Out of all the interviews, agility tests, and positional drills that NFL Draft prospects will be working through over the next several days, none will be talked about more than the 40 yard dash. It's long been the most over-discussed event at the Combine, and in reality there may not be too many players whose stock will be greatly impacted by the event.
There is a reason that NFL teams continue to pay for the 40 yard dash, of course. There are several players who are in real need of good 40 yard dash time. Who will be the players to watch for as they line up for their chance to run?
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Once considered to be one of the top running back prospects of his class, Montee Ball’s stock began to drop as his senior season revealed a concerning lack of speed. Ball doesn’t possess any one strong trait that jumps out on film, and it’s worrying that even after having one of the most productive collegiate careers as a running back he hasn’t been able to separate himself from the rest of the backs in his class.
If Ball was able to break into the high 4.5 range his stock would raise his stock somewhat, but it’s quite unlikely he’ll be able to do so. A time in the low 4.6 range, where he’s expected to run, will be concerning for many teams. If for whatever reason he runs a 4.65 or higher, he’d see his draft status plummet.
Matt Elam, SS, Florida
Known for making big hits and being a punishing presence in the box, Matt Elam enters the Combine as one of the top strong safety prospects. But in one of the deepest safety classes in recent memory, Elam needs to have a big performance in the coming days if he wants to solidify his draft position.
A big issue for Elam is an apparent lack of deep speed that would make him a liability in coverage. As the NFL shifts to a cover-two scheme where the safeties are essentially interchangeable, that’s a huge negative. Elam currently only projects as a cover three strong safety, where he could play primarily in the box. Without a good 40 yard dash time that’s likely where he’ll stay, which will greatly limit the number of teams interested in him when April rolls around.
Tyrann Mathieu, CB, Louisiana State
There will be plenty of focus on Tyrann Mathieu’s off the field issues, and it’s not without reason. But his physical condition is going to be dissected as well, especially his speed. Mathieu undoubtedly was a playmaker at LSU, but that was due more to his agility and good change of direction ability, as opposed to having raw speed.
Many around the league expect to see Mathieu run above a 4.5, and some have even suggested that his assumed lack of speed would result in an eventual move to safety. However, there are now reports that Mathieu has put up a 4.47 40 time in training. If he can do that at the Combine, it would be a huge boost to his stock – not only would it show that he’s faster than expected, but it’d also prove he’s been dedicated to staying in shape during his time away from the game.
Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida
With a quick glance at Mike Gillislee, it would certainly appear as though there should be no questions about his speed. He’s got a great burst and continually big plays while at Florida. But he didn’t actually show particularly impressive top end speed.
As a player that didn’t display much a ton of physicality while running the ball (he was a great pass blocker, however), teams are going to want to ensure that he’s got the speed to make it at the next level.
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
Much like Mathieu, Tavon Austin was an electric playmaker at the collegiate level. There were times when he dominated as a wide receiver, running back, and on special teams. The unique combination of elite change of direction ability and vision made him one of the dangerous players in college football.
Austin’s playmaking ability, paired with the success of players like Percy Harvin, already has teams quite interested in drafting him. There is some question about his straight line speed. There were several instances during his career when he didn’t appear to have an ability to separate from defensive backs, and much of West Virginia’s offense was designed to get Austin a running start before the ball was in his hands. A time in the 4.4 range would dispel those worries and solidify his status as a top 60 player.
Barkevious Mingo, DE/LB, Louisiana State
There aren’t many more prospects headed to Indianapolis with more riding on their athleticism than Barkevious Mingo. He’s expected to be one the week’s standout workout warriors, sporting a unique combination of size, strength, and agility that won’t be rivaled by most of the other prospects in attendance.
As a player that didn’t show much on film in regards to technique, it’s going to be absolutely crucial that Mingo shows that he’s the athlete that he showed on tape. Either way he’ll be a long term project, and without elite athleticism there’s not much incentive for a team to take on that sort of project with a first round selection.
Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
There’s a lot to like about Desmond Trufant as a prospect. He’s a four year starter without any glaring weaknesses. He’s got plenty of experience, played well in both press and zone coverage schemes, and showed good feet and hips during his time with the Huskies.
He was somewhat vulnerable to being beat deep, however. It very well could have been a scheme issue, as Trufant was often asked to play quite close to the line of scrimmage. It’s also true that he was dealing with a hamstring injury for a good part of the 2012 season. Still, teams will be curious to see what kind of speed he’ll show in Indianapolis. If he meets or exceeds expectations, he should be a first round lock.
Robert Woods, WR, Southern Cal
Robert Woods has demonstrated that he possesses some key traits that every NFL team looks for in a wide receiver. He’s already a polished route runner, displayed consistently reliable hands, and great body control. He used all of those tools to be one of USC’s best receivers over the past several years.
What Woods has yet to show is that he has the speed that so many people covet at the next level. While he’s not slow by any means, a low 4.5 time wouldn’t be totally surprising. If he can show that he’s faster than expected he could continue to distinguish himself from the other top wide receiver prospects.
Other Prospects Who Need Strong 40 Yard Dash Times
Chris Harper, WR, Kansas State
Ryan Swope, WR, Texas A&M
TJ McDonald, S, Southern Cal
Micah Hyde, CB, Iowa