Under Chris Ballard, a player’s character has been critical in helping to shape the draft board. This is highlighted by the fact that former Green Beret Brian Decker is Director of Team/Player Development due to his unique talents in identifying players with the type of internal makeup it takes to be successful in high-pressure game situations and to thrive through the grueling, year-long training and rehabilitation process NFL player experience.
One player the Colts identified as an excellent fit in the 2019 NFL Draft was small school linebacker E.J. Speed out of Tarleton State. He checked off every physical mark Chris Ballard targets, in that he is a long and athletic linebacker with speed and range to play sideline to sideline. Perhaps as important, he checked off the character box in spades. To understand that, we need to provide some background.
Carter Donick helped to provide this background in a story he wrote shortly after the 2019 Draft.
Speed had a very close relationship with his adopted brother Paul Sneed. Sneed was diagnosed with cancer during Speed’s senior year of high school, leading Speed to turn down outside offers and stay close to home. FBS schools like Oklahoma State, Colorado, and Colorado State all came knocking on the former quarterback’s doorstep, but with his brother also committing to Tarleton State, the plan was for the two to stay together. Sadly, Snead passed away before he could even step foot on campus.
Rather than abandon Tarleton State to revisit some of the opportunities he had at major programs, Speed chose to stay put. He went through a rather impressive physical transformation that changed the course of his collegiate career dramatically. He was recruited by Tarleton State as a high school quarterback that they were hoping to transition to receiver. A foot injury led to intense training efforts which saw Speed put on 40 pounds, taking him from 190 to 230, and improve his 5.3-second 40-yard dash by seven-tenths of a second.
With a new body, Speed moved to a new position and started to develop as a do-it-all defender who lined up across numerous positions — but most often was considered a weakside linebacker. In this role, Speed made a big impact and showed considerable development.
Overcoming adversity? Speed has done that consistently throughout his life and certainly in his football journey. Showing signs of steady improvement and growth? Absolutely, major transformations of his body and his role on the field have yielded positive results. Work ethic and team loyalty? Putting on 40 pounds and shaving over a half-second off of his forty time while choosing to stick with Tarleton State when he could have gone elsewhere speak to both.
What makes Speed intriguing this summer is that he’ll be entering his third NFL season and should be given every chance to compete for reps with projected strong-side starter Zaire Franklin — especially after Anthonly Walker Jr. departed in free agency. Speed’s optimal role may differ from Franklin’s but both have the athleticism to cover the field from sideline to sideline. Where Speed has as an advantage is that he’s three inches taller and likely more of a threat rushing the passer. Franklin’s advantage is more live defensive reps in the regular season and another year under his belt.
Franklin surely has the early edge in this competition but this is the year for Speed to make his move. Given his history, it’s hard to bet again him.