With college pro days now taking center stage in the draft process, terms such as “40 times,” “straight-line speed” and “workout warriors” are becoming familiar in scouting communities across the country.
It often seems at this point that one workout can have as much impact in the evaluation process as a prospect’s performance during the entire season. But if there’s one position where so-called “workout warriors” become irrelevant, it’s middle linebacker.
When evaluating the middle linebacker position, the first and most important aspect to note is a prospect’s ability to read and react quickly and correctly. I would much rather have a middle linebacker who runs a 4.8 and consistently reads the action quickly than a linebacker who can run a 4.4 but has a tendency to take a false step when asked to find the football. The MLB spot in the NFL is all about instincts and possessing the ability to quickly change directions and get after the ball.
At times, an MLB is asked to run sideline to sideline or drop into coverage down the middle of the field. However, for the most part, inside linebackers are expected to read and react to their run/pass keys between the tackles and redirect toward the football. So when evaluating the position, it makes sense to put more weight on a linebacker’s short-shuttle time than his 40 time since he’s more often asked to redirect quickly in tight spaces than run 40 yards across the field.
To put my idea into perspective, I want to take a look at two 2005 MLB prospects who had similar grades going into the draft. The first is Alfred Fincher of Connecticut, a 6-foot-2, 238-pound linebacker who posted a 4.68 40 time and was selected in the third round. The second is USC product Lofa Tatupu, a 6-foot, 238-pounder who recorded a very average 4.83 and was selected in the second round. Now, even though Fincher was considered the more athletically gifted of the two, Tatupu recorded a far better short-shuttle time of 4.21 seconds, compared to Fincher’s 4.48. The significant difference in the two times shows an advantage in terms of quickness and redirection skills in Tatupu’s game, a trait that’s far more valuable to the MLB position than the 40-yard dash.
There are other variables that go into an equation like this, but the facts are that Tatupu has been named to the Pro Bowl three times (2005, 2006, 2007) and was an All-Pro in 2007, while Fincher has bounced around pro football since being drafted. Again, there are other attributes to consider (instincts, mental alertness, scheme), but you have to figure the significant edge in change-of-direction skills that Tatupu possesses over Fincher is a main factor in explaining why one player has been successful and the other has not.
To put this into perspective, I broke down a group of underrated middle linebacker prospects in the 2010 NFL draft to give you an idea which linebackers have the ability to play faster than their overall 40 times indicate.
But first, I constructed a range of short-shuttle times used solely for the MLB position in order to put each time into context.
Great Short-Shuttle Time (4.2 seconds or less)
Barrett Ruud, Buccaneers (4.0)
Stephen Tulloch, Titans (4.18)
Good Short-Shuttle Time (4.21-4.3 seconds)
Jerod Mayo, Patriots (4.29)
Kawika Mitchell, Bills (4.24)
Average Short-Shuttle Time (4.31-4.45 seconds)
Kirk Morrison, Raiders (4.35)
D’Qwell Jackson, Browns (4.37)
Below-Average Short-Shuttle Time (4.46 seconds or more)
Curtis Lofton, Falcons (4.56)
Kendrell Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers (2001-2004) (4.5)
Now, with an eye toward the 2010 draft class, let’s take a look at a group of linebackers who might not have elite top-end speed or overall athletic ability but possesses the short-area quickness and indicate to play faster than their 40 times:
Josh Hull, Penn State (Short Shuttle: 4.07)
Hull is the perfect case of a guy who doesn’t run well as a straight-line athlete (4.9 in the 40) but has the ability to find the football inside the box, quickly redirect and close on the play. He’s never going to be someone who will win a beauty contest, but his impressive short-shuttle time is the perfect example of a prospect who has the short-area quickness to maximize his instincts and play a lot faster than any 4.5 40 time could prove.
Mike McLaughlin, Boston College (4:11)
Like Hull, McLaughlin is another example of a guy who doesn’t have ideal straight-line speed sideline to sideline, but when asked to play inside the box, he possesses the skill set to be effective at the next level. McLaughlin is your typical thickly build, blue-collar Boston College linebacker, but his impressive time in the short-shuttle proves he’s got enough lateral agility needed to redirect inside once he diagnoses the play.
Jamar Chaney, Mississippi State (4.29)
After watching tape of Chaney this past season, I came away unimpressed with his overall range and closing speed in pursuit and didn’t think he was nearly the athlete he showed at this year’s combine. However, you have to remember that Chaney missed most of the 2008 season because of a broken bone in his leg and may have gone through the early part of the season still working his way back. Either way, he showed well in Indianapolis, not only as a straight-line athlete but also as a lateral athlete and looks like he could have a chance to eventually compete for playing time at the next level, if he checks out medically.
Pat Angerer, Iowa (4.29)
I can’t say I’m surprised that Angerer posted one of the better short-shuttle times at this year’s combine because on tape he possesses impressive closing speed once he sees the football and has the ability to make plays both inside and outside the box. Now, as a run-and-hit linebacker who can shuffle his way through traffic, Angerer will be fine. But what concerns me is his overall lack of size. He has the range and change-of-directions skills to make plays in pursuit, but if you can’t hold up vs. the run inside at the next level -- which Angerer could struggle with because of his lack of ideal size -- it’s tough to stay on the field.
Overall, a prospect’s short-shuttle time is simply another tool to help scouts determine the caliber of the player they’re evaluating. It helps determine the quickness and change-of-direction skills a prospect possesses and can be a valuable resource when evaluating middle linebackers.
As I said before, there are always exceptions to the rule, and simply timing an inside linebacker’s short-shuttle does not guarantee success. But when evaluating MLBs, it’s paramount, in my opinion, to put more value on a prospect’s short-shuttle time than his 40-yard time.
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