The need for speed: the NFL loves a fast man, but are college prospects graded too heavily on their 40-yard dash times? Cardinals wideout Anquan Boldin certainly was
DURING THE MONTHS OF JANUARY, FEBRUARY, AND MARCH each year, the NFL goes on tour. League talent evaluators travel from location to location like a flock of Grateful Dead followers, anxious to thoroughly examine every college prospect on display.
Some travel by bus, some by plane. Some pack heavy and some pack light. But one item everyone in the traveling circus is sure to have is a stopwatch. Some even bring two.
That’s because the NFL is obsessed with speed–and for good reason. The difference between a 4.4 and a 4.5 in the 40-yard clash could be the difference in whether a wide receiver clears the corner on an end-around or whether a running back makes his way through a crease in the offensive line before it closes. As far as the scouts are concerned, speed can go a long way in determining whether your team is playing football in January or watching the games on television instead.
“You field a team of good football players that can’t run, and you’re going to lose,” says legendary front-office executive Ron Wolf, who helped build the lightning-fast Oakland Raiders of the 1960’s and 70s and the Green Bay Packers of the 1990s.
“In my 38 years in the business, the more I became familiar with the 40-yard time, the better I felt about a particular player,” adds Wolf, now retired. “It’s not everything, but it’s a very, very valuable tool.”
Gil Brandt agrees. Brandt also built a winner with speed during his 29 years as personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys. For Brandt, comparing 40-yard dash times was an easy way to separate talent.
“Let’s say there are two wide receivers that, ability-wise, look alike,” says Brandt. “If one runs a 4.43 and the other runs a 4.58, that was the tie-breaker for [the Cowboys].”
But scouting isn’t always that cut and dry. At the NFL Combine–held in late February in Indianapolis, where every top-level prospect works out for every upper-level executive in the business–the marquee attraction is the 40-yard dash. Prospects know that if they run well, they’ll improve their stock. Run slow and millions of dollars may fall from their pockets.
Based on that one drill, scouts often make up their minds about a guy in a matter of one one-hundredth of a second. Sometimes, however, the 40 time doesn’t say as much about a particular player as scouts would like it to because, as Brandt points out, “some players carry a uniform better than others.”
Take Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin. At Florida State, Boldin earned a reputation as one of the nation’s deadliest weapons. He led his squad in receiving and touchdowns as a junior in 2002, and had displayed everything on game film that scouts tend to look for.
But when he recorded times above 4.7 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, a time well above NFL standards for a wide receiver, Boldin paid the price. Arizona picked him midway through the second round of the 2003 draft after five other wide receivers had been selected, including Bryant Johnson, who went to Arizona in the first round. However, Boldin proved the critics wrong and went on to earn Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after catching 101 passes for 1,377 yards.
“I think the testing is overrated. I think the bottom line should be what you did on the film,” says Boldin. “All of the 40 times, all of the shuttles, that doesn’t mean much to me. If you put me on a field, no matter who you put in front of me, I’m going to perform. And I had the film to back that up.”
“Boldin’s times at the combine were not good,” says Brandt, “so consequently people forgot that he caught 13 touchdowns and that he was the best all-purpose receiver in the state of Florida.”
That same year, defensive lineman Terrell Suggs, didn’t run fast for scouts either. At Arizona State in the fall of 2002, Suggs collected an NCAA-record 24 sacks. But at 6’3″, 262 pounds, Suggs was considered too small to be a three down defensive end. And because he x an a disappointing 4.8 in the dash during a private workout in March 2003, Suggs was considered too slow to drop back into coverage as an outside linebacker in the 4-3 scheme. Suggs was a “tweener,” a guy who didn’t belong at any particular position; at least that’s how his measurable qualities sized him up.
For Suggs, those few hundredths of a second damaged him where it hurts the most. It was the difference of just five to seven spots in the first round of the ’03 draft, but any agent can tell you that dropping from No. 3 to 5, where Suggs was initially projected, to No. 10 is a difference of millions of dollars.
The end result turned out to be in Suggs’ best interests. He was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, who at the time were one of only a few teams in the league to employ a 3-4 defense, a scheme that fit Suggs’ abilities. Like Boldin, Suggs has proven the naysayers wrong about the speed issue; in just two NFL seasons, he has recorded 22.5 sacks. When this year’s crop of college prospects were getting ready for Indianapolis, Suggs was returning from his first Pro Bowl in Honolulu.
Wolf and Brandt acknowledge it’s not a perfect system. There is a Boldin and a Suggs in every draft, but they say the few who slip between the cracks don’t warrant a change in the system.
“You can always point out the exceptions to the rules,” says Wolf. “I know Cris Carter didn’t have a really good 40 time, and he was an exceptional player. But I do believe that the 40 has survived the test of time.”
Wolf points out that scouts know how fast Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown ran the 40 (4.4) and that the Philadelphia Eagles’ bruising fullback from the 1940s, Steve van Buren, was rumored to have put up an excellent 40 time (4.5) for a ball carrier his size. “You have this backlog of information, and it’s all based on a 40 time,” says Wolf, “and that helps you. That’s something you know, and it helps you compare.”
Says Brandt, “When you time people, you’re trying to find a way, percentage-wise, to make a better choice. If Player A runs 4A5 and Player B runs 4.62, which one would you rather have? There are going to be occasions when player B turns out to be the better football player. All you’re trying to do when you time people is use past history to help determine who has a better chance of being successful.”
Perhaps Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent put it best. Largent, who left the game with more catches, yards, and receiving touchdowns than any player to come before him, was considered too small and too slow when he entered the league in 1976. Largent was drafted by the Houston Oilers, but shortly thereafter he was shipped to the Seattle Seahawks for a future eighth-round selection.
“Scouting is two parts science, one part art,” says Largent. “The science part everybody gets–height, weight, speed, and so on and so forth. But the one part that is always hard to measure is the art, and that has to do with competitiveness, heart, and knowledge of the game. That’s the piece of the puzzle that everybody wishes was a science, but it’s really not.”
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