INDIANAPOLIS – While the temperatures dipped into the 20s and 30s, the track inside the RCA Dome at the NFL Scouting Combine was heated up by the remarkable number of sub-4.4 40-yard dash times flashing across the board. It started on Saturday when Miami (Fla.) junior tight end Greg Olsen crossed the finish line in the mid-4.4 range after most expected him to run between 4.55 and 4.60. It continued throughout the weekend as running backs, wide receivers and then even linebackers ran times more impressive than the previous guy.
Overall, once the defensive back groups completed their workouts Tuesday afternoon, a total 18 players had run at least one 40-yard dash that resulted in a time within the 4.3 range.
It would be easy to evaluate the fastest runners or most impressive workout results and present those players as the winners or losers of this year's combine, but there is so much more that goes into the final decisions made by the 32 teams.
The past week was a very important piece of the draft equation and Wednesday's first pro day event, which takes place on the campus of SMU, will kick-off the next phase. But for now, we will look at the top winners and losers from the past seven days.
Arizona junior running back Chris Henry: The "Workout Warrior" award winner from this year's event clearly has made folks grab their phones and request new game film. More importantly, many teams now plan to speak to his high school staff and others to determine his character and personality since there are a variety of stories swirling about his reason for leaving school a year early. A big back, he now has proven wheels (4.33/4.40 in the 40), while also showing very good strength (26 bench reps at 225 pounds), the top vertical (36") for his group and better-than-advertised hands during the positional workout. If, and I stress if, a team in great need of a future starting back gets comfortable with his character and background, one of the more highly-touted backs could get bypassed and Henry could get taken in the third round of the draft. His workout has taken him out of fifth- to seventh-round range and given him a flicker of light in terms of day one potential.
Arkansas junior cornerback Chris Houston: In our original Top 50 rating of the prospects and in a preview of defensive backs for the combine, this was a player I noted to keep close tabs on as someone who would jump to the forefront of his position. Houston did that with a superb all-around workout, including his 4.32/4.35 40-time, 27 bench reps and 36" vertical. A very well-built cover corner that possesses the best set of man coverage skills in the draft, his rise toward the top of this class could end up with him being a top-12 to top-15 pick.
Kansas State senior wide receiver Yamon Figurs: Ran the fastest time (4.3) of any offensive prospect in attendance. Has a very good combination of receiver and return man skills, which should translate well on draft day. So while many evaluators might have him rated as a mid-round pick, he's much closer to a third-round prospect now than many more familiar names. He reminds some of a younger version of Deion Branch.
Mississippi senior linebacker Patrick Willis: He started the postseason as one of the most productive defenders available, but between the Senior Bowl practices and his performance at the combine, he has now become one of the most athletic. His 4.48/4.50-range 40 times impressed even the harshest critic, but he also appears to be more flexible and comfortable dropping back into coverage – two areas that were questioned just two months ago. When you consider his qualities of ideal instincts, intangibles and all-around athleticism, it is likely that he could come off the board within the top 10 to 12 picks.
LSU senior safety LaRon Landry: While many expected him to produce solid workout numbers, no one could predict the blazing speed which had even his biggest fans glancing several times at their watches. He came across in the mid-4.3 range with some quick-twitch timers having him as fast as 4.29. The ability to use him in a variety of roles – he has savvy instincts, very good balls skills and the willingness to provide ample support against the run – could drive his stock toward the top 10 picks of the draft.
Texas senior defensive end Brian Robison: He elevated his game thanks to his impressive all-around workout. His 4.65-range 40-time was the best in his group, he showed very good explosiveness in his drills and nailed a 40.5" vertical for good measure. He performed positional drills as both a defensive end and outside linebacker, which has many teams evaluating a conversion to a 3-4 OLB. His personality and attitude will make him an ideal situational pass rusher and special team player during his rookie campaign, but his workout numbers have now given him a shot of being taken on the first day. The defensive end that had the next best workout was Miami (Fla.) senior Baraka Atkins, as the 270-plus pounder ran 4.68 with a 33" vertical while showing explosiveness in most of his drills.
Stanford senior quarterback Trent Edwards: The most important part of his combine came from the fact that he passed the eye test with flying colors before running in the low- to mid-4.70 range, which proved that he is fully recovered from a foot injury that sidelined him during the second half of last season. His pro day will give him the chance to show scouts that he has very good natural skills as a passer, but the fact that none of the other possible second-tier signal callers jumped out this past weekend offers him the opportunity to do so and become the third-rated QB on many boards.
Versatile linebackers: It would have been hard to chose just one of them, so this will help cover the guys that opened the most eyes. Florida International linebacker Antwan Barnes, who stands to be the school's first-ever draft pick, wowed scouts with his 4.4 speed and previously had done 31 reps of 225 pounds. He figures to be a perfect fit for a 3-4 OLB or situational pass rusher early in his career. The same can be said for Penn State linebacker Tim Shaw, who also ran in the low- to mid-4.4 range and showed very good movement skills during his workout. Finally, New Mexico linebacker Quincy Black, who flashed good footwork and instincts at the East-West Shrine game, had a lights-out workout session that included 4.42-4.45 40-times, 24 bench reps and the top vertical jump of the entire class at 41.5". Black now could be taken on the first day when most rated him as a mid- to late-round prospect.
Defensive backs: This group as a whole was helped by the fact that NFL teams are genuinely in need of three things right now: premier pass blockers, pass rushers and cover corners. There are a handful of blockers and pass rushers on the free-agent market, but the corner position is almost barren of talent. The fact that we saw so many high-ranked defenders run in the 4.4 range or better bodes well for the group come draft day, as there could be at least two major runs on the position before the end of the first three rounds. The players most impacted by that could include Alabama State's Michael Coe, UNLV's Eric Wright, Georgia Tech's Kenny Scott and Weber State's Bo Smith.
Kevin Boss, Western Oregon: While many will write about Whitworth (Wash.) tight end Michael Allan, who himself had a very impressive workout, I came away further excited by the future upside of this Division II prospect. He had to spend the first half of the postseason rehabbing from a shoulder injury, so he was unable to lift at the combine. But for a full-sized player at this position, he flashed desired athleticism: mid-4.7 range in the 40, the best short shuttle time (6.92) and a 35" vertical. If you ever get the chance to watch tapes of him against Humboldt State or Central Washington, you can see twice during his college career that at over 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, he leaps over a defender in stride and continues down the field. He is a developmental prospect that has a fair amount of upside thanks to his receiving skills.
California senior cornerback Daymeion Hughes: The All-American has great instincts and savvy coverage skills, but what he does not have is workout warrior numbers to match them. Many felt that he would fail to break into the 4.5 range in the 40, but his even slower than expected times (4.7 range) could cause him to fall out of the first round. He's a fine athlete that consistently makes plays on game film, but zone coverage teams will have to limit how often he gets caught by himself without help over the top.
Ohio State senior quarterback Troy Smith: The Heisman Trophy winner passed on participating during the measurable drills activities, where he likely would have tested out as one of the better athletes at his position. Instead, he looked a little out of shape in terms of his overall rhythm during the positional portion of his workout with a handful of balls being under-thrown – a trend that has caused scouts to reevaluate the game films they watched this season.
Georgia Tech senior wide receiver/return man Reggie Ball: A converted quarterback, he was unable to open eyes in several important areas, most importantly being speed. He ran in the high 4.7 range, though he did produce good numbers in the agility drills. Giving scouts an indication that he could make the transition to being an all-purpose prospect would have required a 4.5-range 40-time. He will have a second chance to impress teams at his pro day, but for now he is looking more like a free agent-type prospect.
USC junior wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett: Jarrett said all the right things during the interview portion of his weekend, but he sounded like a player that knew he had limited workout skills since he repeatedly pointed to his stats and production as reasons he should be drafted high. However, by passing on the workout portion of the combine, he has raised a lot of eyebrows. He said that he was dealing with a hamstring injury that arose during training, but one of the other players that has been working out at the same pre-combine training location admitted that Jarrett's testing times were slower than desired and that waiting another four or five 5 weeks until USC's pro day probably would allow him the chance to slightly improve his times. However, breaking into the 4.6 range might still be a tall task for the ultra-productive receiver.
Oklahoma senior outside linebacker Rufus Alexander: Alexander nearly declared a year ago, and may live to unfortunately regret returning for his senior campaign after generating just average workout results. He ran in the 4.70 range while failing to record Top-5 status in any of the other major categories. What made it worse was the fact that so many lesser-known defenders were able to produce better numbers across the board. He is more of a run-and-chase guy, as he prefers to go around blocks and used his speed in college to make most of his plays. So if you are a step slower to the ball at the NFL level, it makes you far less of a playmaker. He will still get some love from Cover 2-schemed teams, but he could be a guy whose name jumps out at you if he is still available on day two.