You hear it from everyone — from the rookies to the vets to the coaches to the scouts and everyone in between. When players make the jump from college to the pro ranks, the very first issue they encounter is the speed of the game.
"Well, first off, the NFL is way faster than college,” Vance McDonald was telling me at the Rooney Complex when I asked him how rookie tight end Zach Gentry was fitting in.
Then there was this from Benny Snell:
"The game's, like, really fast," he said on Day 2 of Steelers OTAs on May 24.
Snell elaborated on that, saying he didn't mean the players were physically faster. The "speed" mentioned refers to mental processing speed, breaking down details and understanding assignments, coverages and audibles on the fly. Take 0.2 seconds longer to decide where you need to be, and your stellar 4.4-second 40-yard dash just turned into a 4.6. That's what truly defines "speed" at the NFL level.
Sutton Smith, the team's first sixth-round pick this year, put it perfectly.
"It's not so much the speed, it's more knowing what you're doing. That's why it seems so fast," Smith was telling me inside the locker room. "Everybody's fast, even in college. Everybody's fast. It's just knowing what your job is fully, in and out, to do to the best of your ability. That's why the speed of the game changes from college to the NFL."
One more for good measure, this from third-round cornerback Justin Layne, who ran a 4.50 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. While Layne is not known for his outright speed, he has played fast in spurts throughout OTAs and minicamp, generating interceptions and beginning his own process of transitioning into life as a Steeler. Still, he says that pesky playbook and its intricacies are slowing him down — for now.
“I feel like once I actually buckle in, buckle down a little bit, I’ll play a lot faster,” Layne told me during OTAs. “But I mean, it’s still just a learning process.”
Yeah, Mr. Layne, for some it is. For others, apparently, the NFL is just another day at the office. I've been bouncing around the Rooney Complex, talking to every rookie I can find, and even some vets, about this topic. It's fascinating to me, and the similarities in their responses paint a clear picture and help validate the claims.
So when I strolled up to Isaiah Buggs — the Steelers' second of three sixth-round picks in the 2019 Draft — following Day 2 of minicamp on Wednesday, I expected more of the same. He ran a 5.15-second 40 (25th out of 30 defensive lineman), an 8.01-second three-cone drill (third worst) and a 4.83 shuttle (21st out of 24). No offense, but if somebody in this class was going to struggle with the speed, it was going to be Buggs, right?
Take it away, Mr. Buggs:
That's encouraging, and it's something aided by the help and support of the veterans in the locker room. The Steelers' defensive line is strong, with Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave leading the way. Buggs says it's their work coupled with the Steelers coaching staff that's allowing him to jump in and make some plays early.
“I feel like I’ve been adjusting pretty well, being around these vets and they’re showing me how it’s supposed to be done, when it’s supposed to be done," Buggs was saying. "I’m just taking in the coaching and taking every day step-by-step and getting better. They’re great guys. They just look for the best in me. If I just continue to watch them and learn from them, everything will be all right.”
"All right” for a sixth-round rookie battling for position means one thing: Making the team. Buggs is primarily competing with Dan McCullers, the 6-foot-7, 352-pound behemoth from Tennessee who has been with the Steelers since 2014. During that five-year stretch, however, McCullers has made just three starts and registered 2.5 sacks along with 34 tackles (18 solo). He hasn't become what the Steelers envisioned, and it's unclear if he ever will.
• Related: Carter breaks down Buggs
Last year, the Steelers drafted another Alabama defensive lineman, Joshua Frazier, to push McCullers for a roster spot. McCullers won. Now, Buggs likely falls into the same category, and it's a competition he recognizes and embraces.
"You can be replaced at any moment, so you gotta stay focused and do your job," he said.
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