Clemson's Tye Hill is a possible first-round pick among a strong group of cornerbacks
Some 20-odd prospects posted 40-yard dash times between 4.3 and 4.4 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, and the effects of each heat in that impromptu track meet will be felt this weekend.
One can already see the results in the mock drafts that are proceeding the real thing to be held on Saturday and Sunday. Specifically, since relatively few of those blazing 40-times were turned in by wide receivers – Florida's Chad Jackson being the most notable exception – the first round may be heavily populated by a speedy group of cornerbacks. Look at enough mock drafts and you might find six to nine different corners with a realistic shot of going in the opening round; those that don't will probably be snapped up in the second round.
"Part of the reason for that is it's not as great a year for wide receiver," said Dennis Hickey, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' director of college scouting. "Usually there are about six or seven of those guys going in the first round, and probably there will be two or three [this year]. So there's an opening of four or five [picks] and obviously it's a good year for corners. They ran fast so they kind of fill in that void."
A similar thing happened last year, when an incredible 18 cornerbacks were drafted in the first three rounds, or almost one-fifth of all the players taken on the first day. Of course, that trend is in part a reaction to the wealth of young receiver talent in the league, but it's also the predictable result of a fast Combine.
"Whenever they run really fast, they get drafted high," said Hickey. "I think this year 20 players ran in the 4.3 range at the Combine. Obviously those guys, even though they may actually be more of a mid-round type player, they get elevated when they run that fast. The history says that the defensive backs, especially with so many guys who can really run, they're going to go early."
Hickey does agree that it is a strong year for cornerbacks, and he's surely aware that several mock drafts have lined the Bucs' first-round pick up with one player from that pool or another. With their "best-available-player-for-the-Bucs" approach to this draft, it is certainly possible that the Bucs will oblige the mock-makers. If so, however, it won't be with a player who had a second or third-round grade before wowing the stopwatches in Indianapolis.
"That's against our philosophy," said Hickey of elevating a player after a good 40-yard dash time. "Number one, it's all about [video]tape for me and our scouts and our coaches. It's not about 40 times, it's not about measurables. It's all about how they played. Are they instinctive football players?
"We want to know how they played. We want to get instinctive, tough, football players who love the game. That's the number one thing. Of course, now with the Combine, guys run fast, that's great, but we still want them to be good football players. The tape is the important thing."
Throw in such highly-rated safeties (some of whom might end up at corner in the NFL) as Michael Huff, Jason Allen, Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson and there is clearly depth in the secondary in this year's draft. That has served the Bucs well in the past, as they have frequently found long-term solutions at cornerback and safety in the second and third rounds. The success stories include John Lynch, Donnie Abraham, Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly and Dwight Smith. All but Kelly, a second-rounder in 1998, were third-round selections.
According to Hickey, that has less to do with a bunch of good workout numbers and more to do with knowing exactly what you want, and that applies to every position on defense. Basing one's scouting on production over specific height-weight or size-speed qualifications allowed the team to stock its near-legendary defense with such players as Lynch, Barber and linebacker Derrick Brooks.
"That's one thing that I think has helped build us into the team we are," said Hickey. "We've taken a lot of guys who didn't have the measurables, who the league deemed below the bar, but they've been good players so the league's kind of changed somewhat. I think a lot of our players are the reason for that."
That also means that depth at a certain position, or lack thereof, does not drive the Bucs' decision-making. If the best option at number 23 overall is a cornerback or a tight end or a defensive tackle, the team won't pass on him simply because that position has enough depth to make another one available in the second round.
"When we're at our pick, we're going to get the best available player," said Hickey. "If we feel this guy is the best, we're going to take him, regardless of the depth."