The talk surrounding McFadden throughout the week had focused on off-field issues while at Arkansas, but faster than you can say 40-yard dash, McFadden quieted his critics and cemented his ranking as the elite athlete of the 2008 draft.
McFadden's effort was the dominant story of the Sunday's workouts, but with several other eye-popping results among the skill position players, it proved to be the Combine's most exciting day.
Darren McFadden may have solidified himself as the elite athlete in this draft, but his speed shouldn't overshadow the times posted by the other junior backs. With times in the 4.4s turned in by fellow underclassmen Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice, Steve Slaton and Kevin Smith, teams were quickly reminded of just how talented and deep this year's crop of running backs has become with the infusion of young talent. Rice and Smith may have gained the most with their impressive 40 times Sunday. Rice, undersized at 5-feet-8, 199 pounds, was nonetheless known more for his power than speed while playing for Rutgers. Smith, who led the nation with 2,567 rushing yards for Central Florida, was known for his vision and cutting ability rather than pure speed. With the times, Rice and Smith may have pushed themselves into the second round.
The hype over McFadden's time led many to overlook the blazing time by East Carolina running back Chris Johnson. In fact, Johnson's 4.24 tied the all-time mark registered at the Indianapolis Combine. Rondel Melendez, a wide receiver for Eastern Kentucky, recorded the time in 1999 – the first year the Combine used electronic timers. Johnson, one of the nation's most versatile players, led Conference USA with 3,005 all-purpose yards as a running back, receiver and kick returner. If his production hadn't already done so, Johnson's record-tying speed in Indianapolis essentially assures him of being the first senior running back selected and a spot in the top two rounds.
The running backs may have stolen the show late, but teams were buzzing early in the day about the performance of Michigan State wide receiver Devin Thomas. Overshadowed throughout the Combine by more recognizable names, Thomas finished among the fastest wide receivers with a 4.40 time and was dazzling during the wide receiver drills. The fluidity through which the 6-2, 216-pound wideout moved through the gauntlet drill and down the sideline was matched only by much smaller receivers. Thomas didn't drop a pass all day, showing spectacular body control to catch passes thrown behind, below and far in front of him. Thomas, ranked by most as a late second- to third-round prospect, may have pushed himself into legitimate first-round consideration with his performance Sunday.
WR Limas Sweed
Michael Conroy/AP Images
The news wasn't so good for cross-state rival Mario Manningham. Scouts felt Manningham was very good during drills, catching the ball securely and showing good quickness and fluid acceleration in running routes. Unfortunately, with 40 times that ranged from 4.59-4.68, according to scouts in attendance, Manningham's greatest asset – his overall athleticism – is called into question. Scouts were concerned with Manningham's frequent drops in crucial situations while at Michigan, but his speed hadn't previously been viewed as a concern.
Indiana's James Hardy and Nebraska's Maurice Purify – two big receivers facing character questions – turned in performances Sunday that will have their stocks on the rise. Considering how athletic the 6-5, 217-pound Hardy was during his performance, he was the more impressive of the two. After answering concerns about his speed with a 4.48 timing, Hardy quickly changed directions and caught every ball thrown his direction – most impressively snatching each pass out of the air with his fingertips. Very nearly as impressive was Purify. While he'll still need to answer character questions stemming from on- and off-field problems while at Nebraska, Purify's smooth athleticism and secure hands were sure to catch the attention of NFL coaches sitting in the RCA Dome stands. Purify flashed high-round talent each of the past two seasons at Nebraska, after transferring there as one of the elite JUCO prospects in the nation. The struggles with consistency throughout his career were nowhere to be seen Sunday, as Purify was one of the more dynamic receivers during either of the two practice sessions held for the position.
Receivers measuring under 6-feet also made significant impressions Sunday. California's DeSean Jackson started his day with the fastest 40 of all the receivers, registering a 4.35. He followed that up by fluidly running through drills and consistently catching passes with his hands. Scouts want to know why Jackson was unable to generate more production as Cal struggled late last season, but there is no denying his potential as a receiver and return specialist. There are only so many teams that will fundamentally consider a 5-9, 170-pound receiver in the first round, but Jackson is forcing scouts to take a hard look.
Appalachian State's Dexter Jackson and Hawaii's Davone Bess were every bit as dynamic as DeSean Jackson during wide receiver drills. Dexter Jackson turned in among the elite 40s of the year (4.37) to go along with spectacular quickness and sure hands during drills. His ascension from a small school prospect to East-West Shrine Game standout to Senior Bowl late addition to Combine star is one of the more intriguing stories that no one seems to be talking about of the 2008 draft. Bess is nearly the complete opposite – at least in terms of his 40. Scouts were disappointed to see Bess time in the 4.7s – a number so high even the most ardent of supporters is concerned, but his burst out of his breaks and super-soft hands made him one of the more impressive receivers of the day in drills. During the gauntlet drills in which receivers are asked to run horizontally across the field at full speed while six quarterbacks – three on either side – pepper them with passes, Bess was one of the few receivers to easily contort his body and snare each pass. In drills where others struggled, Bess consistently made the difficult appear easy.
Limas Sweed (Texas), Malcolm Kelly (Oklahoma), and Early Doucet (LSU) elected not to participate in drills. Sweed (wrist) and Doucet (hamstring) cited injuries to both the media and NFL teams. It was announced to NFL teams inside the RCA Dome that Kelly elected not to participate in the 40 or any drills due to personal choice, though he cited a strained quadriceps muscle a day earlier to the media.
There were few unexpected performances among the passers Sunday. With Boston College's Matt Ryan electing to postpone his workout until his March 18 Pro Day, other highly-ranked passers failed to take advantage of the opportunity to supplant Ryan as the draft's top signal-caller. Louisville's Brian Brohm solidified himself as one of the draft's most accurate passers, but many of his throws lacked the zip to prove he'd be effective in every NFL scheme. Michigan's Chad Henne and Delaware's Joe Flacco certainly have the arm strength teams are looking for, but neither was able to consistently harness their accuracy Sunday. Too often passes sailed outside for Henne, especially on out-routes. Flacco, as he did at the Senior Bowl, flashed the ability to make every throw, but struggled with touch passes and on his timing with post-corner routes. At the end of the day, the three quarterbacks had proven the grades earned throughout the year were well deserved – with Brohm most likely a mid- to late first- round choice and Henne and Flacco deserving of second- round grades.
Amid all of the criticism stemming from his Sugar Bowl and Senior Bowl performances, Colt Brennan was arguably the most impressive quarterback of the day. He was without question the day's most accurate passer. Brennan had to wind-up to deliver some of the longer routes, extending his throwing motion and proving his lack of prototypical arm strength. But the Hawaii quarterback proved his ability to throw with touch, precision, and just enough zip that in the right offense, he could be a successful NFL quarterback. Brennan seemed to grow more confident as his session wore on, and his peers noticed his accuracy. By the end of the session, nearly all of Brennan's passes were being thrown with a chorus of cheers from his fellow quarterbacks and surrounding wide receivers.
QB Matt Ryan
Michael Conroy/AP Images
As surprising to some as Brennan's impressive day may have been, Southern California's John David Booty failed to stand out. Booty has a smooth backpedal and throwing motion, but he was as inaccurate Sunday as I've ever seen him. Booty struggled to consistently hit receivers in stride regardless of the drill and may have ended any chance of his sneaking into the draft's first day with his performance.
San Diego quarterback Josh Johnson entered the week with a great deal of buzz coming off a strong East-West Shrine Game performance. But too often on Sunday the rotation on his passes were off, leading to general inaccuracy and especially on throws across his body. Johnson has a rare combination of arm strength and athleticism, and with some tweaks to his throwing motion he remains an intriguing prospect. Sunday, however, was not an impressive day.
Along with Matt Ryan, Kentucky's Andre Woodson did not participate in Sunday's drills due to a strained hamstring. The inability to throw at the Combine is particularly troublesome for Woodson, who could have used the exposure to steady his falling stock after a poor performance at the Senior Bowl. Whereas the inactive Ryan remained active, talking to coaches and cheering on participating quarterbacks and receivers. Woodson on the other hand looked instead disinterested, walking around in sandals and rarely speaking to other quarterbacks.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"I think it's just a want-to. I instilled in myself at an early age, it's a lot of fun getting to the quarterback. It's a lot of fun hitting the quarterback. I felt it for the first time and I loved it, and I made a vow that I'm going to keep doing it." – Auburn DE/OLB Quentin Groves on his knack for getting to the quarterback.
Rob Rang is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, published by The Sports Xchange.