The scouting combine is an incubation chamber for every football position, but when it comes right down to it, there may be no position for which the replication drills are more important than defensive backs.
When trying to discern which defensive backs best transition to the NFL, personnel executives must balance several factors that put them at a disadvantage.
With spread offenses growing exponentially, more defenses are using more basic press concepts or simple deep zones, which leaves out the element of route complexity. Smaller-school prospects may not have as much coach's tape with which NFL evaluators can see just how well they trail receivers from snap to whistle. And in a lower conference, how do you tell that the DB diamond in the rough you're watching isn't just eating up lesser receivers?
That's why the transition drill, the "W" drill, and other drills at the combine, pro days and personal workouts for NFL teams, are so important. It's also why physical characteristics of prime importance lean away from speed as the ultimate option. More now than ever, 40 speed is important in the bigger guys; just to know that they have it.
Mike Mayock of the NFL Network talked during this year's combine coverage about the combination of size and speed.
"I spoke with a bunch of defensive coordinators and defensive backs coaches last night, and the common denominator was their excitement to see the big corners run," Mayock said. "Usually, you're seeing a bunch of guys that are 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9, as the top-ranked corners. But when you look at my top-five group, everybody's 6-feet and above, 200 pounds and above, This is a really big, physical, solid group of guys, and what I liked about them was that they ran to their potential."
Mayock's compadre Charles Davis(notes) agreed. "The reason these corners are getting bigger is that they're the answer," Davis said. "The question was, ‘Who's going to guard the basketball team playing wide receiver now?' The guards and the small forwards -- 6-foot-3 to 6-foot 5, 210 to 230 pounds. Megatron [Calvin Johnson(notes)] in Detroit. Who's going to guard him? That's why the corners have to get bigger."
As Davis said, the smaller guys are old school, but NFL talent evaluators can't slack off in their need for the bigger cornerbacks to get as close to the sound barrier as they possibly can. And those little guys are playing more and more nickel. No matter how big you are, or where you play, being a defensive back means that the pressure is more on you to perform in the drills -- especially if you didn't perform against elite competition or you don't have scads of tape for scouts to pore over.
Oakland Raiders cornerback Stanford Routt(notes), who just signed a three-year, $31.5 million contract extension with the team that drafted him in 2005, was taken in the second round after running a 4.27 40-yard dash at the combine, the fastest time since 2000. While it's no surprise that Al Davis would take a burner like Routt in his defensive backfield (Davis took two more of the top 10 since 2000 -- Phillip Buchanon(notes) in 2005 and Tyvon Branch(notes) in 2008), it was surprising to learn how little guys like Routt, who ran track in college at Houston, didn't work on his 40 time in pre-combine drills. For some, it's just a natural thing. The focus for speedsters like Routt is on the other drills that more closely imitate game situations.
"The 3-cone drill, the ‘L' drill, other specific drills like backpedaling, open up and run, stuff like that ... the 40 was the thing I worked on the least because I knew I could do it," Routt told me this week. "A lot of the drills they have you do at the combine, or at your pro day, are drills that you work on in practice in college, or things you actually go through in the course of a game. It really isn't a matter of learning something you don't know or haven't ever done; it's more about brushing up on your technique and making it look pretty for the scouts."
Asked which drills best represent play on the field, Routt pointed to three. "The ‘W' drill, because that's coming out of your break, and how fast can you explode out of there, because I know that's one thing scouts are really looking for. Then, I'd have to say the three-cone drill, and then, the drill they make you do at the combine where they make you backpedal for 10 yards and then run for 20. Because that's what happens a lot of times on the field, you know ... you're backpedaling and your receiver is running a 9-route. You've got to flip your hips and keep going while facing one direction, and then completely facing the other way. You've got to be able to do it quickly, but more importantly, you've got to be able to do it smoothly. They want to see how much you can flip your hips, turn, and run."
Staying on that straight line and avoiding wasted motion is crucial in these drills. It's why players like Miami's Brandon Harris look faster on the field than his teammate DeMarcus Van Dyke, who ran a 4.28 40 to Harris' 4.53. Harris is smooth on the field; he stays low out of his break, he has great footwork, and he can flip his hips and get up to top speed in a hurry. As fast as Van Dyke is in a straight line, his lanky build turns into arms and legs akimbo when he's asked to turn and run with physical efficiency. A full quarter-second means nothing on the field if you can't turn it into the ability to trail Randy Moss(notes) or Calvin Johnson 40 yards downfield, even after your safety has fallen down and you're on an island.
"Of all the positions working out at the combine, the cornerback position seems to be the one that is the most scrutinized in terms of measurements, drills and times," Lance Zierlein of the Houston Chronicle and thesidelineview.com recently told me. "While an offensive line coach doesn't care about a 40 time much, secondary coaches seem to care about every drill and test that cornerbacks are taking at the combine as they all seem to be pertinent to their evaluation. I've had secondary coaches tell me that the only thing they don't think makes much sense at the combine is timing players who are going through the "backpedal, turn and run" drill. They care about the movement and the fluidity, but not the stopwatch time."
And that's the real test. A few years ago, several experts questioned whether a cornerback from Pitt could transition to the NFL at his chosen position. They thought he didn't have the trail speed needed, and suspected that his straight-line speed wouldn't represent him well when he put on the pads. Fortunately, when the New York Jets selected Darrelle Revis(notes) in the first round of the 2007 draft, they kept him where he belonged, and let him blossom into the cornerback with the best trail speed in the game.
There are now similar concerns about Nebraska's Prince Amukamara, and they have to be among people who have not seen Amukamara's game tape, because that's where he looks every bit the potential lockdown corner you'd expect of a potential top-10 pick. But for some, it took him running good 40 times at the combine for them to believe.
Take it from Routt, the guy who ran the fastest 40 in the last 12 years ... straight-line burst isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially when you get to the NFL. "The game is much more mental than physical at this level," Routt said, when I asked him what he'd like to pass on to this year's crop of great defensive backs. "Everything you did in college -- obviously you were great, that's why you got drafted high. But as much of an athletic anomaly as you were back in college, everybody that you go up against now was an athletic anomaly at their school. It's not going to be about just being a better athlete.
"Mentally, that's where you get the edge."