When the annual skills competition that is the NFL Combine gets under way later this week in Indianapolis, representatives from all 32 teams will have the opportunity to poke, prod and just generally scrutinize the more than 300 prospects who are planning to participate. For owners, coaches and general managers alike, the Combine can be a valuable tool for evaluating talent and putting together their respective draft boards in advance of this spring’s draft. But falling in love with a particular guy because of the numbers on a stopwatch or the way he blocks phantom pass-rushers or catches footballs in a T-shirt and shorts is a fool’s errand.
I realize the Combine is just one piece of a larger puzzle that’s constantly being taken apart and put back together by the scouting department, but the margin for error is razor thin – exactly as thin as the number of draft picks a team has in a particular year – and missing on a pick could mean the difference between making the playoffs or watching from home in January. Or, in the case of the 2015 Steelers, whiffing in the draft in one or two key areas of need might ultimately show itself as the difference between building on its 2014 AFC North Division title next season and regressing to the doldrums of an 8-8 record (or worse).
While it’s easy to go back through the drafts piloted by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin and assemble a who’s who of has-beens and never-will-bes (I’m looking at you, Limas Sweed. Don’t try to hide over there behind Ryan McBean and Alameda Ta’amu. I can still see you.), there’s been a tendency in recent years to lean toward taking players who have posted impressive times in the 40-yard dash. Because speed kills, right? Not so fast.
In 2009, the Steelers used one of three third-round selections on Mississippi wide receiver Mike Wallace. In 2012, it was Florida running back Chris Rainey in the fifth round. And last season brought us Kent State running back Dri Archer who, like Wallace, was a third-round pick.
Within this small – not to mention completely arbitrary – sample of Steeler speedsters, Wallace is the only one to make a significant impact. Wallace may have arrived in Pittsburgh as a one-trick pony (as Tomlin described him early on in his career), but eventually he showed the ability to be more than a deep threat. He racked up catches, yards and touchdowns at an impressive rate, but a bad attitude, occasional dropped passes and a desire to hit it big in free agency led him to leave for Miami after the 2012 season. Wide receivers are a selfish lot by nature, but it seems like Wallace has yet to realize that he’s not Randy Moss, Michael Irvin or Chris Carter.
Rainey showed promise as a kickoff returner in his one full season with the Steelers, but it’s disturbing that his quick feet on the field somehow overshadowed his off-the-field problems enough for Colbert and Tomlin to spend a draft pick on him. While at Florida in 2010, Rainey was charged with felony aggravated stalking and kicked off the football team. After his rookie year with the Steelers, Rainey was cut following reports that he slapped his girlfriend. Further discipline problems cost Rainey a second chance at an NFL career after two games with the Colts in 2013. He was cut from the Cardinals’ practice squad in September 2014 when his history of domestic violence came to the forefront once again in the wake of the Ray Rice investigation and the charges levied against fellow Cardinals running back – and former Steeler – Jonathan Dwyer. Rainey averaged more than 26 yards per kickoff return for the Steelers in 2012, but touting anything he did well just makes me feel dirty. Let’s move on.
And now to the most recent of the Combine speed merchants to don the black and gold. Archer posted the fastest 40-yard dash time at the 2014 Combine, finishing with a time of 4.26. Archer struggled to even get on the field last season, let alone become a meaningful contributor on special teams or in Todd Haley’s offense. Archer is a small guy (5-8, 173 lbs.) from a small college (Kent State), and in the rare instances where he did touch the ball last season, he was often dropped by the first defender to contact him. If Archer can’t use his speed to elude would-be tacklers, I’m not sure what purpose he serves on this team going forward. I’d expect he’ll attempt to add some weight to his frame during the offseason, but will that be enough to earn him more touches for a Steelers team that’s got proven stars Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, a rock steady tight end in Heath Miller and emerging talents Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant? Possibly. If not, I hope Archer can pack his bags as fast as he runs.
So that’s it. Three players (who run really fast!) the Steelers targeted in the draft in the past six years, and none of them are currently doing anything to help the 2015 team’s quest for a championship. The NFL Combine does serve a purpose in the big picture of scouting college prospects, but how fast a guy can run while encased in the latest moisture-wicking compression gear Under Armour has to offer can’t be the deciding factor in who gets to join the Steelers come draft day.
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