The NFL postseason and college bowl season represent a shifting of gears in the football calendar, from the grind of the regular season to the punctuation mark and closing note for teams and players around the country. The draft season follows, which represents another shift in the careers of the best collegiate players in the country—the change from being the big fish in the small pond to being just another elite talent in the pros.
The biggest part of that change is the breakneck speed of the pro game. While most automatically think of that in terms of the actual speed that the game moves at on Sundays, the mental velocity of the NFL can also turn a giant of the college game into a midget against the best of the best.
An exhaustive list of ways that the pro game is faster than the college game would simply be a complete description of football as it is played in the NFL.
As we get deeper into scouting players for the draft in April, we can look for certain qualities that give players a fighting chance of making the leap successfully. What are the most crucial adjustments players need to make to keep up with the turbocharged demolition derby that is professional football?
To survive in the NFL, a quarterback has to have the skill of anticipation. Anticipation as a passer means being able to throw to a wide receiver before they make the break in their route to create separation from the defensive back attempting to cover them.
While this also requires precision and synchronicity with receivers, the mental adjustment of throwing to a vacated spot that will momentarily be occupied by an open receiver is entirely different than the more straightforward thinking that college offenses ask of a quarterback.
Quarterbacks also need to anticipate pressure in the pocket via a finely honed internal clock. In the pros, the pressure comes faster, and eluding pressure becomes much more difficult. The best pro quarterbacks often appear to have "eyes in the back of their head" because they know that comfort in the pocket often spells doom.
That means a quarterback must be able to read blitzes and quickly get the ball to the hot read. They must know where their checkdown receiver is located and instantly hit them when the primary reads don't come open. A slow mind will ruin a pro passer more often than slow feet will.
Perhaps the simplest way the game changes as it speeds up for quarterbacks is the size of the windows that they must throw into to complete passes. Defensive backs are faster and more athletic with better ball skills, so a quarterback must think and decide with more swiftness. They need to release the ball with little delay and be much more accurate.
If you don't see a quarterback attempting and connecting on throws into small windows in college, be wary of their prospects in the pros.
Quality NFL running backs have to iron out two strategies that often succeed at the college level.
In life, he who hesitates is lost, and in pro football, he who hesitates in the backfield is tackled. Dancing can create big plays on Saturdays, but it creates 2nd- or 3rd-and-longs on Sundays.
Most running backs who can make an NFL roster were one of the fastest, if not the fastest player on the field for their college games. Trying to outrace the defense to the edge often results in big gains.
Bryce Brown of the Philadelphia Eagles gave us some great examples this year of what happens when a pro running back tries to race pro defenders to the corner. They give back yards that their offense is working hard to gain.
The life of a wide receiver in the NFL is just as much about quick thinking as it about quick feet. At the beginning of the play, pro wideouts often have to defeat the jam. When the ball is snapped, cornerbacks in press coverage can and will get their hands on a receiver, disrupting their timing and destroying any chance they have to be a viable target on the play.
A sound strategy involves quick hands to redirect the defensive back's jab and quick feet to find a path to get into their route on time.
Once the receiver is in their route, the quarterback will likely have released the ball before the receiver has completed their break as discussed above. That means the receiver will need to get their head swung around, locate the ball in flight and make a strong play on the ball as its arrival is impending, all while defenders are bearing down on them and trying to separate them from the ball they have worked so hard to get their hands on.
More than anything a tight end does on a specific play, tight ends in today's NFL need to switch modes and simultaneously hold many different positions and assignments in their head. A "tight end" will line up at fullback, H-back, traditional inline tight end and in the slot as a receiver over the course of a game. They will have do everything from go in motion to put their hand on the ground before the snap. They will be asked to pass block, run block and run routes in the same series, and sometimes will they have do double duty as a blocker and receiver in the same play.
The increased speed of the pro game means increased complexity to tactically defeat the opponent, and no position outside of quarterback is at the intersection of that complexity more than the tight end.
Offensive linemen have to be able to move faster on traps and pulls, in addition to getting to the second level and locate a target with urgency in the running game. The increased speed needed to do their job in that facet of the game is nothing compared to the quick thinking, hands and moves necessary to mirror and thwart the best edge rushers the game has to offer.
It isn't like guards and centers have a task that is any easier, having to deal with nightmarish interior pass-rushers that combine size, strength and athleticism like Haloti Ngata and J.J. Watt.
Successful defensive linemen in the NFL have to put on their thinking cap while they are engaged in all-out war in the trenches. The offensive play call is designed to induce them into directing their immense talents (and frames) to a spot where they will be rendered harmless.
Defensive linemen in the NFL don't need to play faster as much as they need to think faster. The path of least resistance is the path of least production. A single-minded attack mentality will not work on Sundays.
Linebackers, like their counterparts at tight end, have to wear many hats when they enter the NFL. The ability to run and leap with the new ultra-athletic breed of pass-catching tight end is one major requirement that many linebackers can not adjust to in the pros.
In this case, the most important change in the speed of the game is the speed that the linebacker has to be able to run and change directions in pass coverage.
Even situational linebackers who mostly play on run downs have to think faster in the all-important "read and react" ability. This skill combines a quick mind that can process and interpret the movement of the offense at the snap, and then translate that into a decisive movement that gives the linebacker the best chance at blowing up the run play before they get run over by a lead-blocking fullback or offensive lineman that outweighs them by 50 pounds.
It is counterintuitive, but the outstanding college cornerback can be betrayed in the pros by thinking and reacting too quickly. Cornerbacks in the NFL will see more "double moves" that attempt to get them to bite on a break that simulates a shorter route and quicker throw, when a longer throw to a downfield route is actually the intent of the play.
Quarterbacks will induce a defensive back to break forward with a pump fake, which will lead to the world seeing the name of the back of their jersey so they know exactly who was left in the dust on the long scoring play.
The speed of the NFL will kill the cornerback that guesses, but the cornerback that can think and react their feet will survive. Of course, quick and light feet are necessary to physically execute the correct reaction that the eyes see and the brain dispatches. The physical element of the game can not be avoided here, and that is why defensive backs that fall in drills at pro days and all-star games can be dinged heavily for what seems like a minor transgression.
Safeties will be manipulated by pump fakes as often as cornerbacks, but they can also be moved out of position by play fakes that catch them peeking into the backfield and abandoning their coverage responsibilities.
In addition, many safeties that flourished in college by reading the eyes of an unsophisticated thinker at quarterback in college, will get hypnotized into being in the wrong place at the wrong time by a skillful pro quarterback who can "look off" the safeties on a passing play.
Safeties that play "center field" also need good old footspeed to be able to get the angle on receivers that are running deep routes. You don't have to run a 4.4 40 to make it at safety in the NFL, as good instincts that avoid being trapped by crafty play design or quarterback play can make a 4.6 safety play like a 4.4 player.
However, even the best instincts may not bail out a safety with below-average speed when they are trying to keep up with Mike Wallace.