The Lion Prince? Amukamara Works His Tail Off

>> 2.23.2011

This, if you can get it to load and run to completion (I can’t, in any browser), is a video about Prince Amukamara’s intense efforts to minimize his 40 time. Few thought during his senior season as the consensus at-least-second-best cornerback in America, he’d be spending this time trying to quiet those doubting his ability. But, partly on advice from Ndamukong Suh, Amukamara will do all the drills at this year’s NFL Combine, looking to prove he’s as good as everyone thinks he is . . . or isn’t . . . or something.

It’s an odd cause-and-effect cycle like this. People watch Amukamara play, they see he’s awesome, they make him Preseason All-America, etc. Then evaluators like Wes Bunting watch film, and say Amukamara’s not worth a Top 10 pick because his straight-line speed is “lacking.” So, in order to answer the questions about his straight-line speed, Amukamara is training to learn how to run really fast in a straight line, in shorts, on a track. Supposing he goes out and cuts a 4.20, what changes about the game tape he laid down? What does that prove about his ability to play in the NFL?

The Combine has gone from a convenient way for scouts to get independent apples-to-apples information on prospects, to a cottage industry with millions of dollars flowing in a circle. Players hire agents, agents pay for training, the trainers boost the players’ draft stock, the player gets paid more, the agent gets paid more, the trainers get more agents referring clients their way . . . everybody wins.

This process bears many strange fruits. There are Darius Heyward-Beys, guys whose eye-popping 40 time causes team to shell out big dough for a guy who can’t play. On the other hand, there are Chris Johnsons whose blazing track times clued teams in to real talent. On the other other hand, there are Joe Hadens, whose lackluster 40 times belie elite on-field ability. On the other other other hand, there are Derrick Williamses, whose slow 40 times reveal a missing top gear.

Let’s be real: Amukamara can play. He’s proven with his play that he can play at the NFL level. The question is, does he possess the extra burst, the elite athletic ability, the splash of habanero required to lock down a Jennings, a Rice, or a theoretical top Chicago receiver? I don’t think his 40 time will prove he does or doesn’t—and even if he does have that potential, cornerback is a position that usually requires development. If Amukamara does fall to the Lions at 13—and many suggest he will—counting on him to shut down his half of the field from day one will be folly.

Last year, Taylor Mays’ “official” 40 time was mysteriously adjusted to be .19 seconds slower than cameras showed, for no apparent reason. There’s never been an explanation for this, and the NFL Network’s frame-by-frame overlap replay proved something was seriously rotten with the NFL’s official times. At this point, what a fast 40 time proves is not that you have elite recovery speed, or can rush the passer, or can beat the fullback to the hole—it proves you either have ridiculous God-given wheels, or you care enough about your career to put your nose to the grindstone and get the very best out of your body. 

So, if you’re watching the NFL Combine this weekend—and after all this, I suggest you do—watch the 40 for fun and oohs and aahs . . . but watch the drills if you want to know what’s really up.

3 comments:

Lankownia February 23, 2011 at 7:57 PM  

You do a good job arguing the inherent uncertainty of this metric. I wonder why you assume that scouts and other talent evaluators are unaware of it's limited utility.

Its an important bit of evidence related to a straight-line speed and generally correlates to game speed -- and that's how people treat it. If speed was the only factor in football, no one would bother doing the other drills.

Ty February 23, 2011 at 10:31 PM  

Oh, I don't assume they don't know--for the most part, real pro scouts have a very good idea about their evaluation of these players before they arrive in Indy. Nevertheless, we see players with obvious drawbacks (Ted Ginn, Troy Williamson etc.) taken way, way above where they'd otherwise grade because of a fast 40 time. Clearly some people who ought to know better, don't.

Peace
Ty

Matt,  February 24, 2011 at 10:52 AM  

I think what a fast 40 time creates is league-wide demand. Before all 32 teams arrive at the Combine to evaluate players, each team's scouting department has its own ideas about a particular player's abilities (speed included). Now say "Player X" tears off a 4.3 in front of all 32 teams. Now ALL 32 TEAMS know Player X is a legitimate 4.3 guy (whatever that really means) and all 32 teams know that the other 31 teams know it, too.

When everyone knows a guy is really fast, it means no one is going to "steal" him later than he "should have" gone. The 4.3 guy is no longer gonna' fall to Team A at 1.27 because of questions about his speed. No way he gets past Team B at 1.22. So, actually, Team C might trade up to 1.19 to get him. So Team D says "Forget it, we're locking him up at 1.15."

I really think a fast 40 time can raise a player's draft status a dozen or more spots - not directly because the player is uberfast, but because EVERYONE KNOWS he's uberfast.

A final hypothetical example. Say you're in the Lions war room on draft day, pick 1.13 comes around, and both Prince Amukamara and Jimmy Smith are available. You liked both guys in interviews, both looked great in drills/workouts, basically it's a tie except one guy ran a 4.3 and one ran a 4.5. You're probably taking the faster 40 time simply because it's something to break a tie with.

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