Sunday's workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine were all about running backs and wide receivers putting their speed and athleticism on display. Although there are several tests and agility drills the prospects participate in during the day, the most publicized way to show their wares is by running the much-hyped 40-yard dash. Of course, those that play wide receiver are one of the few players that actually run 40 yards during a game even though it's rarely in a straight line. Still, their combine times are always highly anticipated.
Two receivers cementing their draft status today with excellent workouts were Clemson's Jacoby Ford (4.28), Ohio's Taylor Price (4.41), SMU's Emmanuel Sanders (4.41), and Notre Dame's Golden Tate (4.42).
Ford was a track star at Clemson and owns a slight 5-9, 180-pound frame, so it wasn't surprising he lit up the track like he did. Price is under the radar nationally, having played for a struggling Bobcats offense, but scouts knew he would run well and his performance at the Senior Bowl (where Ford also had a nice week) had already placed him squarely in the top 75 prospects. Sanders was also well known in NFL circles for his quickness, and looked good in receiving drills Sunday as well as during practice at the East-West Shrine Game.
But Tate's time was even better than he expected. Friday, he said his goal was to run a sub-4.5 time. With some times reported in the high 4.3's, teams can now be sure of the deep speed he appeared to have getting downfield in South Bend, increasing the chances of him being picked in the first round.
Of course, even with these impressive numbers receivers still need to catch the ball to make their speed count. Tate dropped three straight passes in the gauntlet drill, but did well the rest of the day. Price was as solid throughout the session as he was in Mobile. Ford didn't drop many balls, either, and showed great quickness in route running as well as his exceptional straight-line speed.
As for players who did not impress, Syracuse receiver Mike Williams was slower than expected (around 4.55), dropped multiple passes and had trouble keeping his balance. LSU star Brandon LaFell ran in the 4.6 range, failing to eliminate concerns about his deep speed. The comparisons of Texas receiver Jordan Shipley to New England's Wes Welker will probably stop, as Shipley timed in the high 4.5's.
However, receivers running 4.55 or higher in recent years have shown that it doesn't prevent them from being a first-round pick or succeeding at the next level. Shipley can take a page from Austin Collie or Brian Hartline, selected 19 picks apart in the fourth round last year and now appearing to be keepers for the Colts and Dolphins, respectively, despite running in the mid-4.5's a year ago. Shipley's hands, routes and quickness after the catch still stand out on film.
Current NFL receivers Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant fell into the second round, as LaFell might, after very average 40 times. On the other hand, players like Dwayne Bowe and Michael Clayton were still mid-first round picks in spite of their 40 times around 4.5. Character or other issues may have aided the drop for Ochocinco and Bryant (and may lead to Mike Williams' fall into the mid-rounds), so it's very possible LaFell's versatility and playmaking skills could put him in the first round. The varying success of these receivers, however, show that neither speed nor draft position, correlates perfectly to success at the next level.
Rushing to judgment
Most scouts and running backs coaches will tell you that a ball-carriers' burst into and past the hole is more important than their 40 time. However, there is no doubt that teams pay close attention to sustained speed, in addition to their 10- and 20-yard splits.
Ford wasn't the only Clemson football/track athlete to burn up the 40 on Sunday, as top running back prospect C.J. Spiller ran a 4.37 after initially being credited with an unofficial 4.28. That speed at 5-11, 196 pounds will only bring more comparisons to Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson. However, Spiller's upright slashing perimeter running style make some scouts feel his game more closely resembles that of Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones.
Cal's Jahvid Best was as fast as advertised, running a 4.35 and measuring in at a solid 5-10, 199. He hopes his build will convince teams he can be durable and that the concussion he suffered was a freak occurrence. One player that probably cinched a first-round slot is Ryan Mathews from Fresno State. It was clear to anyone watching that Mathews has the ability to run away from defenders once in the open field, but being timed at 4.45 at 218 pounds was not expected. SEC backs Ben Tate (Auburn) and Montario Hardesty (Tennessee) also came in under 4.5.
Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer may have hurt himself the most, as he was unable to crack the top 10 times among running backs. Running in the high 4.5s places a doubt in his current standing as one of the top two backs in the draft.
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However, Knowshon Moreno's 4.56 last February at 217 pounds (vs. Dwyer's 229) was equally average, and the Broncos still selected the Georgia product with the 12th pick overall. Veteran NFL back Chester Taylor, who has a similar all-around game, ran just under 4.6 at the 2002 combine. So all is not lost for Dwyer's hope for an early selection or to be an outstanding NFL player.
A few other ball carriers either confirmed their lack of elite speed or were disappointing in having slower times than expected. Toby Gerhart (Stanford) ran as expected, in the mid-4.5s, but he had hoped to shock scouts by dipping into the 4.4s. Joique Bell (Wayne State) and Pat Paschall (North Dakota State) wanted to show they could keep up with the major-college backs, but could not break into the 4.5s. LSU's Charles Scott ran around 4.7, which adds insult to the injured collarbone that caused him to miss the Senior Bowl.
LeGarrette Blount put his early-season incident against Boise State behind him and turned his draft prospects around by a strong week in Mobile. His 40 time of 4.62 is not what he wanted, but teams expected the hard-running back to fall in that area, so it should not really hurt his draft stock.
The times get the headlines, but watching a player run his 40 can be interesting in itself. Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon, who is a power back like Blount that does not require track speed to be effective, didn't light up the combine with times in the mid-4.6s. However, his effort during the run was very reminiscent of that given on every carry for the Bulldogs. Hopefully for him, teams noticed it while they waited to click the stop button on their stopwatch.
Many different 40 times will be reported over the next few days, with discrepancies as wide as a full tenth of a second like those for Spiller, so it's important to understand where they come from.
The only listed times available during the event come from NFL Network and NFL.com, neither of which discloses how they arrive at the timed speeds.
As Rob Rang noted in his blog this weekend, beware of any 40 time labeled as "official" from the combine. Those who participate in the 40 typically run twice, and on each run they are timed by two hand-held stopwatches and one electronic timer, which is actually initiated by hand on the player's first movement.
Combine data put together for NFL teams by the National Football Scouting service, the private entity not owned by the league but which is actually in charge of running the event, includes all six of those times for each player, but no single official time. Teams and scouts don't receive that information until at least two weeks after the event.
Team scouts and coaches have various approaches for getting the 40 time they use from those six timings. Some use averages. Some throw out the slowest and fastest and then average the rest. Some ignore the whole thing and use a time taken by their own scout.
In deference to the players, NFLDraftScout.com uses the best verifiable --- or listed -- time from the combine unless it is conspicuously skewed from the other times, which happens when a hand timer has an itchy trigger finger on the stopwatch.
However, the times are usually well-grouped so a general idea of the player's speed is easily attained. As one longtime NFL scout once told me, "all I want to find out is if a guy is slow, fast, or damn fast."
Chad Reuter is a senior analyst from NFLDraftScout.com Distributed by The Sports Xchange