NFL Scouting Combine Notebook: Is Henry Ruggs Too Fast for His Own Good?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 28, 2020

NFL Scouting Combine Notebook: Is Henry Ruggs Too Fast for His Own Good?

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Thursday night at the NFL Scouting Combine provided plenty of jaw-dropping moments, including one of the fastest 40-yard dashes in event history: a 4.28-second sprint by Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III.

    But could Ruggs actually be too fast? It may sound like a tinfoil hat theory, but receivers who run sub-4.3-second 40-yard dashes often have disappointing careers. Today's Combine Notebook explores whether Ruggs has what it takes to buck that trend.

    Plus:

    • Big nights for Chase Claypool, Denzel Mims and others;
    • A not-so-big night for a few big-name receivers;
    • An eye-opening evening for a draft darling without a true position;
    • The end of "Joe Burrow won't play for the Bengals" speculation, we hope;
    • The start of a completely pointless quarterback controversy for the Giants;

    and much, much more!

Henry Ruggs Is Not Your Typical Combine Sprint Champion

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III ran a blistering 4.27-second 40-yard dash Thursday night at the NFL Scouting Combine.

    Hooray! Shower him with money! Call your favorite team and demand that they move up in the draft to take him! Draft him onto your fantasy team now and pencil in a dozen 40-plus-yard touchdowns next year.

    Not so fast.

    Ruggs' time was the fastest since John Ross III set the combine speed record with a 4.22-second 40 in 2017. Ross has since battled injuries, ineffectiveness, some Bengals organizational ineptitude and early-career speculation about a move to cornerback. In three NFL seasons, he has caught just 49 passes for 10 touchdowns.

    Ross isn't the only combine sprint champion to have a disappointing career. There are few true success stories on this Pro Football Reference list of wide receivers who ran combine sprints of 4.3 seconds or faster. Donte' Stallworth had a fine career, Marquise Goodwin has been very good in short windows between long injuries, and Darrius Heyward-Bey has lasted forever as a special teams ace and team leader. But the rest of the list is full of fringe players, injury cases and guys who never found a true offensive role.

    Per talk show provocateur Skip Bayless, Cowboys Hall of Famer Michael Irvin postulated that no receiver who ran a sub-4.3 sprint has ever reached the Hall of Fame because that's too fast to remain under control while running pass routes. It's an…ahem…interesting theory that supposes, among other things, that really fast receivers are somehow incapable of slowing down a little when necessary. It's more likely that no receiver with a sub-4.3 second 40 time is in the Hall of Fame because we don't have precision times for players who entered the draft before 2000, times below 4.3 seconds are very rare, and some of the players who achieved them (like Goodwin) were track stars who also happened to play some college football, making them a little smaller, less polished and possibly a bit more fragile.

    So how do we know Ruggs won't suffer the same fate as guys like Ross? That's simple. Trust the on-field results, not the hundredths of a second on a stopwatch.

    Speed is Ruggs' best attribute as a receiver, of course. He was once clocked at 23.27 miles per hour in a game by wearable GPS trackers. When Ruggs catches a screen pass, defenders often immediately take two steps backward so he doesn't blow past them, creating easy yards-after-catch opportunities. And press coverage is almost never an option.

    But Ruggs also has very good hands. He's a feisty, capable blocker. He has been durable through three seasons as a receiver and returner in the grueling SEC. His route running needs refinement, but he's not some guy who just traded his running shoes for cleats on Sundays.

    "I feel like I bring everything," Ruggs said on Tuesday, while answering umpteen questions about how fast he is. "I'm a playmaker. I don't just pride myself on just speed. I want to be a guy can do everything on the field. I get downfield to block for my teammates, just as they do the same for me. I play without the ball, and with the ball in my hands I can make a play."

    Ruggs has the confidence, the toughness, the mentality and the tape. And, oh yeah, the speed.

    Teammate Jerry Jeudy is a better prospect. And we'll get to some other receivers who had big nights (and a few who had small ones) in the next segment. But Ruggs will hear his name called near the top of the first round come April's draft.

    And unlike some other burners, you'll be hearing his name called often on Sunday telecasts for years to come.

Winners and Losers Among the Rockstar Receivers

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    Bill Feig/Associated Press

    This wide receiver class is one of the best in history. That added lots of drama to the first-ever prime-time combine sprints and workouts: A few hundredths of a second may not really matter all that much in the NFL, but with so many great prospects for teams to choose from, it won't take much for a player with some so-so measurables to slip behind someone who left vapor trails behind them on Thursday. And, of course, a few spots in draft order can make a big difference for both a receiver's reputation and his bank account.

    So here's a rundown of those who helped themselves and who did not on Thursday:

    Jerry Jeudy, Alabama: He entered the combine as the first or second receiver on nearly every draft board and produced numbers, including a 4.45-second sprint, that he can stand on.

       

    CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma: He also entered the combine as the first or second receiver on nearly every draft board. Lamb's 4.5-second sprint was a notch below Jeudy's, but his broad jump (a measure of explosiveness) was a bit longer (124 inches to 120), and he's an inch taller. Who gets drafted first may come down to whether a team at the top of the draft prefers Lamb's size or Jeudy's preternatural quickness.

       

    Jalen Reagor, TCU: Reagor was expected to challenge Henry Ruggs for the sprint championship, but he showed up heavier (206 pounds) and ran slower (a still speedy 4.47 seconds) than expected. His jumping results (42-inch vertical, 138-inch broad) were outstanding. So his combine was a mixed bag, much like his game tape, which mixes circus catches with rudimentary route running, whiffed blocks and an inconsistent effort on contested catches.

       

    Denzel Mims, Baylor: Mims is crushing the offseason. At 6'3" and 207 pounds, he ran a 4.38-second 40 on Thursday after standing out in Senior Bowl practices last month. There's a lot to love on Mims' game film, from clever head-fake releases to tough catches. Look for him to push past some bigger names and into the first-round conversation after last night's performance.

       

    Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado: Shenault's 4.58-second sprint was surprising and disappointing; he was expected to run in the 4.4s, even at 227 pounds. Shenault fits the profile of a Deebo Samuel-style slot receiver/reverse threat/Wildcat guy, but he came to Indy trying to break out of that mold and into the "go-to receiver" category. In this receiver class, a specialist with iffy measurables could get lost in the crowd.

       

    Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State: Speaking of getting lost in the crowd, Aiyuk posted acceptable-not-spectacular results in his 40 (4.5 seconds), the vertical jump (40 inches, his best result) and the broad jump (128 inches). Aiyuk has stretches of tape where he could pass for Michael Thomas of the Saints, and he hoped to place himself into the Jeudy-Lamb conversation. Instead, Mims and some others may have gained ground or overtaken him.

    Looking for a receiver we might have missed, like a king-sized Notre Dame target, an LSU standout or a jack-of-all trades from Memphis? Read on.

Prospect Spotlight: Chase Claypool, WR, Notre Dame

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    What happened

    There was talk entering the combine that the burly Chase Claypool was destined to move from wide receiver to tight end. On Thursday, Claypool, at 6'4" and 238 pounds, blazed a 4.42-second 40-yard dash.

    So forget the position switch. Unless some team wants to make him perhaps the fastest tight end in history...nah.

       

    What they're saying

    Notre Dame teammate Cole Kmet (who had a fine Thursday of workouts himself) described what Claypool is like to hang around with. "He's a competitive guy off the field, whatever we're doing. If we're playing pingpong, he's competitive. That's why you see how he is on the field."

    As for the potential position switch, Kmet was hearing none of it when speaking on Tuesday. "You're gonna see him run Thursday, and he's gonna run well. You're gonna see a receiver." We sure did, Cole.

        

    What it means

    Claypool had an exceptional week of practices prior to the Senior Bowl, running crisp short routes and gobbling up everything thrown at him. He has a rare, unusual combination of size, quickness, body control and straight-line speed. He looks like a tight end, plays like an old-fashioned possession receiver and performs drills like the second coming of former Chargers/Buccaneers standout Vincent Jackson.

    Claypool is a perfect fit in a 49ers-Rams style system with lots of tight bunch formations, where big receivers like Robert Woods are expected to block in-line on some snaps and streak down the field off play action on other snaps. Claypool will be one of many, many receivers selected on Day 2 of April's draft. After Thursday's workouts, he's likely to go early in the second round.

Meet the Most Versatile WR of the 2020 Draft Class (Or Is He a RB?)

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What happened

    Memphis all-purpose back Antonio Gibson, a favorite sleeper among draftniks, worked out with the receivers Thursday, clocking in at 4.39 seconds in his 40-yard dash.

    So Gibson, who measured in at 6'0" and 228 pounds, is no longer a sleeper. But it's still not clear whether he's a running back or receiver, or if that even matters.

               

    What he said

    If you are confused about what position Gibson plays, this list of the players he tries to emulate will not help. "I grew up watching Reggie Bush and Julio Jones," he said. "You can look at guys like Cordarrelle Patterson, Ty Montgomery, David Johnson, Deebo Samuel, players like that, players who can do it all. And Tyreek Hill." Gibson might as well have thrown in Patrick Mahomes, J.J. Watt and Adam Vinatieri.

    Gibson also explained that his Mr. Versatile routine made for some long, complicated weeks of practice. "I was always in the receiver room," he said. "And then they would come in and sprinkle in, 'A.G., you've got this, this and that' for running backs, and they would throw it in to team periods. I would get my reps done in practice, and then by game day I was fine. If I needed anything extra, I would go in late at night and talk to the coach, if I needed to look at something or if there were some reads I need to learn."

            

    What it means

    Gibson said Tuesday he thinks running back would be his best position: He could line up in the slot at times but also run routes out of the backfield to create mismatches against linebackers. Montgomery, who looked like a rising all-purpose star before the Packers offense stagnated and things got weird a few years ago, is a pretty good comparison for Gibson's play style. But Gibson is more explosive on tape, and Thursday's workout results backed that up.

    Gibson will be a unique all-purpose weapon. He just needs a coach who can make the most of what he can do.

Beyond the Drills: The Numbers That Really Matter

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Here's a look at how some of Thursday's eye-popping numbers will impact the draft stock of the prospects who produced them.

       

    Justin Jefferson, WR, LSU: 4.43-second 40-yard dash at 6'1", 202 pounds.

    My personal pre-combine scouting notes for Jefferson begin: "Speed: C+. Looks like a track star at full stride but lacks top initial separation quickness." That report could probably use some revision. Jefferson explained on Tuesday that the LSU offense often required him to throttle down when coming off the line of scrimmage so Joe Burrow could go through his routes and use Jefferson as "the backup read at the end of the play."

    Jefferson earned B-plus or A grades from me for his hands, blocking and ability to drag defenders into the end zone after the catch. I won't be revising those. He may be the fourth or fifth wide receiver off the board come April.

       

    Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri: 4.49 second 40-yard dash at 6'5", 258 pounds.

    Okwuegbunam doesn't look like a speedy NFL-caliber seam-stretcher on tape. But he's versatile, well built and blocks about as well as college tight ends block these days. This is a relatively weak tight end class, so measurables matter: Teams may be tempted to draft for traits and potential on Day 2. Okwuegbunam's numbers will make teams take a second look at his film.

          

    Brycen Hopkins, TE, Purdue: 4.66 second 40-yard dash and 21 bench press reps at 6'4", 245 pounds.

    Hopkins, the silver medalist in the tight end 40-yard dash, looks a lot like Mike Gesicki, the former Penn State tight end who now plays for the Dolphins. Hopkins has the body control and ability to make leaping, away-from-the-body catches of an elite wide receiver. But despite being the son of former Titans Pro Bowl left tackle Brad Hopkins, he also blocks like a wide receiver.

    Hopkins could have used a faster 40 to convince teams he can be a slot mismatch, but his results (including a very strong 4.28-second 20-yard shuttle) should be enough to land him at the end of Day 2 or the beginning of Day 3 of the draft.

       

    Adam Trautman, TE, Dayton: 6.78-second three-cone drill, 4.27-second 20-yard shuttle.

    Trautman had a strong Senior Bowl week and tested competitively in all areas on Thursday, demonstrating his agility by winning the three-cone drill for tight ends. He's this year's official Super-Athletic Small Program Draft Crush Tight End. You'd love him if your team drafted him on Day 3.

       

    Netane Muti, G, Fresno State: 44 bench press reps.

    Here's a hype video of Muti body-slamming and steamrolling opposing defenders for your enjoyment. Muti missed most of last season with a Lisfranc injury, so his medical reports are more important than anything he does in workouts. If healthy, he will be the top interior lineman off the board.

    In a tangentially related note, Muti sometimes enjoys a 10x10 burger from In-N-Out Burger. That's 10 patties and 10 slices of cheese. Muti should take part in the great Steak 'n' Shake tradition while he is here in Indy to celebrate his bench-pressing performance. Just as long as he saves some for the rest of us.

       

    Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Michigan: 44.5-inch high jump, 139-inch broad jump, both bests among wide receivers.

    Jump numbers are often used as proxies for a player's initial quickness and explosiveness. And though Peoples-Jones was slowed by a groin injury last season and sometimes got lost among a crowd of talented receivers in a very inconsistent Michigan passing offense, scouts now have reason to take a second look to see if there's more to Peoples-Jones than what showed up on the stat sheet.

       

    Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State: 78 ⅝-inch wingspan.

    Per Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports, only two cornerbacks in the past 20 years have had a longer wingspan than Okudah. He's the best cornerback in this draft, and we will revisit him when he works out later in the week. For now, know that several receivers name-dropped him as the toughest defender they ever faced during interviews this week and that he has the length to cover the NFL's tallest wide receivers.

       

    Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma: 4.59-second 40-yard dash, second-best among quarterbacks.

    Hurts also looked very sharp in passing drills. No one of significance is suggesting that Hurts should move to wide receiver. But it's customary to beat up the "move to receiver" straw-man argument at every opportunity, so here goes: Hurts is really fast for a quarterback but rather slow for a wide receiver; good thing he's a quarterback! Wow, striking that blow against all those old NFL fuddy-duddies sure felt empowering!

Scouting Combine News and Notes

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Here are some of the NFL stories everyone is talking about, from the steakhouses of Indianapolis to water coolers around the world.

    Multiple reports suggest that Tom Brady is likely to leave the Patriots this season.

    If this turns out to be a viral marketing campaign for a television streaming service, imma punch a hole in the sun.

    Chiefs apply the franchise tag to Chris Jones.

    They now have enough cap space to order three tacos off the extra value menu.

    Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht both refuse to commit to Jameis Winston, express interest in learning what's behind "door number two."

    The Buccaneers have a quarterback who throws 30 interceptions per year and a brain trust that watches a lot of game shows.

    Ron Rivera says that Washington will host visits and interviews from top quarterback prospects Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa.

    Dwayne Haskins and Daniel Jones are gonna need a support group for second-year quarterbacks who's teams will not fully commit to him. They can meet in the Josh Rosen Community Center.

    Lions extend the contract of wide receiver Danny Amendola.

    The Lions are one huge contract to a McCourty Twin away from renaming themselves the Old Patriots Credit Union.

    Colts are expected to be the top suitors for Philip Rivers in free agency.

    We'll soon learn that Frank Reich and Chris Ballard are just Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson in Scooby Doo villain masks.

Joe Burrow and the Bengals: Death of a Storyline

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    What happened

    LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the odds-on favorite to be the first player selected in this year's draft, did not throw or work out at this year's scouting combine. But he used his Tuesday press availability to put to rest any speculation that he would demand a trade or refuse to play if he is drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals.

    "I'm not going to not play," Burrow said. "I'm a ballplayer. Whoever takes me, I'm going to go show up."

    But what about some of his suspiciously unenthusiastic comments of the past? "I just didn't want to be presumptuous about the pick. That's why I've been noncommittal, because I don't know what's going to happen. They might not pick me. They might fall in love with someone else. You guys kind of took that narrative and ran with it."

    As for the Bengals, head coach Zac Taylor said Burrow had a "great college career" and was "fun to watch," but that he had not yet even met the quarterback face to face as of the start of the combine.

                     

    What it means

    Burrow is the best quarterback in this draft class. As B/R's Matt Miller reports, Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa is the runner-up on nearly every draft board, and Tua is still rehabbing his hip injury, making it impossible for him to turn things into a two-quarterback race. Utah State's Jordan Love and Oregon's Justin Herbert are on a distant second tier. And this paragraph is so dull and obvious that Bleacher Report may not even pay me for it. In other words, there's no quarterback drama this year. If we hope to fill up weeks of air time and blog posts, some of us will have to manufacture some intrigue by taking remarks out of context and connecting some very tenuous dots.

    Burrow handled both the Bengals "controversy" and the annual hyperventilation about hand-size measurement (his nine-inch hands barely meet the minimum NFL threshold) with patience, grace and good humor. Taylor and the Bengals have surely met him face to face by now. And they'll be getting to know one another a lot better in the years to come.

                 

    What's next

    A stray "whatever team takes me" comment made by Burrow will be ripped from its context, and we'll start the whole business over again.

How the Giants Steered a Routine Press Conference Straight into an Iceberg

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    What happened

    It all started with an innocuous question posed to new Giants head coach Joe Judge about what he's seen from Daniel Jones now that he has had a chance to review last year's film. Judge's response was a weirdly evasive diatribe.

    "I'm going to be very upfront with everyone now in terms of how I'm gonna deal with analyzing specific players," Judge said. "I want you to understand that this is important to me. Every one of our players is gonna come here with a blank slate and compete from the ground up from Day 1. And I'm not gonna establish any kind of status or hierarchy for individual players or position groups by spending a month talking about individuals."

    So, wait—was Judge saying Jones might not be the Giants' starting quarterback? "Every position is going to be in competition every day," he said.

    But, like, the starting quarterback is different. Right? "Our depth chart's on that board right now," Judge said, pointing to a blank wall.

    General manager Dave Gettleman took the podium a few minutes later, and the linguistic pioneer who composed the epic poem "We Didn't Sign Odell Beckham Jr. to Trade Him" engaged in his own double-talk sonnet, playing along with Judge's Harry High School there is no depth chart routine while imploring the Giants beat reporters who pressed him about Jones to, "Let it go, let it go!" To be fair, the cold never bothered Gettleman anyway.

                      

    What it means

    There are three interpretations of the Giants' hallucinogenic press-conference doubleheader.

    Interpretation 1: There's an old yarn that when Jimmy Johnson took over the Dolphins in 1996, he told players that no one was assured of their roster spot. When Dan Marino threw a 50-yard bomb at the start of the first practice, Johnson said: "You've made the team. You're No. 1." Everyone laughed, and Johnson successfully made his point while lamp-shading the silliness of it.

    A special teams ace named Larry Izzo made a hustle play and was "No. 2" to make the Dolphins roster, according to that old tale. Izzo later played for the Patriots and was a Giants special teams coach. He and Judge must have crossed paths at some point, and Judge may be trying to revive Johnson's old motivational technique, but in a ham-fisted and utterly ridiculous way.

    Interpretation 2: Judge is not sold on Jones and is covering his bases in case the Giants pull a Josh Rosen situation and either trade or acquire someone else. While this seems unlikely, so does a head coach refusing to talk about any players on his roster, at all, at any time.

    Interpretation 3: The Giants are run by a general manager who says things like: "Offense is offense, right? Somebody snaps the ball, somebody catches it, and you either run it or throw it,"* and a coach who thinks Bill Belichick wasn't secretive enough and that it's a good idea to toss the New York media a bloody rare steak of a quarterback controversy for no good reason.

    Interpretation 3 is leading in the polls.

             

    What it means

    The Giants make the Jets look like the Patriots when it comes to organizational wisdom. Oh, and Judge has given three official press conferences and has still not even uttered the names "Daniel Jones" or "Saquon Barkley." This is not normal. And it is probably not good.

    * Yes, this was an actual quote. Seriously.