Today marks the start of a hopeful rise or fearful plunge in National Football League draft stock for more than 300 former amateur athletes.
A pair of former Mississippi State Bulldogs have some work to do if they want to become the program”s first draft picks since 2007.
That year, defensive tackle Antonio Johnson was a fifth-round pick of the Tennessee Titans. He was the only Bulldog selected that year, but the Greenville native started for the Indianapolis Colts in this year”s Super Bowl.
In 2006, the Atlanta Falcons selected Jerious Norwood in the third round. Norwood was the only Bulldog selected.
Two draft picks in four years mirrors MSU”s production on the field and win total in that span (one bowl appearance, one winning season). Coincidentally, this year”s NFL Combine invitees from MSU, linebacker Jamar Chaney and running back Anthony Dixon, were on the ”06 team with Johnson. Chaney was a freshman when Norwood was a senior.
They”ve also seen fellow All-Southeastern Conference performers Quinton Culberson and Derek Pegues go undrafted.
The gamut of drills, interviews, measurements, and evaluations Chaney and Dixon will face is one of the most interesting and detailed job-screening processes in the professional world. With teams investing around $100 million in payroll each year, there”s a premium on making wise selections.
Inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind., there”ll be a race to determine who”s the best at their position, and, ultimately, who”ll become the highest earner once it”s time to sign rookie deals. It”s simple: The higher you”re drafted, the more money you”ll make on your rookie deal.
So it”s no surprise Chaney has his sights set on being tops in the most coveted and scrutinized drill at the combine: The 40-yard dash.
Low times can vault an unheralded player to first-round status, while slow times can send a college All-American or an all-league player to the later rounds. Speed is an equalizer and a finisher at all levels, and after playing in the SEC, Chaney knows the value of a good pair of wheels.
“I really want to be the fastest linebacker there,” Chaney said. “I want to wow people. I”m just looking to be the fastest I can.”
Chaney prepared for this year”s combine, which will run from today to Tuesday, in Miami with trainer Pete Bommarito. Eli Manning and Maurice Jones-Drew are just two of the players who have trained with Bommarito to prepare for the Combine, and Chaney believes he”s improved his skills under the tutelage of one of America”s top coaches.
The specialty in Miami is speed, and Chaney said everything about the way he runs has been analyzed and tweaked to run a better 40 than he would have before he came to Miami.
“I already knew I was fast, but the running is the most important thing for me down here and I think I improved on that,” Chaney said. “We watch video on all the running and stuff you did, go over the stuff you messed up on, and take that information back to training. (Bommarito) has a good way of teaching the start, the whole 40, and the whole running form. He”ll let you run how you run at first to get your time. My start changed, and I had to do it his way to get better.”
Chaney wouldn”t reveal his 40 time, though NFL team officials and NFL Network viewers will find out Monday when linebackers work out. Most linebackers are looking to run in the high-4.5 second or low-4.6 range, says Chris Steuber, NFL draft analyst for Scout.com and Fox Sports.
Short-area quickness and initial burst measured in the first 20 yards is an often less-publicized time at the combine, though it can have just as great an impact on a team”s decision to draft a player, Steuber said.
“I think it just solidifies a prospect,” Steuber said. “Teams want to see how fast you are, especially as a linebacker. If you are a 6-1, 235-pound linebacker running a 4.7, they”re not going to be too happy. That 10th of a second means a lot when you start thinking about where to take a player and how he”ll translate to the NFL.
“The initial 10 and 20 yards in that 40 really count, especially for a middle linebacker like Jamar.”
Steuber projects Chaney, who was named Senior Bowl Defensive MVP after making eight tackles recovering a fumble, to go in the third or fourth round.
With less of a value placed on true middle linebackers, Steuber said Chaney”s experience playing outside earlier in his career could help him play on the strong side or as a 3-4 middle backer.
“If he could get in a system with a really good nose tackle and another linebacker to play off of, that would help him with not taking on a lot of blocks,” Steuber said of Chaney”s fit in a 3-4. “If he has to play the strong side (in a 4-3) — I don”t think he”s a weak side — he”ll have some coverage responsibilities. I think he can play multiple spots in the NFL.”
In Miami, Chaney”s days began with a 6:30 a.m. start, which meant fueling up with vitamin-packed shakes and breakfast before going through a variety of stretches and medical evaluations to “make sure your nervous system is hitting on the right notes.”
He then went to the field for agility training specific to the combine and linebacker drills, which include the three-cone, shuttle, vertical jump, and back-pedal drills.
After the field, Chaney and more than 30 other draft hopefuls hit the pool before lunch, weights, and video of “all the stuff you messed up on.”
The training was intense, which has differed greatly from his preseason preparations as a college athlete, Chaney said.
“So much is different because preparing for a full season — the stretches, the warmups, the weights — and preparing for the combine are totally different,” Chaney said. “In college, you”re training your body to hold up and perform for a season. Now, we”re training for specific events.”
Chaney had 90 tackles, two interceptions, and a pair of sacks as a senior in his return from a broken ankle he suffered in the 2008 season opener at Louisiana Tech.
Dixon, is projected as a third- to fourth-round pick after setting school records in career rushing yards (3,994) and single-season yards (1,391). Steuber said Dixon”s work rate (910 carries) and hit-first running style could be a red-flag, but his productivity and lack of injuries should trump those concerns.
Aside from improving his blocking and showing more as a receiver, Steuber said Dixon can improve his stock with a solid 40 time.
“Straight-line quickness and how quick he is as a cutter will ultimately determine if he gets into that top four mix of backs, or if he”s top seven or eight,” Steuber said of Dixon. “It”s crucial for a bigger back like Anthony. If he can run a low-4.5, that”ll help him a lot. He”s got a lot of tools as a runner and a history working the West Coast offense before this year, but he”s one of those guys who”ll have eyes on him once the running backs run the 40.”
The NFL Network will broadcast player workouts from Thursday to Tuesday.