing about.
In the past several years there seemed to be a sort of thread tying the Steelers’ draft choices together. The 2013 draft was, to my eyes at least, all about character, an apparent reaction to some of the risks the Steelers had taken in the 2012 draft which didn’t entirely pan out.
The 2014 draft, in what seemed a departure for the Black and Gold, was on the surface at least almost entirely about speed. Even the aptly-monikered “Shade Tree,” Daniel McCullers, is pretty fast for such a large man.
Perhaps, several years after Warren Sapp declared the Steelers “old, slow, and done,” the front office finally decided to build a team no one could possibly call old or slow, at any rate.
Dri Archer, Trey Burton, and Henry Josey, speedsters
The poster child for this aspect of the 2014 draft was third-round pick Dri Archer. A highly controversial pick, Archer was most notable for his diminutive size (5’8”, 174 pounds) and blazing speed (he ran a 4.26 40 yard dash at the combine, the second fastest ever in the electronically-timed era, after Chris Johnson.)
This pick was not without its detractors. In fact, it was pretty hard to find anyone at all, other than Archer’s famiiy, friends, and presumably the Steelers staff, who thought it was a good idea. Everyone seemed to think he would have been a fine pick in, say, the sixth round.
But that’s water under the bridge. So without further ado let’s look at Archer and the two other players I researched and see how they have done so far.
The three players in question are, as the article title would imply, linked by outstanding speed. There is a much closer bond between Archer and one of the other two, though.
As I looked for background information on Archer, I found an article in the Herald Tribune profiling not only Archer but wide receiver/tight end Trey Burton. Not only are both players from Nokomis, Florida, they were neighbors, and played football together at Venice High School.
Trey Burton has terrific genes. His grandfather, Lawrence Burton, was a first-round pick by the New Orleans Saints in 1975 and played with Archie Manning. Before that, Lawrence Burton set a world record in the 60-yard dash, and went to the Munich Olympics.
Both Trey Burton and Dri Archer ran track in high school, but it was on the football field they both hoped to make their fortunes.
Burton was a lock, it seemed. The Herald-Tribune article notes:
Burton is one of the best high school players to come out of the area. In fact, Manatee coach Joe Kinnan, who has coached close to 30 years, still maintains Burton is the best player he ever coached against.
Burton was recruited by Urban Meyer as a spread-option quarterback and went to the University of Florida, his dream since he was five years old.
Dri Archer didn’t have the same sort of pedigree and didn’t make the same sort of impression. He was barely recruited at all for college programs, as most everyone thought he was too small. He was an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter then, so this is scarcely surprising.
Burton enjoyed immediate success as a Gator, scoring on his very first carry. His grandmother, watching from the stands, was so excited she passed out and had to spend the night in the hospital. Now that’s familial support! Burton was also named to the all-SEC freshman team.
Dri Archer, conversely, struggled at Kent State. At first, his main problem was big-time homesickness. As the Herald-Tribune article recounts:
Archer’s homesickness became legendary. Kent State assistant football coach Jerry McManus said Archer was “the most homesick player” he had ever coached in his 36-year career.
Hart [Archer’s mother] recalls how the telephone at the Sweetbay grocery store in Venice where she worked would ring each morning, with Archer on the line aching for home.
Hart would actually put her son on the store intercom so everyone could hear him cry.
“Mommy, I want you to come and get me right now,” he would say from Ohio.
Then she would hold the phone up in the air and all of the cashiers and customers would yell: “Stay in school, Dri.”
Archer’s struggles at Kent State were not just related to homesickness, though. His first two seasons were forgettable, and he couldn’t even play during his third because of an academic issue.
But to Archer’s credit, he continued to attend practices and work out as if he would be playing while studying to resolve the academic issues. This paid off in 2012, when he surprised everyone but himself with an unbelievable season.
In the meantime Burton, whose early success had perhaps lulled him into a false sense of security, struggled after Meyer left, going through several different coaches and systems and seemingly being asked to play a different position in each one. I noted he was listed as a receiver/tight end, although his combine rankings were all as a tight end.
I mentioned a third player, and he is running back Henry Josey. He interested me because, like Archer, he is short and fast. He is listed at 5’8”, but has about 20 pounds on Archer.
Like Trey Burton, Josey has a pedigree. His father, Henry Neal, set a high school record in the 100-meter dash in 1990 of 10.15. This record, remarkably enough, stood until last summer.
Josey played at Missou, and although he had gruesome knee injury at the end of the 2011 season, he returned in 2013 and had a great year.
I found out about Josey because he and Archer appeared in an excellent article called ’40 speed’ versus ‘football speed,’ which ran in the Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee) prior to last year’s combine. Archer is held as the standard-bearer for ’40 speed,’ but the article focuses on several participants in a training program in Phoenix called EXOS. Here are some of the most interesting quotes:
Right here is where draft prospects bridge the gap between “40 speed” and “football speed.” Every spring, this is the NFL’s Great Debate. How relevant is raw, timed speed? And how different is a 40-yard dash from a play on the football field? Many players demonize the event. Many insist it’s essential.
The truth is somewhere in-between. Position to position, the demands of speed vary.
At its core, football is a game of decisions processed in milliseconds. Athletes conditioned to make those decisions without blinking end up winning.
As you can see, Archer bested Henry Josey in every single category in which they both participated, with the exception of a tie on number of reps for the bench press. Archer may be speedy, but he isn’t just about speed.
As a matter of interest, Ryan Shazier, the Steelers’ first round pick last season, had the top vertical jump at the combine at 42”.
Shazier wasn’t the only top performer in the vertical jump in last year’s Steeler class. Howard Jones, a camp favorite UDFA linebacker, was tied for No. 5, at 40.5”. Martavis Bryant tied for 13th with 39.5”. For comparison, Khalil Mack, the fifth overall pick in last year’s draft, was tied for No. 8 with 40”. Perhaps it would be more fair to say last year’s class was about athleticism as much as raw speed.
How Much Good is Speed?
So that’s the combine, for what it’s worth. What happened to the other two players we’re looking at? Trey Burton went undrafted, and was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles. He managed to make the 53-man roster last season, which is always impressive for a UDFA. He was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the 72nd-best tight end (out of 137.) Of course, this ranking was based upon a total of six snaps for the season, which included no targets and (naturally) no receptions. All six snaps came in a Week 6 game. He is back in camp this summer, and it remains to be seen whether he once again makes the roster.
Henry Josey’s NFL career was shorter and less distinguished. He was, interestingly, picked up as an UDFA by the same Philadelphia Eagles, and was released at the end of camp. The Jacksonville Jaguars signed him to the practice squad shortly thereafter, where he stayed until the Minnesota Vikings signed him on December 24th. He remained for the next week or so. He is now a member of the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League.
While Dri Archer did not blow either of the other guys away, he was not only on the roster all season but was “given a hat,” to use the Tomlinism, for 12 of the 16 season games and the Wild Card game. Whether he would have been on the roster for that game if Le’Veon Bell had been healthy is another matter. It is interesting to note that Pro Football Focus lists him as a slot receiver for two of those games, (Weeks 11 and 16) a wide receiver for one, (Week 13) and a halfback for the others.
On a chart in which Le’Veon Bell is the unquestioned top receiver in the league (the next closest is Marshawn Lynch, with an overall score of 20.5 to Bell’s 23.8,) Archer was tied with Trent Richards for the honor of 103rd place, with a score of -1.6. It could have been a lot worse, though—Kansas City’s Knile Davis firmly held the bottom of the list at No. 148, with a score of -14.2. Of course, Richardson had over ten times as many snaps as Archer’s total of 45 (this doesn’t count special teams snaps) and even Davis had almost eight times as many snaps.
I thought I should check Archer’s receiving snaps, and was gratified to see Antonio Brown as the runaway No. 1 receiver as well, with a rating of 23.4. (The next closest was Jordy Nelson, with 20.5. Odell Beckham Jr. was breathing down both their necks, and with more snaps might have threatened Antonio’s status. [PFF scores are cumulative, so if you’re playing well more snaps are going to equal a higher score.]) Archer actually fared a bit better in his six receiving snaps, coming in at No. 96 out of 218. So that’s something to build on.
I think it has long been obvious that speed per se is not the ultimate value in football. But it is something the Steelers are apparently coming to value more. Perhaps it is fair to say they are valuing conditioning and athleticism more. But speed is certainly dependent to at least a certain extent on those things. As we see in looking at these young men, speed isn’t everything. But as we saw last year with Martavis Bryant, it’s pretty handy. For what it’s worth, Bryant’s combine 40 times was 4.42, good for No. 5 among receivers. The top performer among all positions? Dri Archer.
Will Archer break out this year and become something special? Maybe he will bring some kick returns all the way back if he learns not to outrun his blockers. Maybe he will figure out how to make himself even smaller and squirt out between the tackles. The early rumors from camp are encouraging. I have high hopes for the young man. But one thing is clear—simply being fast is a recipe for running right out of the league. Let us hope for better things.