Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson didn't intend to run the 40-yard dash at the Combine, until his competitiveness took over
(More than 320 standout college players put their skills on display at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February. On the weekend of April 28-29, the vast majority of those players will hear their names called in the 2007 NFL Draft. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will take a closer look at some of those names from the combine, and the stories behind them in our "Road to the Draft" series. These features are not meant to pinpoint the very top prospects in the draft, nor to reflect the Buccaneers' opinions or draft strategies. Any mention of draft-board status or a player's strengths and weaknesses are from outside sources, not the team's own scouting work. Currently featured: Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson.)
Calvin Johnson says he gets the question a lot, and that's apparent in his answer. He knows it's coming. And like a hitter who knows a fastball is on the way, he swings for the fences.
Hey, Calvin, you're about to become the next pass-catching sensation in the National Football League. To which already-established NFL receivers do you compare yourself?
Knock it out of the park, Calvin.
"I've been known to say a mixture of Randy Moss and T.O., with the character on the field of a Marvin Harrison," said Johnson, when posed with that very question at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. "Just go out there and get the job done. I'm more like Marvin Harrison with the attitude."
It would be interesting to see how NFL personnel executives reacted to such a remark if it was built solely on hubris. Johnson merely declared himself a cross between the two most freakishly athletic receivers in the league and perhaps the most professional and productive wideout of the current era. Confidence is one thing; an out-of-check ego or a slippery grip on reality are other things altogether. Such a comment could be off-putting, a red flag, if uttered by just about any other draft prospect in recent memory.
Johnson can get away with it, however, for two reasons. One, there seems to be no dissent to the consensus opinion: the Georgia Tech junior is a nearly flawless prospect, an almost can't-miss draftee. And two, he doesn't come off as the sort of me-first receiver that has become so common in the NFL. Opposing college players are actually on record as calling Johnson "humble."
So perhaps Johnson will hit the NFL with the speed and leaping ability of a Moss, the body control and run-after-the-catch ability of an Owens and the hard-working, quiet pride of a Harrison. It's here, again, that Johnson would sound cocky if not for the simple truth in his words.
"I'm standing right in front of you," he told a gathering of reporters at the Combine. "Not many people have my size, speed and strength. It's a combination of [those things], and then my willingness to help out whatever team takes me. I think those things combined help make me a great player."
Or they will, in regards to the NFL, if the prevailing scouting opinion is accurate. Despite measuring in at 6-4 and 239 pounds at the Combine, he runs a sub-4.4 40-yard dash and has been measured at an otherworldly 45 inches in the vertical leap. At Georgia Tech's recent Pro Day, he added a ridiculous 11-foot, seven-inch standing broad jump.
Johnson's most recent 40-yard dash time – a 4.35 that got quite a few scouts' pulses racing – was posted in Indianapolis at the Combine. The day before he ran that time and further cemented his lofty draft stock, Johnson told the assembled media that, like most of the very top prospects, he didn't intend to run the 40 in Indy.
"I just decided not to," said Johnson, though it's almost certain he was advised that he had little to gain by doing so. In fact, Johnson didn't even bring his running shoes.
At the same time, however, he admitted that the competitor in him really wanted to take his place among the other draft-eligible receivers testing the stopwatches and going through shuttle runs and vertical leaps. "It's real tough," Johnson said at the time. "I want to run. I know I'm going to put up good numbers…just run and get it over with."
A day later, that competitor in Johnson won out. Borrowing shoes from a fellow Combine attendee, he decided on the spot to run the 40-yard dash and promptly clocked that 4.35. Only two receivers – Kansas State's Yamon Figurs and Washington's Jason Hill – had better 40-yard dash times in Indy. Though he didn't post those numbers at the Combine, Johnson's vertical leap and broad jump bests were easily better than anything posted by a receiver in the RCA Dome this year.
So you can't really blame Johnson when he matter-of-factly says (in answer to a question pointed exactly in this direction), "I feel I'm the best athlete [in the draft]. That's the attitude I've got to have going through all of this."
What's more important is that Johnson decided to prove it in Indianapolis, and did so almost effortlessly. That competitive streak may be as important as that 4.35, as far as what he showed while at the Combine.
"One thing that I think will make my great is my character, my willingness to compete," said Johnson. "I think those things will make me one of the best."
Interestingly, that competitive streak had more to do with the collection of athletes he found himself amid in Indy than with what the final stopwatch results would mean to his draft status. Unlike Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, who has publicly stated that one of his goals is to be the first overall draft pick, Johnson seems unconcerned about exactly where he falls out on April 28. Unlike Moss, who slipped to the 21st pick in 1998 due to concerns over his past, Johnson isn't likely to carry a chip on his shoulder against any teams that pass on him.
"Teams can go for whatever suits them best," he said. "If I'm the best fit for a team, whether they need a quarterback or whatever, that's their decision. I have nothing to do with that.
"I wouldn't be disappointed at all [not to go first]. My goal is to play in the NFL. My goal was not to be a number-one draft pick when I started playing football. As long as I get a chance to play and help a team out, I'll be fine."
Johnson, who caught 121 passes for 2,151 yards and 20 touchdowns in just 28 games at Tech, claims his dedication to the game will be obvious to whatever team does pick him, whether its first, third, 15th or 30th (as if). He says his passion for the game, his willingness to put in whatever work is necessary to excel and then some, is innate.
"I guess it's just natural," said Johnson. "I'm just a hard-worker and that's the way I've always been. I'm always going to be in the weight room. Teams ask me a lot how I'm going to spend my time in the offseason, and I say in the weight room. I'll be in the weight room staying away from injury."
What that team won't get, Johnson insists, is any sort of headache or locker-room division, nor a player looking to call attention to himself. While he says he enjoys the extras brought to the game by Owens and Moss – "It's just entertainment, and it's good for the game" – he's much more easygoing.
"I can co-exist with anybody," he said. "It's really easy to get along with me. I don't have a problem with anybody."
And sure, that's easy to say now, as Johnson is still trying to impress all 32 teams and still waiting for his first NFL paycheck. But as straightforward as Johnson is about his talents, he's as insistent about his approach to the game and to life.
"All of the success I had at Tech, nobody's seen my change," he said. "I'm not going to change. I'm me. Money will do something for me, but it's not going to change me."