The NFL's version of a livestock auction begins this weekend. Some things are certain. There will be illogically fit large men running around in shorts while older men stare at them holding stopwatches. Some guys will disappoint the electronics while some will look like the next Javon Kearse. The glamour event will be the 40 yard dash. The player who has the best time in the coming days will be written about by everyone. What is not certain is how the best players at the combine will actually perform in the NFL.
So, it is time to take a look at some data and see the results. We have all heard the axiom that speed cannot be taught. We all seem to agree about that one, but does speed predict success in the NFL? The other side of the argument revolves around the idea that straight-line speed in shorts is different than "game speed" in pads. Terrell Davis is a name that comes up a lot in that argument.
I looked at NFL.com and sorted their results for the best 40 times at the combine since 2006, which was the extent of the data range. Let's see how those players are doing:
1. Chris Johnson, 4.24, 2008
- Current starter at running back for the Tennessee Titans. Had one of the best seasons in history in 2009 with 2,509 yards from scrimmage while averaging 5.6 yards per carry with 16 combined touchdowns. His success turned into a big contract that he probably has not lived up to. While extremely fast, detractors of his game mention that he is always among the leaders in negative rushes. Still, he has been a success with over 8,500 combined yards and 48 touchdowns in five seasons.
2. Jacoby Ford, 4.28, 2010-
I hope everyone is sitting down, but the Raiders ended up really liking him. He rewarded their love with 3 kick returns for touchdowns in his rookie season. He also had 18.8 yards per catch in 2010. He return one kick for a score in 2011 and spent 2012 on IR after foot surgery. The jury is still out on this one.
3. Demarcus Van Dyke, 4.28, 2011
- In a shocking turn of events, the Raiders picked him in the third round. He lasted exactly one season in Oakland and played sparingly for Pittsburgh in 2012. He had one interception while playing corner in 2011. He has had more jerseys numbers (3) than impact plays in the NFL. The chance of long-term success doesn't seem high.
4. Yamon Figurs, 4.30, 2007
- Picked by Baltimore in the third round of the draft, he has had some success as a return man and special teams player. He returned both a punt and a kick for touchdown in his rookie season. After two seasons as a Raven, he failed to stick with them in 2009. He played for four different teams in 2009 and 2010, totaling just 13 returns during that time. He is still trying to get back to the NFL. The verdict seems to be a flash in the pan for Mr. Figurs. (Editor's note: Rich tried his best to get in a "that figures" pun, but failed)
5. Darrius Heyward-Bey, 4.30, 2009
- Coming out of Maryland, Heyward-Bey was considered a work in progress at receiver with questions involving hands and route running. Silly facts did not stop our old friend, the Oakland Raiders, from drafting him 7th overall in the 2009 NFL Draft. "DHB" has shown some ability to develop over time, but he has had a few minor injuries and has not always stayed in the starting lineup. He had a solid 2011 with 64 catches and 975 yards, but his production fell off down to 41 catches and just over 600 yards in 2012. In other news, his cap hit is over $10 Million and his future is in jeopardy. He seems like he will stay around for a few more years, but will never be worth the 7th overall pick.
6. Tye Hill, 4.30, 2006
- It's okay if you did not know who this was. Like Jacoby Ford, Tye Hill was another workout warrior from Clemson, enough so that the Rams selected him 15th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. He has not played since 2010 and his career highlight was a 62 yard interception return off of Jason Campbell while playing for the Falcons in 2009. After Tye Hill and Dre Bly, the Rams might want to stay away from corners with short names.
7. Tyvon Branch, 4.31, 2008
- The score is now Raiders 4, everyone else 3, because Oakland selected Branch in the 4th round of the 2008 draft when some did not even have him on their radar. Branch has been a consistent starter in that he has been consistently starting since 2009. He has six sacks and four interceptions in his career. He was ranked 5th in stop rate in 2009 by Pro Football Outsiders. It's hard to call this pick unsuccessful since he still plays so much, but it also is hard to call it successful since we are talking about the Raiders.
8. Johnathan Joseph, 4.31, 2006
- Finally, another truly great player. Joseph was selected by the Bengals out of South Carolina and helped form one of the most feared cornerback duos (with Leon Hall) in Cincinnati before signing a large free agent deal with the Texans in 2011. While it seems like he has lost some of his ability now that he is seven seasons into his career, he still is someone opposing quarterbacks must be aware of. Mark this pick as a good one at 24th overall.
9. Justin King, 4.31, 2008
- I remember Justin King from Penn State. I don't remember him from the NFL. He played corner and some receiver in college, but never settled in a position where he could gain traction in the NFL. The Rams, another repeat offender on this list, took a chance on him as the 101st pick in the draft. King tried as much as he could to be a corner in the NFL, but it just never panned out. His lone interception came in 2011 and he spent time with both Indianapolis and Pittsburgh in 2012. Maybe somebody can get something out of him, but it does not look good for Justin King.
10. A five way tie between four guys who would not want their name printed here and Tim Jennings, 4.32, 2006-
Jennings, despite his speed, is pigeon-holed as a Cover 2 corner. Now, he turned himself into a Pro Bowler with the Bears in 2012. His does have holes in his game, but he will continue to be a solid to very good player as long as he stays in the right system. He has been known to get beat man-to-man with double moves. Still, Jennings has to be considered a successful pick. I won't mention Jason Hill, Chris Houston, Chad Jackson or Orlando Scandrick because they would just bring the value of this tenth slot down.
It total, it seems like that argument about game speed has the most merit, but that is looking at things too quickly. In the 8 years of data I have with my Draft Analyzer, any singular pick in the NFL draft has about a one in five chance of becoming a NFL starter. So, with 3 very good starters out of 14 names above, it seems that speed is no bigger predictor of the future than anything else we have. Sure enough, if someone goes through the top ten of each of the seven combine events listed at the league's website, every single one of those top ten lists follows a pattern of two really big names, some busts and some names no average fan has heard of.
The lesson, as always, is that no singular thing is going to be the benchmark to determine what the future brings. It takes a lot of skill, planning, research and luck. It also helps to not be the Raiders.