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Scouting combine defines NFL's need for speed

Posted Feb 18, 2014

Perhaps because it is so finite and creates such simple comparisons, the 40 has become the must-see event of the combine.

This story was written for NFL.com by Judy Battista (@judybattista)

When Anthony Becht was a tight end prospect from West Virginia in 2000, he prepared for his workouts with NFL teams by training with a speed guru based in Chicago. The training was track-specific -- "Something I would never use on-field," Becht said -- but limited by the cold-weather location. Becht did his 40-yard-dash training in a 200-foot carpeted community college corridor.

Still, Dick Haley -- the renowned director of player personnel who was then working for the New York Jets -- used a hand-operated stopwatch to clock Becht in 4.69 seconds, a number of which Becht, who then weighed 270 pounds, is still proud. It helped make him one of the Jets' four first-round draft picks that year, the beginning of his 11-season NFL career.

Becht has spent much of the winter helping to prepare the next crop of tight ends at IMG's training facility in Bradenton, Fla. And what he sees there is a snapshot of what the ever-increasing fascination with speed has wrought and why there are very few top prospects training in a hallway.


"They are receiver-type tight ends, so they want in the 4.5's or low 4.6's," Becht said. "They've got track coaches. It is 'How can I run like Carl Lewis ran?' It's crazy. It is taken to the extreme. If you get a good time and you're not as known, you can all of a sudden make a name."

That has long been the risk-reward of speed from pro prospects, which will first be put on wide display at next week's NFL Scouting Combine. Reward for the players, some of whom will see their draft stock rise as their times drop; risk for teams that must resist getting caught in the wake of burners who might otherwise have shortcomings.

Perhaps because it is so finite and creates such simple comparisons, the 40 has become the must-see TV event of the combine. But that does not mean its results are definitive for the talent evaluators in the NFL. In fact, NFL Media's Charley Casserly said that when he was assessing prospects as the general manager for the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, it was standard practice around the league to add a tenth of a second to players' 40 times to account for the difference between running on a track or artificial surface and the slower grass fields on which they would play most of their games.

Casserly admits that most of the prospects didn't realize teams were accounting for the surface. Or that teams are at least as concerned with their more arbitrary impression of playing speed, in an attempt to get a truer read of how a player would really perform, not merely how they run in a straight line.

"Speed is essential, but it depends on your system," Casserly said. "Our corners had to be able to run fast because we played man-to-man. Speed is important at wide receiver so he can go deep. But separation quickness is when he's making a cut, his ability to have quickness in his body movement. It's a totally different thing. When I was with the Redskins, separation quickness was No. 1 and speed was 1A. Steve Largent wasn't necessarily a fast guy, but he had great separation quickness."

Trying to divine the correct way to value speed -- and which kind to value -- is far from a new quest in the NFL. Bob Ward was the Dallas Cowboys' strength and conditioning coach until 1989 and he studied different ways to measure players' game speed and also to determine how much of his speed a player uses, depending on his position. For example, the top-end speed of a receiver, who might be called on to run past defenders, is more important than it would be for an inside linebacker, who is unlikely to have to run at full speed very often.

"We all want to know how fast a player can run, but to be truthful, you'd almost have to time them all in pads," said Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh Steelers' general manager.

Few teams have hard and fast thresholds that either eliminate a player from consideration or compel a team to pull the trigger on draft day, but there are, unquestionably, numbers that simply will not work. A cornerback who runs 4.6 simply can't play man-to-man, Casserly said. A receiver who runs the 40 in 5-flat is probably not going to succeed, Colbert said. But when linebacker Jarvis Jones ran an unexpectedly slow 4.92 at his pro day last year, it delighted the Steelers, who drafted him 17th overall.

"We would have a chance to draft him, whereas prior to that, we didn't think we'd have a chance," Colbert said. "We thought he was a great player. If he'd run faster, he would have been drafted higher. If you have criteria you like to use, you make a mistake eliminating a player if he's a tenth of a second slower than expected. There have been kids that have disappointed, but you can think of far more kids that you've overevaluated because of a good workout. That's a bigger danger."

Even the recent history of the draft is rife with cautionary tales. The website Statisticbrain.com compiled the fastest 40-yard-dash times recorded since 2000, when the NFL switched from hand-timing to electronic, and it is a blunt illustration of how speed does not necessarily equal success.

The fastest time was clocked by running back Chris Johnson in 2008: 4.24. Johnson was selected 24th overall by the Titans, rushed for 2,006 yards one year later, but hasn't gotten within 600 yards of that number since. Marquise Goodwin was next, posting a 4.27 last year. He was taken in the third round by the Bills, before a promising rookie season that showcased Goodwin's elite speed.

For every Santana Moss, who ran 4.31, was taken 16th overall by the Jets and just completed his 13th season in the league, there is Darrius Heyward-Bey, who ran 4.30 in 2009. When the Raiders selected him with the seventh overall pick, it was considered a reach. He eventually was released by the Raiders, signed by the Colts and continues to be plagued by drops while logging just 169 receptions and 12 touchdowns in five seasons.

But the allure of the fast time, and the undeniable need for a baseline level of speed, continues to send prospects for training in the weeks between the end of the college football season and the combine. Ralph Reiff is working with 18 prospects this year at the St. Vincent Performance Center, about 15 minutes from Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium. There is a different value placed on different types of speed for each position, and Reiff and his group work to improve all of it, from the top-end speed that's so important for receivers and cornerbacks to the ability to change direction and quickly accelerate that is vital for linebackers and defensive ends. Explosive speed is particularly important to linemen -- how quickly can they go from being in their stance to engaging with the player opposite them, to gain the leverage advantage in that space?

The work is extremely detailed. Among other things, Reiff and Co. will address how a prospect runs off the inside or outside of his foot, which is critical for rounding a cone in a drill and coming off the edge in a pass rush. For 90 minutes each day, six days a week, players work on nothing but movement, far more time than can be devoted to this particular discipline in college. And they do their work not in an empty hallway but on the same surface they would find at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"Speed by itself does not make an excellent football player," Reiff said. "But it sure gives a team an advantage if all 11 on the field are fast."

And, no matter how it translates into the NFL, the quest for speed sure makes for compelling theater. In 2002, receiver Donte' Stallworth, who had run track in high school but hadn't been clocked since he ran 4.38 as a Tennessee freshman, spent several weeks in New Orleans working with famed trainer Mackie Shilstone. Stallworth said he approached the combine as if it was the Olympics, hoping to run under 4.3 to help his draft stock, although his primary focus was working on route running. During his training, Stallworth did not run a 40-yard dash at full speed and during the week of the combine, he led the scouts to believe he would probably run a 4.4, a bit of gamesmanship. On the day he ran, Stallworth was nervous. Then, at the start, he felt himself slip slightly. When he finished, Stallworth slapped a wall in frustration. Then he saw one of his coaches from Tennessee, a person Stallworth said was usually calm and rarely cursed, running at him.

"Do you want to know what you ran?!" Stallworth said the coach screamed at him. "I'm thinking, Oh man, I probably ran 4.4 or 4.5."

He had run 4.22, according to the NFL.

"I looked at him like 'That's wrong.' " Stallworth said. "Then, as I started walking back, I saw all my friends and teammates and scouts looking at me in disbelief, like 'Wow.'

"A lot of that doesn't carry over to actually playing on the field," Stallworth said.

But that doesn't stop him from being curious about what the next class will run:

"It's still pretty cool to watch."

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