INDIANAPOLIS -- Tennessee safety Eric Berry (No. 2 overall), Florida cornerback Joe Haden (No. 5) and USC safety Taylor Mays (No. 12) were the top-rated defensive backs by NFLDraftScout.com entering the combine, and each impressed in different aspects during the final position drills Tuesday.
Berry and Mays ran as expected, both in the 4.4-second range, according to NFL.com. Haden, however, struggled to get out of his stance and ran in the 4.5s, lacking the pure straight-line speed most expected.
|Eric Berry has a little trouble here, but does nothing to make his draft stock drop. (Getty Images)|
Haden also struggled a bit in agility drills, dropping balls and losing consistency with his footwork. Berry wasn't perfect catching the ball but showed little to make NFL scouts believe he can't be a playmaking safety. Mays was a bit high in his pedal, but displayed better footwork than most give him credit for and good ball skills.
The bottom line? In speaking with NFL personnel men after the combine, even they haven't come to a consensus on what Tuesday's workouts mean for the top prospects.
When I asked one scout if anything that happened will affect his feelings on the defensive back class, he said a flat, "No." Another source, however, thought teams would "reshuffle" their rankings on defensive backs based on speed. A third scout said he needed to "get out some film" again to see if guys play as fast -- or slow -- as they ran.
I've often said that scouting players is like witnessing a car crash. If you ask three scouts what they think of a player, you'll get three different options -- even if they all watch the same tape. Apparently, watching the combine results affects teams in different ways as well.
When a scout tells me some things will be changed based on combine results, it doesn't just apply to the cream of the crop. Larger impacts are likely to be felt throughout the rest of the draft class.
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Rutgers' Devin McCourty ran among the best times of the day (low 4.48, according to NFL.com), keeping him in the conversation as a late-first-early-second-round pick. He and Florida State's Patrick Robinson, who also ran well, looked the most fluid in the "W" drill, which projects to their ability to backpedal and close on the ball in man coverage.
Robinson's ball skills were better than McCourty's when asked to high-point the ball throughout the session. But on film, McCourty looks to be the more physical and consistent player. Teams will weigh these different aspects of each player's game and decide which is most important come decision time in April.
Others benefiting from strong performances were Virginia's Chris Cook, a likely second-round pick after running in the 4.3s on some watches, an exceptional 11-foot broad jump and having a solid Senior Bowl week. Brandon Ghee (Wake Forest) couldn't beat out training mate Taylor Price, an up-and-coming receiver from Ohio, with a 4.45 versus Price's 4.41, according to NFL.com. Still, his quickness and footwork in drills kept him in the second-round conversation along with Alabama's Kareem Jackson and South Florida's Jerome Murphy, who both acquitted themselves well Tuesday.
Indiana (Pa.) cornerback Akwasi Owusu-Ansah didn't put on the show that Tennessee State corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie did two years ago in Indianapolis. However, teams had to be impressed with his physique and 4.4 40 time. Only a shoulder injury has kept him under the radar a bit during the postseason draft-evaluation process.
Finally, Fresno State cornerback A.J. Jefferson displayed his off-the-charts athleticism by also running in the 4.4s, recording a 2010 combine-high 44-inch vertical and doing well on the other drills. Although he lacks consistent technique, his speed and return ability should earn him a draft slot.
Versatility has its rewards
When teams aren't sure where a defensive back prospect fits in the secondary, it's typically because he lacks the size or speed to line up at one spot or other. But Berry and Texas defensive back Earl Thomas are two first-round talents where scouts disagree on their best NFL position because of their potential in the flat or the deep half.
Berry's speed and fluid movement in drills Tuesday might push the idea that he's best off as a cornerback. His versatility as a ballhawk and big hitter, though, lead many to project him as an Ed Reed-type playmaker at free safety.
Thomas made eight interceptions at safety in 2009, helping the redshirt sophomore decide to enter the draft early. Weighing in at 208 pounds, instead of the 190 most expected, and running in the 4.4s gave him a chance to stay at safety. However, his tackling can be spotty and even Thomas told me he was a "corner at heart."
On the flip side, Michigan's Donovan Warren did not run or lift particularly well, leading teams to wonder about his quickness and strength, in addition to the stiff hips he showed on film. Vanderbilt senior Myron Lewis ran well in straight-line but struggled in transition, as he did as a senior last fall.
The ever-increasing importance of the passing game in the NFL means teams need elite athletes who can turn and run effectively and use their physical ability to disrupt the routes of receivers. Warren and Lewis are examples of two corners who might project better to safety, unless teams run schemes that accentuate their strengths and cover their weaknesses.
Mays caused a stir with his first 40-yard time, which NFL Network reported to be 4.24 seconds. That would have tied the combine record since 2000 held by former East Carolina and current Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson set in 2008.
But NFL Network's clocking was an unofficial handheld time. When the "official" time was posted on NFL.com, Mays had been downgraded to 4.43. To further confuse matters, the network ran an overlay replay that showed Mays coming in just behind Clemson wide receiver Jacoby Ford, whose "official" time Saturday was a 2010 combine-best 4.28. NFL people I spoke with had Mays' time closer to 4.24 than 4.43.
Each prospect typically runs twice, with an electronic and two handheld times clocked for each, producing a total of six times. Combine data put together for NFL teams by National Football Scouting includes all six of those times for each player, but no single official time.
Every team has its own scouts sitting on the 40-yard line with their own stopwatches. Scouts at the combine and pro days often share their times with those from other teams to get a sense of how they compare, but no one is simply leaving the timing up to the National Football Scouting staff or another team.
Ultimately, teams have their own numbers and expect that when the combine data is distributed to teams in a couple of weeks, the times will fall somewhere between the "unofficial" and "official" times shown during the broadcast coverage.
Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.