Why NFL Draft Prospects Are Running Faster Than Ever
Marquise Goodwin looks calm.
He stares straight ahead at the white line in front of him. His chest and shoulders raise and lower as he takes slow, controlled breaths. He releases a deep exhalation, turns his gaze downward, and lowers onto his right knee. It’s time.
The air hangs quiet at Lucas Oil Stadium, eerily so for a place that ordinarily houses more than 67,000 screaming fans. Today most of the seats lie empty, with coaches and scouts scattered around the rest. On the field, tables and folding chairs are set up 10, 20 and 40 yards ahead of Goodwin. Each is occupied by somebody whose job it is to watch the wide receiver’s every move during the next few moments.
With his head hanging low and his knee and hands on the ground, one could mistake Goodwin for a man begging forgiveness. But he’s not. He’s a man trying to become a millionaire. He was a four-time All-American in Track & Field at the University of Texas and an Olympic long jumper who competed at the 2012 Games in London. Now Goodwin is out to prove he can make it in the NFL.
And although as a wide receiver for the Longhorns football team, he was a semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy (which honors the nation’s top scholar-athlete) and he posted an impressive performance at January’s Senior Bowl, perhaps nothing is more important to his prospects than what will happen in the next few seconds.
The Combine’s Crown Jewel
The 40-Yard Dash is the marquee event of the four-day test of strength, speed and skill that is the NFL Scouting Combine. Bench Presses, Shuttle Runs, Vertical Jumps—these tests all matter. But nothing can improve a prospect’s chances like an impressive 40 time. (Learn proper form for the 40-Yard Dash)
“The 40 is the crown jewel of the Combine,” says Lance Walker, director of performance at Michael Johnson Performance. “It’s the one everybody wants to watch. It’s the measuring stick pro teams and scouts use to evaluate speed.”
But an athlete’s finishing time isn’t the only time that matters. Scouts take three measurements during the sprint, tracking how quickly the athlete reaches the 10-, the 20- and the 40-yard mark.
Those first 10 yards gauge your explosiveness—how quickly you can set yourself in motion from a dead stop. This is important for larger players, like offensive and defensive linemen, who typically don’t cover any more than that distance on a given play. The 20-yard time shows how quickly you can accelerate, while the full 40 measures your overall speed, which is the most important stat for skill players.
“In most cases, these athletes are still accelerating when they cross the finish line,” says Walker, who helped train Goodwin and nine other athletes for this year’s Combine. “Even the elite track athlete isn’t at top speed in 40 yards. There’s no way you’re going to get to your pure top speed in 40 yards. So we spend an inordinate amount of time on the first phase and the second phase transitioning out of it.”
This is one reason why Usain Bolt can cover 10 meters in less than a second when he’s running a 100-meter dash; but during the fastest 40 ever recorded at the Combine (which happened back in 2008), the Tennessee Titans’ Chris Johnson averaged 1.06 seconds per 10 yards, which are very close in distance to meters. Athletes are capable of achieving faster speeds than they can reach within a 40-yard distance. So guys like Goodwin don’t need to make their top speed faster. They need to learn how to reach that speed in less time.
“Speed is a skill,” Loren Seagrave writes in his paper Systematic Approach to Teaching and Training the 40-Yard Dash. “Speed can be taught just like any other skill.”
Seagrave would know. As the director of speed and movement at the IMG Performance Institute in Bradenton, Fla., it’s his job to make people faster. He’s widely regarded as one of the smartest minds in sprint mechanics and performance, and his client list includes NFL first-round draft picks and Olympic medalists, among them 1996 Gold medal winner Donovan Bailey.
Seagrave’s method is nothing if not thorough. The Systematic Approach points out 47 form elements for athletes to follow in order to hit their fastest speed possible. The angle of your knees, how far you lift your feet off the ground, the point at which you stand upright—all of these things matter. Mess up any one of them and it can cost you time on the clock. And at the NFL Combine, tenths of a second can spell the difference between a fat first-round contract and hearing your name called on day two—or not hearing it at all.
“A Big Push”
Goodwin’s left foot is a few inches behind the starting line; his hands are a few inches in front of it. He lifts his hips up and back and, staying on his toes, and digs his feet into the ground. His leg positioning is textbook perfect: left knee forming an angle that’s just a bit more than 90 degrees, and right knee open at 135 degrees. Goodwin pulls his right hand back to the starting mark, setting his fingers and thumb on the line. The inside of his elbow faces the direction he’s about to run.
Goodwin cocks his left arm back. The left elbow stays bent as he moves, and his hand settles about where his pocket would be if he were wearing jeans instead of skin-tight camouflage performance gear. There’s a pause, then a sharp exhalation like you’d hear when a boxer throws a punch. Goodwin swings his arm forward and bursts out of his stance. He’s off.
“There’s a tendency to overstride,” Walker says about sprint starts. “Everybody is so enamored with having a huge first step. That’s a little flawed. There is too big of a first step. So one of the things we try to get our guys to do is not think about a big first step. We want them to think about getting a big push.”
So with short, choppy steps that are quick and powerful, Goodwin covers the first 10 yards before a viewer can blink. He’s still relatively low to the ground as he passes the first timer’s table, with his head and shoulders hunched over his knees as if he were about to hit an unsuspecting cornerback. His stride opens up as he approaches the 20-yard mark, and suddenly he’s upright and gliding, front foot striking the ground forcefully beneath him, the shin of his trailing leg parallel to the ground behind him.
Goodwin passes the finish and, giving a salute and a kiss, turns and looks at the clock. The time: 4.27 seconds, the fastest time anyone would run in Indianapolis that weekend, and just .03 seconds behind Johnson’s record.
Given his Olympic bona fides and his work with Michael Johnson, perhaps it’s not surprising that Goodwin would challenge the record. But another man in Indianapolis surprised the scouts and ran nearly as fast. That man is Texas A&M’s Ryan Swope, and his route to the front of the 40 pack was drastically different from Goodwin’s.
A photo posted on Twitter displays a shirtless Swope mid-stride in what appears to be the first step of a sprint. His calves look thick, and the muscles of his torso—obliques, abs, and serratus anterior (the muscles that run along the upper ribs)—pop as he swings his left arm forward. The caption reads: “How to make a white boy fast, tip #1: Get strong.”
Scot Prohaska posted the photo. Prohaska is an Orange County-based strength and conditioning coach who worked with Swope at Stark Training in the weeks leading up to the Combine. Prohaska, who also coaches at Mater Dei High School, prepped eight athletes for the Combine—his fifth time preparing players for the event.
“When these guys come to me they are fresh off the season,” Prohaska says. “They’re beat up, they’ve lost muscle. We have eight to 12 weeks to get them ready.”
When Swope first tested with Prohaska, he ran a 4.56—not bad, but by no means head-turning for a receiver. But Prohaska saw the potential for big improvements.
“With Swope, he could generate force quickly, but he couldn’t generate a lot of force,” Prohaska says. “So I chose exercises for him that were very strength-based—Deadlifts, Squatting off pins or with bands, Trap Bar Deadlifts—anything that could help him overcome inertia.”
Just like NFL Scouts, Prohaska looks at the 40 as a race with three stages: the start, acceleration, and top end speed. In the first phase, inertia is the enemy, since an athlete must burst into motion from a dead stop. Any exercise that teaches a person to exert a lot of force from a resting position—and exert it quickly—can help.
Top end speed wasn’t an issue for Swope. “It was off the charts,” Prohaska says. But Swope’s ability to accelerate was “very average.” The remedy? One-legged exercises like Sled Pulls, Prowlers and Bulgarian Split Squats. Prohaska had Swope perform those Split Squats with holds to increase the time under tension on the vastus medialus, or VMO, which is the center portion of the quadricep muscle in the upper leg.
Prohaska says a strong VMO means faster ground contact time on each step. “Basically for the first four weeks we had him, we worked on the start and acceleration phase,” he says. “Then we went to the VMO work and it all came together.”
By the time Combine weekend arrived, Swope had made dramatic improvements. Prohaska posted a video of Swope practicing a sprint start in a hotel hallway. In it, Swope appears lightning quick off the start, disappearing down the hallway in under two seconds.
A while later, Prohaska encountered a reporter outside the Combine and told him Swope would run a 4.35.
Swope’s time: 4.34.
His performance was good enough to tie West Virginia’s Tavon Austin for the second-best time at the Combine, and it seemed to startle everyone in the sports media world. ESPN’s First Take called it the “Great White Swope.” Swope himself told The Dan Patrick Show people were shocked, adding, “You don’t see that every day, a white guy running a 4.3.”
The Number One Thing
Speed isn’t everything. In the NFL, how you play on the field is the ultimate determinant of success. And while Chris Johnson has already put together an impressive career for the Titans, plenty of other top performers in the 40 have disappeared into obscurity. (Yamon Figurs, anyone?)
But speed does have perks. Swope’s run earned him notoriety that could lift him up the charts on draft day. Goodwin received a contract offer from adidas for his performance. Whether it also bumps him up on a team’s wish list in the draft remains to be seen.
Rightly or wrongly, athletes looking to enter the league equate faster speeds with a better chance of success. So although 12 players ran this year’s 40 in less than 4.4 seconds—the most since Johnson led a crop of fast players in 2008—expect even faster times ahead.
“All of the agents tell me that the number one thing these kids ask for is speed,” Prohaska says. “Who’s going to get me fast? The kids are obsessed with it.”
Photo by: Stack