Testing Sly Williams

Sylvester Williams started his college career at Coffeyville Community College. By the time he had finished his second season there, he was an honorable mention Junior College All-American with 12.5 tackles for loss and five blocked kicks.

He was given no shortage of options on schools to attend after that, but he decided on North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and immediately entered the starting lineup there in 2011. He had 54 tackles (seven for loss) and 2.5 sacks, and fit well with the great talent all along the Tar Heels defensive line.

Denver took him with the 28th pick in the first round of the 2013 Draft, and they count themselves lucky to do so. So do I. I’m going through his film at this point, (which isn’t a burden) and I’ll need a few days to get it all done. But until then, an ESPN Sport Science segment featuring him gives us and the Broncos a lot of good reasons why we all should be happy with him:

Sport Science had Sylvester rated as one of the most explosive players in this draft. Williams was up to 323 lb. at that point, and down to 313 by combine, so it’s unlikely that he’s going to need to drop some of that weight to fix his admitted conditioning issues. He’ll just need/want to lose some of that fat that changes direction about a half-second after the rest of him does, and replace it with some muscle.

The Broncos’ coaching and physical training is second to none (they’re also talking about building another indoor facility at Dove Valley next year, too), so I don’t see this as a concern. Sly will be one heck of a destructive force by that point. He’s pretty much one even now, so getting him his NFL body at John Fox’s standard one-year mark shouldn’t be a problem for anyone but opposing offensive linemen.

To give you an idea of why I think Williams is so good, consider first that the man has 32.94-inch thighs (thicker than my waist), and that he can pull a 325-lb blocking sled 10 yards in under four seconds with them. For all the science geeks out there, that test generated over 2,000 watts of power. As a comparison, the average toaster runs on 1,500 watts. You want wheat or sourbread with that? Thigh/hip strength is essential in explosion. Williams is one of the strongest players SS tested this year.

How about his footspeed? The 40, even with splits, doesn’t tell you much that’s position-specific or particularly useful for DTs. According to the testing, it takes Williams only 2.095 seconds to reach top speed and cover 10 yards of ground, about what he’d need to sack a QB. The faster a player can reach full speed, the harder they are to block, and the more damage they’ll do in the backfield and in pursuit.

This gets more impressive when you learn that their class of 2013 running backs were slower on average than Williams’s explosion - and every one of them was carrying less body weight than Williams by at least 110 lb. They included Montee Ball, Giovanni Bernard, Kenjon Barmer, and Ray Graham - a pretty good cross section of the RBs, if a small sample.

The three keys of DT success are explosion, hand use, and leverage. His reaction time from the moment the football is raised until he explodes out is only 0.29 seconds. The average time that a Sport Science player achieves in this test this year was 0.48. That’s a 0.19-second difference. When your guy is playing one-fifth of a second ahead of the rest, it’s a big advantage. Hand use and leverage are easier to use if you’re 0.19 seconds faster than your opponent. Host John Brenkus described Williams as,

“One of the most explosive players we analyzed this year.”

Quarterbacks in the NFL are trained to get rid of the ball in under three seconds (some NFL coaches demand 2.8 or 2.7 from their QB). Sly fires out and covers 10 yards in two seconds. To find out how Williams might do in a simulation of that situation with added blockers, they hung 1,200 lbs. of heavy bags between Williams and a quarterback dummy who was fitted with a sensor to detect impact. Remember, Williams is a guy who can get up to speed in two steps, or run 10 yards in under four seconds while dragging a 325-lb sled. Here are the results on the bag drill:

The first bag was struck with his hand and forearm, achieving 896.4 lbs. of force. That’s impressive - I’ve watched a lot of these tests being done with martial arts people, and that’s a very high degree of force. He blasted through the three bags that made up the second ‘layer’ and only took two steps to launch into the ‘quarterback’, getting up to 85% of his top speed (13.94 mph) in those two steps before crushing the dummy QB (jokes expected) with 2,127 lbs. of initial impact force. It was the hardest hit they measured last year, and delivered it in 2.61 seconds from the starting whistle. This explains a lot about why his film looks as good as it does and why he fits John Elway’s ‘10-year player’ designation.

The segment said that they did several other position-specific tests that they didn’t show us, but did say how his overall testing compared to other players. Sport Science felt that their system puts him in the 88th percentile of players, and compares him favorably to Darnell Dockett, the Cardinals’ three-time Pro Bowler. Let’s hope so.

I like the ‘Sport Science’ types of testing. Coming up with scientific tests to evaluate players is a much different kind of work from the game-oriented math and stats that we are starting to use now (and new approaches of which seem to be on the horizon).  Both are ways to increase clarity on the player, providing a positive impact on matching players and teams.

The combine was founded on the basic idea that having a central place to evaluate players would give all teams an even chance with the players, but the drills and tests haven’t evolved much since the 1980s. The combine could become fertile soil for developing an additional aspect of tests and drills of the Sport Science variety, one that could give teams a much better idea of what players’ real strengths and weaknesses are. For the owners, it’s a chance to improve their monetary decisions. For the players, it could have the value of having teams knowing better how the player might fit into their positional demands.

Will this kind of testing eventually become a normal part of the combine, or of a post-combine regime? I believe that it will. It has a long way to go, but understanding which linemen, running backs, and wide receivers have quantifiably better explosion and footspeed, and knowing the specific power they can generate in a certain play is the kind of thing that I’d expect teams to love.

Anything that might reduce the draft bust issue is aces with me. I’ve never found having more information at my fingertips to be a negative, especially not in evaluating players.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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