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Revisiting combine results: Will speed and quickness be a strength of the Cowboys in 2018?

The Cowboys are building an offense around the strengths of its skill players, could speed be one of those strengths?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Minicamp Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes in the heat of the summer, when there’s nothing happening, you can easily find yourself going down the rabbit hole looking for any possible football-related material. Such was the case that led to questions about the level of quickness of these current Dallas Cowboys skill players. That curiosity was the catalyst for finding an ESPN article from last offseason. Each team’s beat writer was asked to give their pick for the “speediest player on the roster”, two current members of the Cowboys were chosen:

Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys:

RB Ezekiel Elliott

Cornerback Anthony Brown might take home the title based on 40-yard dash times from the combine (4.35 seconds), but two plays exhibited Elliott’s speed last season. He had a 60-yard touchdown run against Cincinnati in which he went untouched, splitting the safeties. He also had an 83-yard score on a screen pass in which he ran by -- not through -- Pittsburgh defenders. He was timed at 4.47 seconds in the 40 in the 2016 combine, but he was a Missouri state champ in the 100, 200, 110 high hurdles and 300 hurdles. Elliott has excellent timed speed, but he has faster playing speed.

Alden Gonzalez, Los Angeles Rams

WR Tavon Austin

A standout sprinter in high school, Austin wowed scouts at the 2013 combine by running the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds and completing the 20-yard shuttle in 4.01 seconds. His breakneck speed made him the No. 8 overall pick out of West Virginia and has prompted the Rams to do everything they can to get him the ball in space -- on screens, out of the backfield and through punt returns. The new staff, led by rookie head coach Sean McVay, would like Austin to establish himself as more of a deep threat. They believe his speed can create the separation he needs, even though he’s a 5-foot-8 receiver.

Now, just a week ago, Connor Livesay polled our BTB community on the same question and to no surprise, Austin won 71% of the vote. Looking for the fastest player on the team is certainly a fun anecdote but it’s not where my curiosity ended. In fact, it only fueled an afternoon of trying to find out how teams look at speed but also how it’s truly measured and valued. That led to an article published in 2011 by the legendary Cowboys scout, Gil Brandt, way back before any of the current skill players were even in the NFL. It was a helpful guide by one of the NFL’s greatest scouts on how important certain combine drills are to different positions.

For instance, Gil Brandt stated though folks are typically enamored with the 40-yard dash, which is designed to measure sustained speed over a certain distance, for receivers, it’s much more important to teams to see burst off the line:

With receivers, there’s increased focus on the 10-yard time, because it measures burst off the line of scrimmage. When you compare two receiver prospects, it’s often the wideout with the better 10-yard dash -- not the 40 time -- that attracts more attention.

Brandt pointed out the importance of the 40-yard dash for running backs but he claims the 20-yard split and short shuttle may be a better determination for quickness. It also serves as a good indicator of the runner’s ability to maintain his burst:

With running backs, quickness is king. A back’s burst can be measured through the shuttle run. The TitansJavon Ringer is a good example of a player who drew interest because of his performance in the shuttle run. Ringer didn’t run as fast as some other backs in the 40 at the 2009 combine, but his quickness negated that score and Tennessee fell in love.

Just ahead of this year’s draft, ESPN’s scout Todd McShay put out his very own guide to processing combine data. No surprise, McShay agrees with Brandt that drills have different values depending on the position. Before we can really process the current Cowboys skill players combine speed and agility results, we need to know the parameters. What separates elite quickness versus good quickness? What does slow look like in the NFL?

Based off a combination of combine enthusiast’s thresholds, here are two charts with target times for receivers and running backs. The scale operates under three categories: Above average speed, NFL-average speed, Sub-par speed:

Wide Receivers 40-YD Dash 10-YD Split 20-YD Split
Above Average 4.2 - 4.4 1.50 - 1.59 2.50 - 2.59
NFL-Average (5-years) 4.53 1.6 2.65
Sub-par 4.60 & above 1.65 & above 2.7 & above
Running Backs 40-YD Dash 10-YD Split 20-YD Split Short Shuttle
Above Average 4.2 - 4.49 1.50 - 1.59 2.50 - 2.59 4.10 - 4.19
NFL-Average (5-years) 4.59 1.6 2.6 4.2
Sub-par 4.7 & above 1.65 & above 2.7 & above 4.3 & above

So, how did the Cowboys do in their speed and agility drills? The answer is surprisingly well actually. We’ll start with the receivers, where we look at the 40-yard dash, 10-yard splits, and 20-yard splits:

Player Position 40 10 YD Split 20 YD Split
Tavon Austin WR 4.34 1.55 2.56
Terrance Williams WR 4.52 1.61 2.66
Cole Beasley WR 4.49 1.57 2.66
Allen Hurns WR 4.55 1.58 2.59
Deonte Thompson WR 4.31 1.5 2.51
Michael Gallup WR 4.51 1.57 2.63
Cedrick Wilson WR 4.55 1.58 2.65
Noah Brown WR 4.56 1.61 2.63
KD Cannon WR 4.41 1.58 2.6
Lance Lenoir WR 4.67 1.59 2.66
Marchie Murdock WR 4.53 1.68 2.64
Mekale McKay WR 4.55 1.53 2.61

Tavon Austin and Deonte Thompson are exceptionally fast when compared to their NFL peers but that’s been their calling cards for some time. Remember that Gil Brandt wrote about the importance of the split times for receivers. By this chart, Allen Hurns who’s right on the NFL average for receivers in the 40 actually shows exceptional quickness and burst. Michael Gallup also stands out with Hurns as a guy that will give the Cowboys great quickness off the line. The only two concerns about this group are down-roster guys like Lance Lenoir and Marchie Murdock. For the most part, the Cowboys receivers look to be good fits for an up-tempo, fast-paced offense.

Moving on to the running backs, we’re going to look at their 40’s, 10’s, 20’s, and short shuttle’s to see what kind of quickness they offer:

Player Position 40 10 YD Split 20 YD Split Shuttle
Ezekiel Elliott RB 4.47 1.58 2.62 DNP
Rod Smith RB 4.52 DNP DNP DNP
Bo Scarbrough RB 4.52 1.56 2.65 4.34
Trey Williams RB 4.49 1.61 2.64 4.12
Darius Jackson RB 4.4 1.56 2.51 4.29
Jordan Chunn RB 4.67 1.63 2.76 4.5

With the running backs, we know that their 40’s and splits are designed to show you speed over distance, initial quickness, and burst. The short shuttle is designed to show flexibility and balance. Much like the receivers, the Cowboys running backs are in pretty good shape but Jordan Chunn sticks out like a sore thumb as being a sub-par athlete.

The Cowboys put an emphasis on getting quicker on offense this offseason and that’s not to say a guy like Dez Bryant was slow because he wasn’t. However, speed is a very useful weapon on offense, the Cowboys want to grind teams into the ground with their rushing attack. Still, it’s equally important to have quickness in the passing game because NFL quarterbacks just don’t have unlimited time on their hands. The Cowboys should feel pretty confident that they’ve added burst and quickness on offense which will ultimately help them be a much more efficient group in 2018.

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