With the college pro days taking center stage, terms such as 40-times, straight-line speed and workout warriors become words predominantly found in the vocabulary of NFL scouts. It seems as though one simple pro day workout at this time of year can have just as much impact toward the elevation process, then a prospect's performance during the actual season. However, if there is one position where these so called "workout warriors" and "track stars" all seem to become a bit irrelevant, it's at the middle linebacker spot.
When evaluating the middle linebacker position, the first and most important aspect to take note of is the prospect's ability to read and react quickly and correctly to plays. We would much rather have a middle linebacker who runs a 4.8 and consistently reads the action quickly as opposed to a linebacker who can run 4.4, but has a tendency to take false steps when asked to find the football. The MLB spot in the NFL is all about instincts and possessing the ability to quickly change directions and get after the football. The MLB is at times asked to run sideline-to-sideline or drop off into coverage down the middle of the field. However, for the most part, inside linebackers are expected to read and react to run/pass keys between the tackles and re-direct toward the football. Therefore, when evaluating the MLB position it makes sense to put more weight on a linebacker's short-shuttle time then his 40-time, since inside linebackers are more often asked to re-direct quickly in tight spaces then run to 40-yards across the field.
To put my idea into perspective, I want to take a look at two 2005 MLB prospects who both had similar grades coming into the draft. The first prospect is Alfred Fincher of Connecticut, a 6-foot-2, 238 pound linebacker who posted a 4.68 40-time and was selected in the third round. The second prospect is USC product, Lofa Tatupu, a 6-0, 238 pound linebacker who recorded a very average 4.83 40-time and was selected during the second round. Now, even though Fincher was considered the more athletically gifted athlete of the two, Tatupu recorded the far better short-shuttle time of 4.21-seconds, compared to the 4.48 short-shuttle time of Fincher. The significant difference in the two times displays a dramatic advantage in the quickness and re-direction department of Tatupu's game, a trait far more valuable to the MLB position then the 40-time.
There are other variables that go into an equation like this, but the facts are that Tatupu has been named to the Pro-Bowl three times (2005, 2006, 2007) since entering the league and was named an All-Pro selection in 2007. Meanwhile, Fincher is now onto his second NFL team and has exactly zero starts to his name. Again, there are other variables that go into comparisons like this, (instincts, mental alertness, scheme), but you have to figure the significant difference in change-of-direction skills Tatupu possesses over Fincher has to be a significant factor as to why one player has been so successful in the NFL and why the other has not.
To put this all into perspective, I broke down this year's top middle linebacker prospects in order to give you a better idea of what linebackers have NFL-worthy change-of-direction skills and what prospects will struggle playing to their listed 40-time. But before we get to that, we constructed a range of short-shuttle times used for the MLB position only, in order to put each time into context.
With an eye toward the 2009 draft class, we now rank the nation's top middle linebackers according to their short-shuttle and breakdown what each times means. (USC MLB Rey Maualuga was not included because there is no official short-shuttle time on him due to his injury at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.)
1. Dannell Ellerbe: Georgia (6-1, 236) (Short shuttle: 4.23)
Ellerbe is certainly one of the most athletic middle linebackers in this year's draft class and does a great job re-directing and changing directions in space. He plays just as quick as his short-shuttle time would indicate and looks like an ideal middle linebacker for a Cover 2 scheme.
2. James Laurinaitis: Ohio State (6-2, 244) (Short shuttle: 4.24)
So much was made out of Laurinaitis' less then stellar 4.76 40-time at the combine. However, his short-area quickness is among the tops in the class. Laurinaitis is one of those linebackers we referenced early in the article that might not post a great 40 (high 4.7 range), but his instincts and ability to cleanly re-direct allows him to play much faster then linebackers with better 40-times.
3. Jasper Brinkley: South Carolina (6-2, 252) (Short shuttle: 4.32)
Brinkley is a physical, in-the-box linebacker that plays with great balance and quickness inside for a guy his size. Therefore, his low short-shuttle time isn't much of a surprise amongst scouts who can identify his ability to consistently slip blocks and re-direct cleanly in space. Brinkley isn't ever going to "wow" anyone with his athletic ability, but he is extremely light on his feet and always seems to be around the football.
4. Gerald McRath: Southern Miss (6-3, 231) (Short shuttle: 4.35)
McRath's 40-time of 4.49 created quite the buzz at the combine. However, on film, we would have to say he plays much closer to his 4.35 short-shuttle time. McRath is a rangy linebacker, but I don't think he is the cleanest athlete when asked to change directions and at times displays questionable instincts. He is a guy who will definitely be overvalued because of his elite 40-time, but he simply doesn't play as fast as advertised.
5. Darry Beckwith: LSU (6-1, 234) (Short shuttle: 4.50)
Beckwith showcased decent straight-line speed with a 40-time of 4.75. However, his 4.50 short shuttle is a bit alarming. Beckwith plays more like a downhill linebacker and is not as fluid as his size would indicate. On film he looks a bit stiff in space and this short-shuttle time definitely raises some red flags in my book.
Overall, the time of a prospect's short shuttle is simply another tool to help scouts determine the caliber of the player they are evaluating. A short-shuttle time helps determine the quickness and change-of-direction skills an NFL prospect possesses and is a valuable tool when evaluating middle linebackers. As we said before, there are always exceptions to the rule and by simply timing an inside linebacker's short shuttle will not guarantee success. However, when evaluating middle linebackers, it's paramount to put more weight on the prospect's short-shuttle time than the more attractive 40-yard time.
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