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Are Teams Overvaluing Pure Straight-Line Speed in Today's NFL?

Rivers McCown@riversmccownNFL AnalystApril 2, 2015

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Every year, the same storylines emerge as draft season wears on. Prospect X tested positive for marijuana at the combine. Prospect Y had a poor pro day. Prospect Z...well, let's not even get into his off-field rumors. 

But one storyline that isn't quickly dismissed as over-reporting is an almost-mythical being: The field-stretching skill position player who can change a game in one play. If said player is a running back, he'll get the edge, cut back and take it to the house. If said player is a wide receiver, he'll easily blow by any coverage you have and force you to keep a safety deep.

Hit one deep shot to a player with the kind of speed this prospect—Prospect S—has, and you can erase a lot of flaws.

David Newton @DNewtonespn

Miami WR Phillip Dorsett tells @JamesWalkerNFL he ran 40 in 4.25 and 4.27. That's the kind of speed the #Panthers are seeking.

The problem with this line of thinking—the idea of trait-based scouting in generalis that as you move traits off the table to focus on just one, you wind up with a one-dimensional player who doesn't really have the other necessary skills to play in the NFL.

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Adrian Peterson and Randy Moss, to name two examples, are players who combine this straight-line speed with enough power and length to make them hard to stop. DeSean Jackson and T.Y. Hilton are a couple of receivers who not only have the straight-line speed but also have the technique, route running and hands to put their main trait in the best light possible. 

Speed is important, especially if it shows up on a player's film rather than just on the track, but without the rest of the techniques to fully utilize that speed, it makes no real impact on the NFL level. Recent history is littered with college players who had nice 40-yard-dash times and still never became NFL difference-makers. 

Perhaps no running back in recent history had the pure straight-line speed of Arkansas' Darren McFadden. McFadden ran a 4.33 40-yard-dash time at the NFL combine. Often used out of the Wildcat formation, he racked up 4,590 yards and 41 rushing touchdowns in three years with the Razorbacks, playing regularly even as a freshman. 

But McFadden didn't have much in the way of change-of-direction ability, and once the big holes at the line of scrimmage disappeared, so did his production. Greg Cosell of NFL Films and Matt Waldman of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio had a long exchange built around McFadden's college tape and how it confounded them that McFadden was being bandied about as a high selectionMcFadden ultimately went fourth overall to the Oakland Raiders. 

I said this in the article: will [McFadden] make a few plays? Absolutely. Will he catch a screen and it will be blocked perfectly so he can run in a straight line? Sure he will. Will he hit a hole in one game this year where he can just fly through there? Sure. But he does not have great running skills.

Dexter McCluster is another back who ultimately wound up as an all-speed player without enough NFL attributes to be unique. McCluster's 40-yard-dash time was actually viewed as somewhat disappointing at 4.58he played much faster than that on the field. Statistically, he hasn't come close to the sort of Darren Sproles-esque back some thought he'd be when they watched him in college. (Though it should be noted that the Chiefs jerked him back and forth between running back and wide receiver because they didn't know how to utilize him best.)

The Decline of Mike Wallace
YearsReceiving YardsDYARTouchdowns
2009-20113,2061,09224
2012-20142,62817823
Sources: Pro-Football Reference, Football Outsiders

One of these burners who actually became successful was wideout Mike Wallace. Wallace was a dynamo in his first three seasons in Pittsburgh, putting enough "boom" out on the field that any "bust" was forgotten. After Wallace held out of OTAs in 2012, though, something changed. You can nearly separate his career into 2009-2011 and 2012-present and be baffled by how statistically different the two are despite the nearly equivalent touchdown rate.

I bring him up to show you how much NFL teams value straight-line speed. Even after a down season in his final year in Pittsburgh, Wallace commanded a five-year, $60 million deal from the Miami Dolphins. And if you believe Wallace's father, that wasn't even the high bid. Wallace was traded to the Minnesota Vikings this offseason for a pittance after a pair of very forgettable seasons in aquamarine. He didn't help elevate quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the slightest.

The Sad Aftermath of the 2013 NFL Draft
PlayerTeamPickSnapsPFF RatingNotes
Eric FisherKC11,841-39.0Letting Branden Albert go for this guy looked smarter in theory.
Luke JoeckelJAX21,279-23.5Missed most of 2013 to injury. Has played like a bust so far.
Dion JordanMIA3562-2.6Dolphins coaches don't even seem like they have a role for him.
Lane JohnsonPHI42,095+12.2PED suspension before 2014 season. Arrow pointing up.
Ezekiel AnsahDET51,305+15.0Monster
Barkevious MingoCLE61,349-1.8Arrow pointing up, and Browns let Jabaal Sheard walk to clear his path.
Jonathan CooperARI7189-3.9Missed entire 2013 season with injury.
Tavon AustinSTL8986-6.6Hasn't been hurt—just hasn't been effective enough to play in base sets.
Dee MillinerNYJ9865-2.8Missed most of 2014 season due to injury.
Chance WarmackTEN102,074+0.9Adequate player but not a star.
Source: Pro Football Focus

Though it's harder to blame them for this during what was a historically poor draft, the St. Louis Rams popped West Virginia wideout Tavon Austin at eighth overall in 2013. Austin's 40-yard-dash time was 4.34 seconds, though unofficially it was a 4.25, and all it takes to make a first impression is that initial moment of amazement. 

But at 5'9" and 176 pounds, there were concerns about what Austin would be in the NFL from the very beginning. Is he the sort of slot-receiver maestro who can effectively operate in the NFL? Is he one of the rare breed of receivers who can play outside despite sub-optimal size?

So far, the answer to both of those questions has been "no." Waldman was on it from the beginning, arguing that the hybrid class of player that Austin compared favorably to doesn't have much of a track record in the NFL: 

Only two receivers in the recent past have earned as high as a second-round grade by the NFL’s selection committee that share the Austin/Hawkins attributes: Kansas City Chiefs "player without a position" Dexter McCluster and Miami Dolphins receiver Davone Bess. However, Bess’ criminal record and a 4.6-second showing in the 40 at the NFL Combine led him to go undrafted despite earning a second-round grade from the NFL’s selection committee. Bess is nearly as dynamic with the ball in his hands as Austin and he was arguably a better overall receiver than Austin at the same stage of his career.

The Chiefs picked McCluster in the second round, but the team has spent two years trying to figure out if the former Ole Miss star is best cast in its offense as a Hawkins-type or more along the lines of Darren Sproles. The fact that they lack the surrounding talent, if not the conceptual savvy, to maximize McCluster’s skills is another factor that underscores the risk involved with pulling the trigger on a hybrid player with a high-round pick.

I've used these hybrid players as examples for fairly obvious reasons: They were high picks or made a lot of NFL money for their main calling card—speed. But I could just as easily compile a full list of players who had the speed and the NFL size, but lacked the technique and skill necessary to pull off the job of NFL receiver. Ted Ginn Jr. and Jon Baldwin immediately come to mind.

How does this impact the upcoming NFL draft? Well, you've probably heard by now about receivers such as Ohio State's Devin Smith, Miami's Phillip Dorsett and Central Florida's Breshad Perriman. Specifically, you've probably heard about Perriman's ridiculous 40-yard-dash time at his pro day, which was timed somewhere in the 4.2s depending on your source.

Gil Brandt @Gil_Brandt

UCF WR Breshad Perriman is ascending. Father Brett played in NFL for 10 years, 2nd-round pick. No surprise if Breshad went in 1st.

The fact that Perriman ran that 40 shouldn't mean we single him out as a poor player. Degrading every player who runs a silly-good 40-yard-dash time as a combine-only player would be the epitome of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

But that 40-yard time does mean that Perriman is more likely to be picked higher than his skill set probably deserves, because the NFL craves this kind of speed. Even though I think you could reasonably argue that Perriman doesn't play anywhere near as fast as his timed splits, a team that relies on trait-based scouting is going to note that time and believe he is the next Hilton.

And maybe he will be. After all, I don't think Perriman carries the same obvious flaws as a player such as Austin. But he also might be more comparable to Ginn: a big-bodied, fast wideout with subpar hands and no natural ability to beat press-man coverage. In case you haven't noticed, the current NFL is pretty big on using press-man coverage. 

Perriman is a likely NFL player. He's got the natural tools and could learn some of the skills he needs to be more like Hilton than Ginn. 

But he'll probably be picked a full round ahead of where he should be solely because he can run fast in a straight line. Prospect S isn't always an NFL washout, but we can be sure he isn't a cost-efficient use of resources.

All DYAR and DVOA numbers cited are courtesy of Football Outsiders. Learn more about DVOA here.

 

Rivers McCown is an NFL Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Three-Cone Drill podcast. His work has also appeared on Football Outsiders and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at @riversmccown.

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