One of the biggest misconceptions that emerges from the NFL Combine each year is the importance of 40-yard dash times. The 40 is the considered the glamour event of the combine, and every year NFL executives, scouts, draftniks and fans (including me) get carried away by some of the mind-boggling times. This often puts too much value on a player’s straight-line speed, more so than on his pure football talent.

Am I saying that the workouts at the combine aren’t important? No, but some of the workouts need/should be evaluated from a more football-related standpoint.

One of the most important and consistently overlooked measurements at the combine is the first 10 yards of the 40, known as the 10-yard split. This is simply a measurement to see how fast a prospect can cover the first 10 yards of their 40. It’s great to see how fast someone can run 40 yards, but how often in an NFL game are players required to cover that distance on one play? A more reasonable measurement, and a better indicator of “football speed,” is 10 yards.

A 10-yard split not only measures the short-area burst of an NFL prospect and but also allows evaluators to determine if the prospect is a two-stepper (a player who can get up to full speed in two steps) or a strider (a player who needs to hit full stride to reach his top speed). Since football players as a whole are consistently forced to quickly explode in and out of their breaks throughout the game and change directions, short-area explosion (typically within 10 yards) is a pivotal reflection of a player’s overall “football speed.”

The 10-yard split is a vital time gauge for every position in the NFL, but it’s arguably more important for edge pass rushers than at any other spot. Pure pass rushing specialists who rely on their first step to gain an advantage on offensive tackles need to display explosive first-step quickness out of the stance. So the timing of a pass rusher’s 10-yard split is an excellent indicator of how quickly he can explode off the ball and cover the ground needed to get after the quarterback. To put this into perspective, I broke down some of this year’s top hybrid defensive end/outside linebackers to give you an idea which prospects’ 10-yard split times are NFL-worthy and which prospects’ fast 40 times are simply a mirage.

I constructed a range of times from past drafts using only the DE/OLB position. Note: NFL Combine times as a whole have gone down dramatically each of the past couple of years, so the most times that are being used are only from the past five years.

A “Great” 10-Yard Split Time (1.55 seconds and under)

Cliff Avril, Lions: 1.50 (2008)
Chris Long, Rams: 1.53 (2008)

A “Good” 10-Yard Split Time (1.56-1.59)

Gaines Adams, Buccaneers: 1.58 (2007)
Derrick Harvey, Jaguars: 1.59 (2008)

An “Average” 10-Yard Split Time (1.60-1.62)

Kamerion Wimbley, Raiders: 1.60 (2006)
Bruce Davis, Patriots: 1.62 (2008)

A “Below Average” 10-Yard Split Times (1.63-1.69)

Charles Johnson, Panthers: 1.63 (2007)
Anthony Spencer, Cowboys: 1.64 (2007)

With an eye toward the 2010 draft class, let’s break down the nation’s top pass rushing DE/OLB hybrids according to their 10-yard split times and assess what each time means in terms of their NFL potential.

Jason Worilds, Virginia Tech (6-1¼, 254) (10-yard split: 1.58 seconds)

For a guy who relies on his initial get-off and first step as much as Worilds, it’s no surprise that he leads this group of pass rushing prospects with the combine’s top 10-yard split. Worilds has the uncanny ability to not only uncoil cleanly out of his stance and explode off the ball, he also has very little wasted motion off the line, which enables him to maximize his first step. He’s a guy who has the ability to consistently threaten the edge at the next level because of his first step, and his impressive 10-yard split time is a direct indicator of that.

Jerry Hughes, TCU (6-1¾, 255) (1.59 seconds)

Not only does Hughes have the type of initial burst out of his stance to reach the corner, but combine that with his lateral quickness and body control when flattening out around the edge and you have one of, if not the most well-rounded pass rusher in this year’s draft. Hughes can win his one-on-one battles with pure explosion and consistently gets on top of offensive tackles quickly, which is directly indicative of his 10-yard split. But what makes him so tough to block on the edge is his ability to counter off his speed rush, cleanly change directions and consistently keep opposing linemen on their heels and guessing on his pass rush.

Ricky Sapp, Clemson (6-3 7/8, 252) (1.59 seconds)

As I’ve said before and will say again, it’s never been a question of physical ability for Sapp, who when healthy is good enough to be among the elite in this year’s draft class. He’s long, explosive, can rush off the edge and has the type of power and body control to consistently beat blocks on contact. His impressive get-off burst for his size gives him the ability to routinely gain the initial advantage off the snap. The only question I have: Can his knee hold up long enough for him to develop into an impact-caliber rusher in the NFL?

Brandon Graham, Michigan (6-1 3/8, 268) (1.61 seconds)

You can see on tape when watching Graham that he isn’t the most explosive pass rusher out of his stance and he isn’t a guy who will simply fly around the corner untouched at the next level. So the idea that he isn’t one of the top 10-yard split guys isn’t a real concern to me. So much of Graham’s game relies on his lateral quickness, leverage and power. He does as good a job defeating blocks on contact as any pass rusher in the country, showcasing the ability to routinely fight his way through linemen once he gains a step. In terms of the NFL, I think Graham’s first step is good enough to keep opposing tackles honest, but he’s going to win most of his battles off the edge because of his suddenness and ability to slip blocks at the point, more so than his pure get-off speed.

Sergio Kindle, Texas (6-2 7/8, 250) (1.65 seconds)

Kindle is the one guy in this group I really worry about at the next level. There’s no denying he’s a powerful athlete who has the range and speed to track the football once he gets going. However, every time I watch him on tape I always come away thinking he isn’t the most balanced of athletes when asked to change directions and is someone who needs to win with his first step in the NFL. After seeing his unimpressive 10-yard split time, where some scouts had him as high as 1.70 seconds, I’m starting to wonder if he can consistently win with his first step off the edge or if he’s just a guy who will be able to make plays in pursuit.

Summing up

Overall, the 10-yard split is another tool used to help talent evaluators determine the caliber of a prospect they’re critiquing. I would not consider the 10-yard split to be the end all of evaluations for pass rushers because there are always exceptions and other variables that go into the scouting process. However, what I’m saying is that when scouting pass rushers, it’s critical to put more weight on a prospect’s 10-yard split than his more attractive 40-yard time.

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