The main event of the NFL Draft Scouting Combine is the 40 yard dash, as it allows the best athletes in college football to put their pure speed on display. Defensive backs are the group of athletes most likely to put on a show in the 40 yard dash, as the average defensive back must have the speed to keep up with any receiver, and the extra speed to make up ground on a receiver who has gotten away. In fact, three of the five fastest times (since 1999 when electronic timing began) in the short sprint have been registered by cornerbacks. So the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who need a cornerback in the worst way, will be watching the cornerbacks’ 40 yard dash times closely, right?
Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune wrote an article in which he asserts that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will likely base their 13th overall selection on the speed numbers of the top prospects at the cornerback position. If you take a look at some of the fastest cornerbacks in combine history, however, you can see why this might not be the perfect indicator. Among players who registered a time of 4.3 or below at the combine since 1999, 8 are cornerbacks. All 8 of these players were taken in the top 100 selections of their respective NFL Drafts. Those players are: Champ Bailey, Stanford Routt, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Josh Robinson, Fabian Washington, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the late Darrent Williams, and Tye Hill. Bailey, Washington, DRC, and Hill were all first round selections.
Other than Champ Bailey, who is one of the best corners of all time, there’s not a lot to write home about on this list. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a perfect example of what drafting on speed alone can mean, as I profiled previously. He has the straight line speed to stick with any receiver, but is easily victimized by change of direction routes, and double moves. He’s fully capable as an NFL cornerback, but isn’t elite like Bailey. What makes Champ Bailey special on a physical level is his ability to change direction quickly. This was put on display when Bailey posted a time of less than 3.8 seconds in the 20 yard shuttle drill, something DRC did in almost 4.2 seconds. NFL.com describes the shuttle this way:
The short shuttle is the first of the cone drills. It is known as the 5-10-5. What it tests is the athlete’s lateral quickness and explosion in short areas. The athlete starts in the three-point stance, explodes out 5 yards to his right, touches the line, goes back 10 yards to his left, left hand touches the line, pivot, and he turns 5 more yards and finishes.
Of course, it’s impossible to dismiss Champ Bailey’s speed as if it doesn’t matter. But it’s not speed that defines a defensive back. The difference between Champ Bailey and Stanford Routt is more than just milliseconds spent sprinting on a straight line of turf. It’s quickness, change of direction, awareness, and consistency in technique as well. There’s a lot more that goes into a cornerback, and that is what the Buccaneers must be diligent in researching in the combine, and at pro days. The Buccaneers will be taking a long, hard look at all of the top corners in the draft, and will choose the one they feel is the best fit. This means finding a corner who is physical enough to handle man-to-man coverage, and contribute to the run defense.
Ronde Barber was never an elite speedster, and has been an key member of the Buccaneers defense for a long time. There are countless other examples of players who are capable defenders despite a lack of straight line speed. From my perspective, I hope the Buccaneers take advantage of the hype surrounding the player who runs the fastest 40 yard dash, and let someone else take the “Tye Hill” of the 2013 NFL Draft. The Buccaneers would be glad to wait until the second round, and take the “Charles Tillman” of the 2013 draft, a player who slides out of the first round, but proves to be a highly productive player. So will the Buccaneers have a need for speed? Or will they let the play on the field determine where they invest their future?