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How mental speed counts significantly in NFL players’ overall value to their teams

While we generally focus on players’ physical metrics including speed, size or vertical leap, diagnosing and reacting quickly to what’s happening on the field is an indispensable trait.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve always loved basketball. Many a summer evening was spent on the patch of black-top my father bartered for with our neighbor Big John, shooting jump shots while WDVE blared from my parent’s clock radio stuck in the open window. But basketball never loved me. Not only was I finished growing vertically by the time I was 12 (not quite 5’7”) but I was slow, uncoordinated and couldn’t jump.

When I finally tried out for my junior high team, though, I discovered that all those hours practicing alone did nothing for my ability to “see” the game. Setting picks, going backdoor and passing were all jumbled together with the nine other guys on the court. I learned an important lesson — in the immortal words of Yogi Berra — ninety percent of the game is half-mental.

As I studied the our preseason tilt with the Titans, I was reminded of that lesson. I watched James Conner channel his inner Le’Veon Bell, waiting patiently for his holes. I wondered, if James Conner ran a 4.2 40, would he be much better? Not if he ran real fast right into a non-hole. I watched Jaylen Samuels change directions and make people miss and wondered, if he bulked up to the size of the Bus, even if he kept his speed, would he be much better? Not if he couldn’t see open cut-back lanes.

It struck me the most watching Terrell Edmunds’ pick return. Imagine playing a sport with the fastest, strongest athletes in the world. Your job is to make sure the fastest among those athletes don't catch the ball. And suddenly, the ball lands in your hands. That, of course, is a good thing, a great thing, a splash thing. But in that moment everything changes. Now the motion of the game is in the opposite direction. You were on defense; now you’re on offense. The guys you were trying to stay near, you’re now trying to avoid. Edmunds looked completely at ease at that moment of transition. He saw his lanes, followed his blockers and made the most of the open-field situation. That’s a mind processing football information at better than 4.2 speed. And that ability will prove invaluable in the coming season. Remember the struggles our defense went through last year — they weren’t “not strong enough” or “not fast enough” problems. They were blown coverages and miscommunications — they were mental mistakes.

The Steelers have a long history of lunch-pail players, guys without the flash or prodigious gifts who managed to make crucial contributions to a great team. Think Rocky Bleier, Merrill Hoge, Jerry Olsavsky and Randy Grossman. Think of AV. These are the kind of men whose bodies might be a step slow, but whose minds are a step ahead. And these are the kinds of guys I hope will make the final cut.

I don’t envy the coaching staff and their difficult calling during the next week or so. But my hope is that they’ll weigh heavily the factors which the combine can’t reveal, what the Wonderlic can’t expose, what football-in-shorts can’t show you — the ability to think fast on the football field.