INDIANAPOLIS – Every year, we’re reminded by talent evaluators that the 40-yard dash is the most overblown event of the NFL’s annual scouting combine. And yet every year, a handful of prospects have times that are eagerly anticipated by teams preparing to draft them.
Leonard Fournette and Mike Williams, come on down. The spotlight is headed your way.
Among the draft’s elite prospects, the LSU running back and Clemson wideout have surfaced as two players whose 40-yard dash times are eagerly anticipated. So much so that it could determine how high Fournette climbs inside the top 10 of the draft or whether Williams potentially slips to the bottom of the first round. Williams is particularly anticipated – to the point that a handful of teams near the bottom of the first and even the top of the second round have taken a deeper dive into his film, believing there is a chance he could slip after combine workouts.
“Usually [Williams] would be a quicker conversation for us,” said one evaluator whose team once believed that Williams would be out of reach. “But after talking to some people about his potential  times, we did a little more work than we normally would have done. I think there’s a chance that he might have a [mediocre] 40.”
How fast are teams expecting the Clemson star to run? The over/under on Williams is being pegged by some NFL scouting departments at 4.65 seconds in the 40. If he’s slower than that, the opinion is he’ll suffer a slip. If he’s somewhere between 4.6 and 4.65, the teams that already like him will likely stay steady. If he’s faster than 4.6 seconds, he’s going to help himself. The ultimate goal will be to exit the combine without the dreaded “possession receiver” label, something Mississippi wideout Laquon Treadwell failed to avoid this time last year.
Said one scout: “If he runs faster than 4.6, wherever he went to work on his 40 did a great job with him.”
Another NFL evaluator said Williams’ tape already suggests to teams whether he’s a fit or not, but if he shows unexpected speed, it could help open Williams to teams that have some hardened standards.
“Some guys just won’t take receivers who run slower than a 4.6, just like some guys won’t take quarterbacks who are shorter than 6-foot-1. [For Williams], a lot of it will depend on do you like the speed that he plays with on the tape. From what I’ve seen, his greatest separation comes when his feet leave the ground – when he’s going up for a ball. I don’t see as much separation when his feet are on the ground and he’s just trying to outrun the guy in front of him. … If he’s slower than 4.65, he’s not going to get much separation [in the NFL] and you’re going to have to draw up ways to get him the ball using that size. That’s just more limiting than a guy who can outrun coverage and jump above it.”
Fournette, on the other hand, doesn’t have nearly the same concerns, despite checking in at the combine at 240 pounds. That weight is higher than the 235 he was listed at by LSU and it raised a few eyebrows during the weigh-in. Not because Fournette was heavier than expected, but because he appeared to carry the weight very well. One evaluator said Fournette wasn’t “doughy” and looked like 240 wouldn’t be problematic. But it also put more focus on the speed drills.
“He’ll test strong,” one scout said. “I think he’ll test fast – we want to see him test fast. If he does, there won’t be any second-guessing about [him being a top-10 pick].”
If Fournette runs somewhere around a 4.5 and adds relatively quick times in agility drills, he’ll maintain his positive buzz. If he does well in agility drills and runs a 40 faster than 4.5 seconds, he’ll become a monster story coming out of the combine. Perhaps to the point that it will be fair to wonder if an Ezekiel Elliott-type climb is underway.
One general manager didn’t hide his affection when asked about the more powerful running back types: the Carolina Panthers’ Dave Gettleman, who is sitting on the eighth pick in the draft. The Panthers will be in the market for a marquee back in this draft and the general manager smiled when he was asked to share his thoughts about “240-pound” running backs.
“Big running backs are nice,” said Gettleman, who is known to covet players with size. “They tend to run people over better than 180-pound running backs. But this is a deep group – we know that. It’ll be interesting to see how the whole process plays out, because we’re really just halfway through it. You’ve got to evaluate the film and get a picture of every individual running back.”
For a few elite prospects, a specific part of that speed picture will become clearer in the coming days. The running backs are slated to nail down their 40-yard dash times on Friday and the wideouts will do the same Saturday. For Williams and Fournette in particular, everyone will be watching.
Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm makes his picks for the players who will shine the brightest during their workouts at the upcoming scouting combine.