NFL position requires more than speed

John Ross, a wide receiver out of the University of Washington, made huge news last week at the NFL Scouting Combine when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.22 seconds, which is to say he broke the all-time combine record.

Which is to say, he ran like he was shot out of a cannon.

This does not, in and of itself, mean that he is going to become an All-Pro receiver in the NFL. It does mean he is going to make a huge pile of money before he has a chance to become an NFL star.

A 40 time of 4.22 gets everyone’s attention. As someone tweeted shortly after Ross’s record sprint: “Al Davis just woke from the dead.”

Davis, the Pro Football Hall of Fame owner of the Oakland Raiders, believed in speed. He placed utmost importance on 40-yard dash times, which is most interesting because his greatest wide receiver ever was a guy named Fred Biletnikoff who would just be crossing the 35-yard line in a 40-yard dash at 4.22 seconds. Biletnikoff was more like a 4.6 guy.

 

And, for the record, Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in NFL history, ran a 4.67 40 when he was first timed by the pros.

I remember hearing about that and calling Archie Cooley, Rice’s head coach at Mississippi Valley State, and asking him about Jerry’s slow time.

“Hell, man,” Cooley said, “nobody was chasing him.”

And that puts the 40-yard dash in perspective for me. Yes, all things being equal you would much prefer to have a 4.4 40-yard dash guy than a 4.7 40-yard dash guy. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the 4.4 guy is going to be a better football player than the 4.7 guy.

For one thing, they run these 40-yard dashes in shorts and singlets without pads. Some people run as fast in pads as they do without them; some don’t.

I’ll give you an example: Running back Sammy Winder ran a 4.75 40-yard dash as a senior at Southern Miss. Funny thing, he looked like a 4.5 guy when he was running in full pads with people trying to maim him. I remember asking an NFL head coach at the Senior Bowl about Winder’s chances of making it in the pros.

“He won’t make it,” the coach said. “Not fast enough.”

Let the record show, Winder rushed for 5,427 yards, scored 46 touchdowns, played in two Pro Bowls and played in three Super Bowls in the NFL. The equipment didn’t slow him down. And he was tougher than 99 percent of the guys who ran sub-4.5 40s. He was a gamer.

This is not to say that raw speed is not important, because it surely is.

 

John Ross will be faster than any cornerback who tries to cover him. The test will be whether or not he is able to get past physical cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage, whether he can run precise routes, whether he can stay on those routes when he gets bumped ... and ... whether or not he can catch the danged ball.

There are signs that he can. He caught 81 passes and 17 touchdowns last year at Washington.

He will face bigger, stronger, faster defensive backs in the NFL. He will face the kind of cornerbacks he played against when Washington played Alabama in the college football playoffs semifinals. Ross caught five passes for 28 yards with a long of nine yards against the Crimson Tide. In other words, he never got into the space where 4.22 speed matters.

So here’s what we know: John Ross is the fastest guy who has ever run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. That’s all.

It remains to be seen whether he will become a successful NFL wide receiver. What we know: He’s plenty fast enough.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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