INDIANAPOLIS — When the name "E.J. Speed" hit the ticker during the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, non-NFL personnel across the country questioned, in unison, "Who?"
The linebacker's name didn't really hit the map until a jaw-dropping pre-draft workout in March, but once it happened the Colts and the rest of the league went to work.
Colts southwest area scout Byron Lusby was tasked with vetting the Tarleton State product, and quite a bit came up in the process. Speed isn't just some random small-school prospect. There's a lot to unpack when it comes to this player.
Speed wasn't always overlooked. Coming out of high school as an athletic quarterback, he was recruited by bigger FBS schools like Oklahoma State, Colorado and Colorado State. However, Speed had something keeping him close to home.
"Yes, there were opportunities, but my brother who was adopted, named Paul Snead, he was adopted, coming out of little league football for us and he got diagnosed with cancer in December of my senior year in high school," Speed explained. "So I decided to stay close to him with the chances that he would get over cancer and come and play with me at a closer school, about 45 minutes away from my house.
"He ended up passing away in April, so that didn't work out," Speed continued. "But in all, I was excited because I thought Tarleton was a great school with a great coaching staff, athletic directors and the family I talked to was just amazing. So it worked out."
When Speed arrived as a true freshman at Tarleton in 2013, he converted to wide receiver and redshirted. He then received a medical redshirt the following season and converted to defensive end. He finally hit the field for the Texans in 2015 and eventually found his way at linebacker.
Through four years of gameplay, Speed garnered Second-Team All-Lone Star Conference honors twice including 2016 when he led all FCS players with five forced fumbles.
But Speed also had an off-the-field incident that merited serious vetting by the Colts; eventually the most serious of the charges against him were dropped, however.
Speed has vowed to leave those unfortunate events in the past.
"I mean, selling myself to teams was based on the football field, but the legal issue was just something that me and a lot of guys learned from and just distancing myself from guys that aren't going in the same direction as me," Speed said.
General manager Chris Ballard and the Colts are willing to take chances on players who may have slipped up before as long as they aren't truly bad apples.
"We do our work. Look, if the character thing – I can't emphasize it enough. Kids make mistakes. They make mistakes," Ballard said about Speed. "That doesn't mean that they're bad kids. It doesn't mean that they're bad people. Kids make mistakes. He made a mistake. The people he was hanging around – we did our work."
As a player, it's easy to see Speed has potential but is a little raw as a prospect. After all, he is still young to the linebacker position (and defense in general), so he's an ascending player.
"You can just look at my history from the Lone Star Conference. Danieal Manning, Johnny Knox, J'Marcus Webb – we all, we drafted. I worked in Kingsville where I coached all those players so I know the conference really well," Ballard said regarding Speed and his background being from a lower level of competition. "We comb, our scout went in there and had a grade on him. He had a great workout. We were combing the numbers. He had an unbelievable workout. We started studying him more and we just see a guy that's got really big upside as an inside backer."
At 6-3, 227, Speed has a great frame for the Colts' system, although he could likely stand to fill it out a little more. He also has experience playing off the edge in both three and four-man fronts as well as off-ball linebacker, so he's a versatile player.
Speed is especially explosive when coming off the edge as both a pass rusher and getting after the ball carrier.
Movement is arguably Speed's strongest suit. He plays with really good — you guessed it — speed, and range in pursuit of the ball carrier. He can cover sideline to sideline and changes direction seamlessly. Speed also has good agility to avoid blockers in the open field.
Although he is newer to defense, he is already developing good instincts for getting to the ball, and he stays aware and keeps his eye on it. When he makes contact, he tries to make the ball carrier feel it.
This needs to become more consistent, but Speed has the ability when ball carrier is approaching to stack the blocker and shed them when the ball gets there.
As someone who often blitzed the quarterback, Speed is mindful to get his hands into passing lanes so as to disrupt the ball.
One big thing that should benefit Speed's game by arriving in Indianapolis is gaining more play strength. That, coupled with developing more block-shedding moves will help him get off of blocks easier.
"Speed is my biggest factor, and elusiveness, and playmaking ability. I love to make spectacular plays. It's like a fetish for me to make spectacular plays that I feel like no one else can make, Speed said when asked to describe his game. "So that's basically my game – just always searching for a big play that can change the game."
With the Colts, Speed is likely to start out seeing a fair amount of WILL and MIKE linebacker as well as special teams roles.
"We think he can play WILL, MIKE or SAM. In this scheme, ideally you would like them to be able to play all three spots. Anthony Walker can line up and play all three spots. Darius Leonard can play all three spots. Those guys are valuable, especially when somebody goes down and you've got to flip them," Ballard said. "We'll put (Speed) at WILL to start, but at the end of the day we are hoping that he can play all three spots."
After the winding road he's taken to get to the NFL, Speed is in a good place and excited to get to work with the Colts.
"I feel good," he said. "I feel like we are getting a lot of work done. We are heading the in right direction, and Coach Flus (Matt Eberflus) is a great influence on coaching and everything – being able to really push you to your extremes and getting you to the level that you want to be at in the league."