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Behind the times: 40-yard dash vs. 10-yard split

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One of the biggest misconceptions that emerge from the NFL scouting combine each year is the importance of 40-yard dash times. The 40 is the considered the glamour event of the combine, and every year NFL executives, scouts, draftniks and fans get carried away by some of the mind-boggling times. This often puts too much value on a player’s ability to run fast more than it does his pure football talent. Am I saying that the testing at the combine isn’t important? No, but the test needs to be evaluated more from a football-related standpoint.

One of the most important and consistently overlooked measurements at the combine is the first 10 yards of the 40, known as the 10-yard split. This is simply a measurement to see how fast a prospect can cover 10 yards. It’s great to see how fast someone can run 40 yards, but how often in an NFL game are players required to cover that distance on one play? A more reasonable measurement, and a better indicator of "football speed," is 10 yards.

A 10-yard split measures the short-area burst of an NFL prospect and allows scouts to determine if the prospect is a two-stepper (a player who can get up to full speed in two steps) or a strider (a player who needs to hit full stride to reach his top speed). Since football players as a whole are consistently forced to explode in and out of their breaks throughout the game, short-area explosion is a pivotal reflection of a player’s overall "football speed."

The 10-yard split is a vital time gauge for every position in the NFL, but it’s arguably more important for edge pass rushers than other positions. Pure pass-rushing specialists who rely on their first step to gain an advantage on offensive tackles need to display explosive first-step quickness out of the stance. Therefore, the timing of a pass rusher’s 10-yard split is an excellent indicator of how quickly he can explode off the ball and cover the ground needed to get after the quarterback. So to put this into perspective, I broke down some of this year’s top hybrid defensive end/outside linebackers to give you an idea what prospects’ 10-yard splits are NFL-worthy and what prospects’ fast 40 times are simply a mirage.

To put the 10-yard splits into perspective, I constructed a range of times using only the DE/OLB position.

Note: Combine times as a whole have gone down dramatically each of the past couple of years, so the most relevant times are those from the past three years.

"Great" 10-yard split times (1.55 seconds and under)
Cliff Avril, Lions: 1.50 (2008)
Chris Long, Rams: 1.53 (2008)

"Good" 10-yard split times (1.56-159)
Gaines Adams, Buccaneers: 1.58 (2007)
Derrick Harvey, Jaguars: 1.59 (2008)

"Average" 10-yard split times (1.6-1.62)
Kamerion Wimbley, Browns: 1.6 (2006)
Bruce Davis, Steelers: 1.62 (2008)

"Below" average 10-yard split times (1.63-1.69)
Charles Johnson, Panthers: 1.63 (2007)
Anthony Spencer, Cowboys: 1.64 (2007)

With an eye toward the 2009 draft class, we can now rank the nation’s top pass rushing DE/OLB hybrids according to their 10-yard split times and break down what each time means.

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Matthews during the 40-yard dash at the combine.
(Scott Boehm/Getty)

1. Clay Matthews, USC (6-3, 240), 10-yard split: 1.49
Matthews made the jaws of a couple scouts drop after he posted a time of 1.49 seconds in his 10-yard split. To put it into perspective, only nine cornerbacks at the combine ran faster. Matthews obviously possesses an explosive first step and gets up to speed very quickly. He’s proven he has the burst to rush off the edge, which is one reason he’s considered among the nation’s top 3-4 outside linebacker prospects.

2. Aaron Maybin, Penn State (6-4, 249), 10-yard split: 1.55
It’s obvious on tape that Maybin possesses an explosive first step off the edge. However, what makes him even tougher to block is his ability to consistently be the first defensive lineman moving off the snap and consistently firing off the ball on time. Maybin didn’t have the 40 time many expected (4.79), but his 10-yard split proved he has the first step to reach the edge.

3. Connor Barwin, Cincinnati (6-4, 256), 10-yard split: 1.57
His 4.59 40 time got all the attention, but Barwin’s ability to coil up in his stance and fire off the ball will make him a success in the NFL. He’s a gifted athlete who has the motor and burst to get after the quarterback. However, his 1.57 split proves he has the first-step explosion to make things happen as a down defensive end.

4. Everette Brown, Florida State (6-2, 256), 10-yard split: 1.58
Brown measured in a bit shorter than expected at the combine but ran well, even though I expected his split to be a bit faster. However, Brown plays so low that it’s tough for offensive tackles to get a good punch on him. Brown isn’t just a straight-line athlete; his ability to bend and dip around the edge coupled with his burst allows him to create a lot of havoc versus the pass.

5. Clint Sintim, Virginia (6-3, 256), 10-yard split: 1.59
Sintim displays impressive get-off speed for his size and showcases good explosion from a two-point stance. There isn’t much flash to his game, but he has enough burst to be a solid contributor off the edge and get after the passer.

6. Larry English, Northern Illinois (6-2, 255), 10-yard split: 1.64
I worried about English’s ability to coil up and fire out of his stance on film, and his time confirms my suspicions. He consistently comes off the ball too high for my liking, and I don’t think he has the burst to be successful as a pass-rushing defensive end. English needs to stand up in a two-point stance to be effective, but his 4.82 40 time doesn’t do much for teams concerned about his ability to play in space.

Overall, the 10-yard split is simply another tool to help scouts determine the caliber of player they’re evaluating. Now, I would not consider the 10-yard split to be the end all of evaluations for pass rushers because there are always expectations and other athletic tests to help evaluate them (short shuttle and three-cone drills). However, when scouting pass rushers, I think it’s critical to put more weight on the 10-yard split than a more attractive 40-yard time.

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