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How fast is fast? Bills scouts look beyond the 40 times

There were 15 players who ran 40-yard dash times of 4.40 seconds or better at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis this year.

That tied with last year for the most at the combine in the past decade.

The challenge for NFL personnel executives is to sort out which players run fast and which players play fast.

“Some guys really test well, and it’s easy to get enamored with testing numbers,” said Bills general manager Brandon Beane. “That’s why we try to put a precedent on getting our board in really good shape before we go to Indy, before these numbers start flashing out there.

“It is natural,” Beane said. “You see that card says 4.32 and you’re like, 'Man, I really want that speed.' But maybe it doesn’t translate on the field and maybe mentally it doesn’t translate.”

Every team covets speed. Kansas City star Tyreek Hill was timed in 4.25 seconds at his pro day before the 2016 NFL Draft and has turned into one of the top game-breakers in the league. Atlanta’s Julio Jones, who led the NFL in receiving yards last season, ran 4.39 at the combine in 2011.

But NFL scouts must be sure the 40-yard times correspond to how the player performed on the field.

In the 12-year period from 2006 to 2017, 12 players ran 4.30 or faster at the combine.

Of those dozen, just two have had outstanding NFL careers – running back Chris Johnson and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Seven have done little so far. Three (receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey, Marquise Goodwin and J.J. Nelson) fall into the mostly mediocre category. Goodwin, who ran 4.27 and was picked by the Bills in 2013, had an excellent year for San Francisco in 2017.

NFL scouts are required to write a “play speed,” or estimated speed, on each player when they write their scouting reports in the fall.

Beane stressed the importance of relying heavily on the game evaluations.

“The film doesn’t lie,” Beane said. “You can tell play speed. It’s funny. It’s a checks and balances. If you see a guy, let’s say a cornerback. If he’s running high 4.5s – 4.58, 4.6 – you’re questioning him. But if you watch the film and you see him running with guys who tested at 4.4, 4.45, and they’re not blowing by him, he’s got the play speed. He’s got the instincts. He’s aware. He knows maybe where he’s deficient.”

“A perfect example in this draft,” says Pro Football Weekly analyst Greg Gabriel, “is Myles Boykin, the Notre Dame receiver. He had an unbelievable combine. He ran a 4.42 and he jumped out of the building.

“Watch the tape and you’d say he’s never going to break 4.6,” said Gabriel, a Western New York native and former Bears scouting director. “He plays slower. It’s like, 'OK where did this come from?' Now you’ve got to say: 'What am I buying? Am I buying what I see on tape? Or am I buying what he did at Indy?' You gotta go with the tape, when he’s got the pads on.”

The fastest player at this year’s combine was Mississippi safety Zedrick Woods, who ran 4.29. He’s a three-year starter but he didn’t play as fast as his time suggests. He’s projected to be a late-round pick.

The fastest wide receivers from the combine were Ohio State’s Parris Campbell and Massachusetts’ Andy Isabella, both of whom ran 4.31. The 6-foot, 205-pound Campbell could be a second-round pick. He caught 90 passes, 12 for TDs, in 2018.

“Campbell plays fast,” Gabriel said.

Isabella is a 5-8 3/4 slot receiver who had 102 catches, 13 for TDs, in 2018. He’s probably a third- or fourth-round pick.

“I’m not an Isabella fan,” Gabriel said. “I think he plays fast, but to me, he’s one of the most overrated players in the draft because people are looking at the speed and the catch production he had at UMass. But you’ve got to translate that to the NFL. He has very short arms. He’s got real small hands. When you watch the tape, the ball has to be right on target for him to catch it. He has a small receiving radius, so he doesn’t extend very well to make the catch. I think some of the stuff he did in college, he’s never going to be able to do in the pros.”

There are even more super-fast guys in the draft if you include the numbers from pro-day workouts after the combine. Two of the fastest were by unheralded Penn State receiver DeAndre Thompkins (4.34), who had 25 catches in 2018, and Maryland running back Ty Johnson (4.33), who had 66 carries. Both may well be undrafted free agents.

Beane said there is a category of draft prospects for whom he sometimes gives added consideration to the combine 40 time: A late-round prospect who is unlikely to have a shot to start but who could be a quality special teams player.

“If he plays like he’s got his hair on fire running downfield, physical, running fast ... that’s one thing where you will pay a little more attention to the 40 time,” Beane said. “What he’s rolling down that field at 40, 50 yards? A lot of guys getting timed, how many plays do they really run 40 yards? But I think those measurements do show up more in special teams.”

Player, School                                Pos     Time Projected round
1. Zedrick Woods, Ole Miss          S        4.29    5-7
2. Jamel Dean, Auburn                CB      4.30    3-4
3. Parris Campbell, Ohio State   WR    4.31     2
3. Andy Isabella, UMass              WR    4.31     2-4
5. D.K. Metcalf, Ole Miss             WR    4.33    1-2
5. Mecole Hardman, Georgia     WR     4.33    2-4
7. Terry McLaurin, Ohio State   WR     4.35    3-4
8. Darnell Savage, Maryland       S        4.36    2
9. Mark Fields, Clemson              CB      4.37    5-7
9. Greedy Williams, LSU             CB      4.37    1-2

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