The NFL Scouting Combine is the biggest event during the NFL draft process. It's the meeting place for all coaches and general managers. It's the first time that every top prospect is under one roof and competing side-by-side for all scouting personnel to see.
It's the beauty pageant of the NFL, and scouts drool with the performances on display.
The biggest of the events without a doubt is the 40-yard dash. It's the number both fans and evaluators can get the best feel for in terms of what it means about a prospect.
Run in the 4.5s, and you're fast. Run in the 4.4s, and you're really fast. Run in the 4.3s? Your speed alone will likely get you drafted and a shot in the NFL. That's why the 40-yard dash is such a critical factor for evaluators.
Based on film evaluations and a player's past experiences, I've done my best to handicap which players will run the fastest 40 in Indianapolis.
Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor
A former Oregon transfer, Seastrunk quickly established himself as one of the best big-play threats in the Big 12 the past two years. Thanks to Baylor's wide-open offense, he had plenty of initial room to work on draws and inside runs and took advantage by routinely producing big plays and exploiting defenses. I expect him to run in the 4.4s.
Damien Williams, RB, Oklahoma
Williams was dismissed from Oklahoma in late November for a violation of team rules. Despite that, his big-play ability is impressive on film, particularly the way he gets to his top speed as soon as he hits the open field. It's tough to tell if he'll run fast or if he's just an initial burst-type runner, but I expect him to run in the 4.4s no matter what. For him, the interview process is far more important.
George Atkinson III, RB, Notre Dame
Atkinson was a surprise (and a bit frustrating) of an early entrant because he's yet to reach his full potential after flashes during this past season. However, based on his high school track experience (he was one of the best runners in the state of California during high school), he'll be one of the fastest runners at the combine and could end up as a late draft pick based on speed alone.
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
One of the best overall athletes in the draft, Beckham should leave the combine as one of the true "winners" and further separate himself from the rest of the pack when it comes to receivers after Sammy Watkins. Because he's a bit long, he may not run under 4.4. Still, his numbers across the board should rank among the best receivers.
Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma
This year's Tavon Austin-like player, Saunders needs a creative offensive coordinator and an offense that gives him plenty of room to work. There's a home for him in the NFL as a speedy slot receiver and a return threat. He just missed the cut in the top five on this list, as I think he could run in the 4.3s.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
One of the best playmakers in the country, Watkins is all but guaranteed to be a top-10 pick and could end up going as high as second overall, so his combine numbers likely won't hurt or help him all that much. But I fully expect him to run in the 4.4s, with the outside shot he ends up as one of the combine's fastest players.
Chris Davis, CB, Auburn
Davis' NFL position is still to be determined, but he's likely to be a kick returner primarily and a nickel/dime cornerback with time. But as far as speed is concerned, just ask Alabama fans how fast he can run in the open field.
Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida
One of the better talents at cornerback in the class, Purifoy declared early for the draft despite not being fully developed as a defensive back. Still, his talent and upside as a future NFL starter are there to work with, and he'll likely test well in a variety of drills, including the 40-yard dash.
Paul Richardson had a breakout season despite playing on a Colorado team that struggled, and he opted to declare early for the 2014 draft. While I can't say it was a poor decision based on the team he played with this year, based on his lack of development and need to bulk up, he should have stayed for his senior year.
He is one of the best vertically stretching receivers in the 2014 class, possessing rare initial burst and track speed that puts even the best Cover 3 cornerbacks out of position. I have concerns about his ability to play physical both downfield and when working in the middle of the field, and I think he's a bit limited for now as a vertical receiver only.
However, in terms of deep speed, Richardson has some of the fastest feet in this class, and that alone might make him a top-100 selection. He'll look a bit skinny (barring he's done a fantastic job in his postseason workout program), but he'll likely be a blur as he runs down the track.
Expected Time: 4.40
Bradley Roby was considered one of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks the past two years, and for good reason. He's tremendously fast and quick-twitched and attacks the ball with interceptions on his mind.
He struggled a bit early in his junior year, particularly against physical receivers like Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin. Overall, he hasn't improved by leaps and bounds over his career, but he possesses undeniable talent that NFL teams would love to work with.
His hand placement initially and his footwork vertically could use some work, as he has been able to get by on pure talent during his career, which won't work in the NFL.
In terms of his combine performance, he could run in the low 4.3s. If he does, it'll be tough for any team to pass on him in Round 1 on draft day despite the off-field concerns and need for development.
Expected Time: 4.37
Brandin Cooks ended the 2013 college football season as one of the most productive receivers in the country despite being listed at under 6'0". With eight 100-plus-yard and two 200-plus-yard games, he beat nearly every group of defensive backs he faced as a junior.
Despite being undersized, he was able to consistently get separation across the field, especially vertically, where he made the majority of his big plays and showcased his best NFL traits. He may have to move into the slot in the NFL, at least situationally, but he is still worth a top-50 pick and could enter the top-20 area with the type of combine he's expected to have.
With his jets, he could run in the 4.3s, and he's one of the few in attendance who could crack the 4.30 barrier.
Expected Time: 4.34
De'Anthony Thomas has been one of the country's most featured playmakers since his freshman season thanks to his electric quickness, open-field elusiveness and speed. Used as a running back, receiver and returner during his junior season, he was sporadically impressive but lacked the consistent impact that NFL evaluators would have liked to see.
His NFL position is still to be determined, and his expected inability to contribute as a receiver or running back to start his career (or ever in the NFL) will likely push him past the first two rounds.
He isn't developed as a route-runner, he doesn't have the build to last on the interior as a runner and his experience in college is primarily with open running lanes and on easy play designs. You can think of him as a lesser Tavon Austin in terms of what his immediate NFL future will be.
But, as I stated earlier, running in the 4.3s at the combine almost guarantees a draft spot, and in Thomas's case, it might make him a top-100 lock despite lacking a true NFL position.
Expected Time: 4.31
The cream of the crop when it comes to speed in attendance at the combine, Dri Archer is the odds-on favorite to have the fastest time. An undersized running back in college, he probably doesn't have an NFL position outside of a situational runner or slot receiver.
However, what he can provide (and what he'll have to sell NFL teams on) is his special ability as a returner, where he had ample college success and could prove instant value to NFL teams. Similar to Trindon Holliday when he came out of LSU, there's a home in the league for a guy with his type of speed.
The question for Archer is just how fast he can run. In NFL combine history (since electronic times were recorded), only nine players have run under a 4.30. Chris Johnson holds the record with a 4.24.
Can Archer beat it? That'll be one of the biggest storylines to follow during the combine.
Expected Time: 4.28