Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Mailbag: The Importance of the 40

This week, Buc fans spark discussions on the 40-yard dash at the NFL, ways to spice up Tampa Bay's pass rush and the potential of second-year WR Robert Herron

Buccaneers players at the NFL Combine.

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*Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans.  This week, we open with a look at the iconic 40-yard dash and whether the results in this drill from the NFL Scouting Combine are truly important. We also touch on the need for defensive help in the upcoming draft as well as the team's potential plans for WR Robert Herron, a sixth-round pick in the 2014 draft.

Fans can submit questions for upcoming mailbags via Twitter to @ScottSBucs (#BucsMailbag), through a message on the Buccaneers Official Facebook Page or via email at tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.  The One Buc Mailbag runs every Thursday and is not necessarily meant to reflect the opinions of the team's management or coaching staff.*1. Scott,I know the NFL combine starts this week and something tells me i'm going to watch the coverage because its kinda like watching football. Call me pathetic but I can't be the only one because they show hours and hours of it now. It's mostly watching guys do their 40-yard dashes. So I'm wondering, will I even be watching anything that matters? Does the 40 matter? How much do teams really care? I mean, I'm going to watch anyway, but it would be nice to know. Thanks.

The five-best linebackers invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

– Jim H. from Bradenton, 22-year Bucs fan…go Bucs!**

I've actually been present for a number of Scouting Combine workouts through the years, Jim, and you know what always strikes me about the event? It's so quiet in that stadium while the workouts are taking place. There's almost an air of solemnity about it, as if this is some sacred NFL ritual that must be paid its respect.

Okay, I'm probably projecting way too much onto that, but I can tell you that it feels important when you're there. The Combine as a whole obviously is very important – especially the medical examinations and the evening interviews – but does the 40-yard dash, the signature drill, really matter that much?

Well, yes and no. Let me paraphrase virtually every answer I've ever gotten from an NFL personnel pro when I've asked about the importance of the workout numbers from Indy: "The Combine results help us validate and/or tweak the scouting reports we've already formed on these players, but their game tape is the more important evaluation tool. We would not draft a player whose game tape we didn't like simply because he performed well at the Combine."

The five-best running backs invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

I believe that, too, but I also think the 40-yard dash has an allure that is hard to completely ignore. Every team is there in Indy with stopwatches; every team puts the player's 40-yard dash time right on the cards they use for their draft boards. If Team A already likes Wide Receiver B, and Wide Receiver B puts up a 4.32 40-yard dash at the Combine, I think that matters to Team A. The team may bump that player up its wide receiver rankings a little bit, or start thinking more seriously about where they might be able to get him in the draft. Similarly, a slower-than-expected 40 time, especially for a receiver or a defensive back, is probably going to make that team go back and look at the game tape again. "Are we missing something?" "Are we sure he can be as good at the next level?"

However, keep this in mind, Jim: If a player doesn't live up to his own or others' expectations for the 40-yard dash at the Combine, he has a chance to make up for it. Most of those prospects in Indy will subsequently perform at a Pro Day on their respective college campuses, and the 40-yard dash will once again be prominently featured. Maybe the conditions there will be more favorable to the player or maybe he will have simply had more time to train specifically for the dash. Whatever the case, if a receiver runs at 4.5 at the Combine and a 4.4 at his Pro Day, it's the 4.4 that's going to carry the most weight.

The five-best running backs invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

And you know, Jim, right there is where I think the 40-yard dash makes the most difference in building a player's overall scouting report. You want it to provide some evidence in your efforts to rank players whose reports are otherwise very close. You want it as another piece of confirmation that a prospect you feel good about is going to have what it takes to succeed in the NFL. This, I think, is far more important than finding those one or two guys at the Combine who absolutely blow away the field in the 40, like Dri Archer last year.

According to USA Today, these are the players that have put up the 10 fastest 40-yard dash times at the Combine since 1999 (in order from fastest to slowest): Chris Johnson, Dri Archer, Jerome Mathis, Tyrone Calico, Marquise Goodwin, Stanford Routt, Jacoby Ford, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Fabian Washington, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Yamon Figurs. See a lot of stars in that list? CJ2K obviously had some great years, and his breakout speed played prominently in that success as he was known for his big plays once he hit he open field. Mathis made the Pro Bowl as a return man.

Mostly, though, these are players who have not particularly distinguished themselves in the NFL (we should say "yet" for the likes of Archer, Goodwin and Routt. The name that jumps out to me is Heyward-Bey, who went quite a bit higher than expected in the 2009 draft. The Oakland Raiders nabbed him seventh overall, ahead of fellow wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks and Kenny Britt. Heyward's per-season averages over six years in the NFL are 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. While we can't know for sure what transpired in the Oakland draft room before the Heyward-Bey pick, it is certainly widely believed that the team was enamored of his speed.

The five-best defensive linemen invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

I don't think you see too many instances of that happening, however. It's not like Pittsburgh took Archer in the first round after his 4.26-yard 40 last year. They took him near the end of the third, with the 97th overall pick. They got him 10 carries, seven catches and 10 kick returns as a rookie, to underwhelming results but they still have time to figure out a good way to use his speed. It may or may not work out, but that can be said about a lot of players chosen around the 100th pick in the draft.

2. Hey Scott,Many analysts say the Tampa Two scheme is outdated in this league, but we know Lovie is going to continue to roll with it. What is vital to this scheme is pressure from the front four, which we don't have! As I'm sure every Buc fan is panicking at which QB we are going to take (and potentially miss on), why not focus on what our head coach does best... Defense! Let's take aim at getting Ndamukong Suh and draft the best pass rusher in the draft? How long do we have to wait before Lovie takes his first defensive player in a draft with the Bucs? Thank you for all the information you provide long distance Bucs fans!- Frank (Long Island, NY)

The five-best offensive linemen invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

You're welcome, Frank, and thank you for keeping the Bucs close to your heart even though you're far from the Bay area.

I think I've said this in a number of other mailbags, but I'll say it again: If you're picking first in the draft AND you have identified quarterback as a major area of need AND you believe there is a potential franchise quarterback available, I believe 32 of 32 teams would draft that quarterback. That's why five of the last eight #1 overall picks have been quarterbacks, and 12 of the last 17. That's even more true since the new CBA came into effect in 2011 and significantly lowered the salary figures that rookies receive. Quarterbacks picked first overall are still handsomely compensated, but their contracts don't quite hold franchises hostage to the degree they used to.

However, since only a few people in the Bucs' organization know if all those criteria have been met – and they're not going to tip the team's hand at this point – there's nothing wrong with discussing alternate possibilities for the draft. Frank is the latest to do so, with the cornerstone of his plan being the free agency pursuit of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

The five-best defensive backs invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

On this specific topic, I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to play the tampering card again. I don't know if my commenting on the feasibility of a potential free agent (who at the moment is still under contract) would be considered tampering, but it's better safe than sorry. So I won't have anything to say one way or another about whether Ndamukong Suh or any other player still under contract would be a good fit with the Buccaneers.

I can say this, however, because it has nothing to do with any specific players but rather with what the Buccaneers do and do not need: I don't think that position is a primary area of need. I think the Bucs can form a very good DT duo without breaking the bank to get one of the few talents comparable to McCoy. Look at the great Bucs defense from the mid-90s to the mid-00s: Brad Culpepper, a one-time 10th-round pick who came to Tampa as a waiver claim, did quite well when paired up with Warren Sapp. Later, when first-round pick Anthony McFarland was lost to IR in the middle of the 2002 Super Bowl season, undrafted Chuck Darby stepped in next to Sapp and also fared very well. The point is, playing next to McCoy should be enough to make a good DT look like a very good one. A full year of health for both McCoy and 2014 signee Clinton McDonald could very well result in something very similar.

The five-best wide receivers invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

Now, the second half of that plan is very doable if we presume that the Bucs are not taking a quarterback. At that point, the player who many consider the best overall talent in the draft is USC defensive end Leonard Williams. And I don't think anyone would argue with your contention that a stronger pass rush is key to making Lovie Smith's defense work as well as it has in all his other stops. One way or another, that needs to be addressed, and I'm sure it will be.

There's one thing missing from your scenario, however, Frank. You don't tell us how the team should address the quarterback situation if it chooses to go defense with that first pick. Is your answer Mike Glennon, and if so doesn't the team still need to add at least one more experienced quarterback before next season? Do we take a quarterback later in the draft? You left us hanging here, Frank!

Just kidding (sort of). I do like your last question, Frank. It's funny to think that a Lovie Smith team was the first one in franchise history to spend every draft pick in a given year on offensive players. I don't believe that was a goal going into the draft; I do believe that Mike Evans was the target at #7 overall and a strong tight end was a high priority in round two, but after that I think it was a matter of finding the best value at each pick. That may end up being the case with the next pick in the Lovie Smith era, too, but I'd be shocked – SHOCKED, I SAY – if another draft went by without some help for the defense.

3. Hi Scott. Its David from Wyoming,  I was wondering what the teams thought on wide receiver Robert Herron and what the teams plans are for. Him the future? I think he would do really good with more playing time.

The five-best tight ends invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

If we rewind to last May, when Herron was drafted, we'll recall that Licht and Smith took the University of Wyoming receiver with a specific role in mind: slot receiver. I've got to believe that option is still on the table for Herron, though I'm sure he'll find plenty of competition for the job in the months to come.

Herron didn't find the field much in his rookie season, so you can't say it was an unqualified success, but he held on to his roster spot throughout and now has the opportunity to work on his game during a full NFL offseason. It is not uncommon at all for players to make a significant leap from Year One to Year Two, nor is it uncommon for later-round draft picks to take a year or two to develop into a real contributor.

Think along the lines of cornerback E.J. Biggers, a seventh-round pick in 2009 or Ellis Wyms, a sixth-rounder in 2001. Now, it's true that more sixth and seventh-rounders fail to establish much of an NFL career, but those who do often need a little more time to develop. Players taken at that stage of the draft are often picked because they have one or two stand-out traits (such as speed for Herron) that a team thinks could be the starting point for a potential impact player.

Keep an eye on these five defenders at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week.

Another good example is wide receiver Paris Warren, taken in the seventh-round in 2005. Warren split his rookie year between the active roster and the practice squad but didn't get any regular-season playing time. He made the team again in 2006 and saw a little bit of action, playing in eight games and catching five passes. The following summer, he had an outstanding training camp and preseason and was poised to finally make an impact for the Buccaneers.

Unfortunately, Warren suffered a broken leg while scoring the game-winning touchdown in the preseason finale against Houston. That was a horribly unlucky turn of events for the young receiver, and afterward Head Coach Jon Gruden said that, prior to the injury, Warren had earned himself a spot on the 53-man roster. Now, I'm obviously not wishing that exact chain of events on Herron, but he could similarly work his way into a role with the team if he can stick around for another year or two and continue to develop as a pro.

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