February 27, 2009
The main difference in the college and pro games? By all accounts, speed -- even with their size, the pros are always alleged to be significantly faster than even the most elite college players.
The results of Rivals' comparison of top prospects' performances at the NFL Combine to their recruiting combines as high school seniors are of some interest, then, largely because very, very few of the 50-plus players surveyed actually improved their straight-ahead speed while in school; about four times as many players in the survey, across every position, actually tested as at least somewhat slower in the 40-yard dash last weekend than they did as 17/18-year-olds. Penn State's Derrick Williams, the top-rated prospect in the country in 2005, went from a blistering 4.31 at a Nike camp in Charlottesville, Va., in 2004, to a pedestrian 4.64 in Indianapolis, and was only listed as five pounds heavier at the combine. Chase Daniel -- who, it's easy to forget after his run 'n gun years, was as dangerous as a runner early in his career at Missouri as he was as a passer -- went from a sleek 4.5 in 2004 to a plodding 4.92 a little less than five years later. No one improved by nearly that wide of a margin, if they improved at all.
The easy answer is that, while elite college prospects may be as fast as their NFL counterparts, the average speed in the pros is much higher, making it a much faster game; add that the pros are generally smarter and have better technique on top of superior instincts, able to get their bodies moving in the right direction and to the right spot much more quickly, and the difference seems overwhelming.
The better answer is probably that the straight-ahead 40 time -- kind of like the bench press -- remains a near-useless tool for projection on a football field among similarly-placed players. It's good enough to demonstrate that, say, Rich Eisen (like you) is not an NFL athlete, but as Rivals' comparison shows, it's not even adequate for telling a potential draftee from a high school senior. What really separates NFL players is the combination of size and explosiveness, not flat-out speed: Players on this list were more than 22 pounds heavier on average than they were in high school (the increase tended to be much greater for linemen), and, among the relevant players, delivered significantly better vertical jumps at the combine, a better measure of the short "burst" required on every play.
Just a reminder: If the 40 time is even accurate, it should probably still be regarded as more of a very broad entry ticket than anything else -- a certain level will get you in the club, but you still have to convince someone you can dance.