Clock watchers

Posted Feb 24, 2008

RELATED: 2008 Scouting Combine Index

Updated: 8 p.m.

INDIANAPOLIS - So much for Darren McFadden dropping to the Bengals at No. 9.

And after outrunning everyone but Barry Sanders and the scouts this past season, Kevin Smith finally got a foothold into the elite Sunday here at the NFL scouting combine on a day when, yes, speed mattered.

McFadden, the embattled Arkansas running back, ripped off a 4.27-second 40-yard dash while Smith clocked 4.43, according to the first numbers flashed on the NFL Network screen like presidential primary results right after the polls closed.

"Speed isn't make or break for a back," said one NFC personnel exec. "But it can separate a guy, or really hurt him."

With the Bengals trying to figure out when to draft a running back, they not only watched McFadden and Smith, but all the other running backs in an effort to determine if they'll repeat the recent past and take a back first like Chris Perry four years ago or second like Kenny Irons last year.

Darren McFadden (Getty Images)
The Bengals could wait instead of expending another high one. But the fast guys go fast, and Smith knew the knock on him was speed. Until maybe Sunday.

"It's the strongest position so far. You could have half a dozen in the first round and you could make an argument for four in the top 10 depending on what your needs were," said Colts president Bill Polian. "The six I'm thinking of have great measurables and terrific production. That's really all you're looking for. In virtually all cases they're all good kids. Guys that play hard and really care about the game."

Polian's six could be McFadden, Arkansas teammate Felix Jones, Oregon's Jonathan Stewart, Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall, East Carolina's Chris Johnson and Michigan's Mike Hart.

"The thing about Smith," said an AFC scout, "is that if you figure he doesn't do anything all that outstanding, you can get the same guy a round later."

But Rob Rang, senior analyst for, believes Smith, along with Rutgers' Ray Rice, boosted their stock Sunday from the 3-4 rounds to 2-3.

"The most impactful time was for Rice," said Rang of a 40 in the mid 4.4s. "He was thought to be a 4.5, maybe even 4.6, and with his size (5-9, 195), that time really helped him. It was huge for Smith, too. He still runs a little upright and he's going to take some shots, but the big question is if he could run fast and he answered that today."

There is some belief that McFadden is dropping because of character issues and may not even be the first running back drafted. But if even just two backs can get drafted before the Bengals pick, that will keep some defensive players on the board.

The Bengals covet speed, too. They haven't had a 40-yard run off a handoff in the past 53 games, so Smith's problem is their problem:

The fast guys go early, and Smith knew the knock on him was speed. Until maybe Sunday.

"There are five or six guys here that have extraordinary speed; really explosive," said the AFC scout. "That's what makes this class unusual. But you've got to get that speed by the second round. You can get a guy in the fourth or later, but he won't be as fast. You can get a fast guy, but he'll be small."

The Bengals got a big, fast guy in Perry and his 4.6 yards per 61 carries during his only healthy season changed the character of that 2005 AFC North title offense.

"We haven't had that little (zip) since then," said Bratkowski, jockeying his hand in the air. "It really helped everyone around him."

Since Perry's 2005 season, the Bengals have averaged 3.7 yards per rush. Smith scored 29 touchdowns and rushed for 2,567 yards, 61 shy of Sanders' record, but ...

"They say they want to see my explosiveness," Smith said. "I don't think my vision or my agility is much of a question mark. They want to see how fast I can get to 40 yards, whether that matters in football or not."

The 6-1, 217-pound Smith has the size, the numbers, and now maybe some will say the speed. But not the competition.

"I played against Texas. I played against N.C. State. That's the Big 12 and the ACC," Smith said. "I put up 100 yards in a loss against the SEC. The only team I didn't go big was in the Big East, and I only played a half. Everybody is going to have an opinion. I just play football."

Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson is known for grading a prospect's schedule (who did he get his yards against?) as hard as the prospect himself, a process that began Sunday.

"After all the conversations and the literature, I'm anxious to see all 37 backs here," Anderson said. "It's supposed to be a deep class, but we'll see. It will be interesting to see how things unfold (Sunday)."

With the equipment of a shuttle mission trained on him to measure his speed in the 40-yard dash, his Achilles heel in this annual mating rite, Smith made good on Saturday night's promise.

"Tomorrow is the big test and it's my plan to shock the world," he said. "I'm going to do it all (the drills) and I hope every eye in America is watching."

The debate people in Cincinnati are going to be watching is just how high can the Bengals go again on a running back? They may have to go high again because they simply have no answers, although Bratkowski said they could wait and see how the dust in free agency settles.

"After the third round, your options begin to narrow," Polian said.

But there is a history of recent late-round picks and free agent becoming bell cows. Head coach Tom Coughlin of the Super Bowl champion Giants, who got a big postseason from seventh-rounder Ahmad Bradshaw, says reasons for that are college production and the play of the offensive line.

"A lot of is scheme, too," said the NFL exec. "Maybe you get a fullback type in college but comes to a one-back set in the NFL and it's the perfect fit."

SACK HAPPY: One NFL linebackers coach said about 20 or 25 college defensive ends have been scheduled to also work out as outside linebackers, the most ever.

King of the tweeners is Auburn's Quentin Groves, a 6-3, 259-pounder who had just three sacks last year after racking up 9.5 the season before. The Bengals may have a shot at him in the second round, but they're not the only ones thinking along that route.

"I spoke to nine teams last night and I think all nine asked me, 'Would you go to outside linebacker?' " Groves told the media Sunday. "I told them, 'Without a doubt, if you need me to play it, I'll play it.' ''

He also offered the Bengals asked him if he could mold himself after one player, who would it be, and he said he answered, "I would have the get-off of Dwight Freeney with the athleticism of Lawrence Taylor."

Groves knows exactly what he's going to get in the linebacker drill. Unlike many tweeners, he's done some bouncing in between end and linebacker. He said he made two starts at strong side linebacker.

"I think I have to display my hip flexibility in front of all 32 teams," Groves said. "I have to show I can flip my hips, catch the ball, break on the ball. I think I can show a team this guy can play outside linebacker if you need me to play it."

If Groves already sounds like a wise man, it may be because he has already sat down and commiserated with Bengals sage Willie Anderson.

"We sat down and talked for three hours about football," Groves said of his fellow Auburn product. "The summer of my sophomore year, 2005. He talked about 'be patient, let the process come to you. Don't be caught up in the agent thing. Don't let the financial advisors try to (control you) because you don't have any money yet. Enjoy college while you're in college. When you get to the pros, enjoy the pros to a certain extent but also realize it's time to work.' ''

Groves certainly understands his place in the pro game. He wants to be the first tweener taken, but he won't because Ohio State's Vernon Gholston is going to get the nod.

"The game is changing, the game is going more to speed," Groves said. "It was rare back in the day that you found a guy 260 pounds who could run a 4.4 40 or who could bench-press just as strong as 3 technique. Now you can find those guys. They're coming up slowly but surely."

No question that Groves has the kind of mentality the Bengals seek on a defense that finished dead last in sacks per pass.

"It's a lot of fun hitting the quarterback. When I felt it for the first time, I loved it and I made a vow that I'm going to keep doing it," he said, recalling that one in front of about 200 people. "My seventh grade year. I sacked the quarterback and I jumped up happy and I saw the crowd react and I said, 'I love this feeling. I've got to keep doing it.' "

NINERS FOR NO. 90? An NFC source said Sunday he expects Bengals right end Justin Smith to go to the 49ers in free agency ("They were working on the deal last night," the source said), but he's shocked Mike Nolan is going to make Smith a 3-4 end, as well as drop him in coverage.

At 270 pounds, Smith has been relentless and good against the run during his seven seasons in Cincinnati but the source has some doubt Smith can hold up in a 3-4. Still, Smith is going to give supreme effort wherever he plays and that can overcome plenty.

As for free safety Madieu Williams, it appears the Bengals are going to let the market dictate their decision. Agent Kenny Zuckerman said he'll keep the Bengals in the loop as his client hits free ageny.

"In my previous conversations with them, I've told the Bengals I'll give them a threshold of what the numbers should be, or I'll get a number from them that I should take back to them."

SPECIAL DELIVERY: New Ravens head coach John Harbaugh isn't going to forget his roots. Harbaugh, who made his mark as one of the top special-teams coaches in Philadelphia, sat in Saturday's workouts where he always sits: with the "Scott O'Brien Group," the cadre of close-knit special-teams coaches.

"I take great pride in those guys; those are my guys," said Harbaugh, who figures he heard from 80 percent of the special-teams coaches when he got the job.

One of those guys is Bengals special-teams coach Darrin Simmons, a member in good-standing of the O'Brien club.

There's no question that Harbaugh feels like he's carrying the banner for those guys. Even though special-teams coaches are the only assistants that work with both offense and defense, they never get head jobs. Even Harbaugh couldn't answer yes or no when asked if his switch to coaching the secondary last year helped him get the job.

"I'm rooting for him every game he plays but ours," Simmons said. "It's been a long time. The first (special-teams head coach) since Frank Gansz. But I'll be rooting to get his butt whipped twice a year."

But Harbaugh does know what happened at the annual combine dinner the special-teams coaches have here this week, a tab always picked up by the special-teams coach of the Super Bowl champion.

"There was a little ovation," Harbaugh said, "but a lot of hard looks like, 'You better not mess this up.' "

Harbaugh, a familiar figure in the Greater Cincinnati area as a DB at Miami of Ohio in the early '80s and an eight-year assistant at the University of Cincinnati under two coaches, is automatically in the top five of engaging, media-friendly head coaches. He hasn't looked at tape of his AFC North foes, but there are no secrets and he was both pragmatic and diplomatic on a quick take.

"It's a tough, physical hard-nosed division with some tremendous skill players," Harbaugh said. "The Bengals being maybe the one with the most skilled players. It's an explosive division and the teams all play great defense and special teams. If there's a tougher division in football, I don't know what it is."

Simmons believes the Ravens are that much tougher.

"He's a motivator. He can motivate his players because he's real," Simmons said. "Everyone can see that. He is who he is."

But Simmons had a bone to pick with him. With a laugh.

"An ovation?" he asked in horrified tones about the combine dinner. "I didn't clap for the guy."

All's fair in love, war, and special teams.

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