April 19, 2013

Everyone knows Marquise Goodwin is fast. That's never been in doubt. But still, in the weeks leading up to the NFL combine scouts, friends and family alike pestered him with a single question.

"What are you going to run at the combine?"

"I'm just trying to run faster than everyone else," the 2012 Olympian and four-time All-American at the University of Texas would answer.

It was a puzzling retort considering Goodwin's track pedigree. But as it turns out, he delivered exactly that.

It took only 4.27 seconds for Goodwin generate buzz in Indianapolis. His 40 time was the fastest of the event, and only three one-hundredths of a second slower than Chris Johnson's 2008 record.

The 4.27 run represents Goodwin's NFL meal ticket. It's the stamp that will likely vault him into the second or third round of the draft.

The 5-foot-9, 183-pound wideout, who tallied only six receiving touchdowns in four years with the Longhorns, is no longer a fringe prospect. He's a potential difference-maker on the outside whose speed can alter the course of a game at a moment's notice.

However, his pure straight-line velocity doesn't guarantee a successful NFL career. There is a long history of former track stars and fleet-footed burners -- Darrius Heyward-Bey, Yamon Figurs, etc. -- who flashed at the combine only to fizzle once they reach the NFL.

Which brings about the newest set of questions surrounding Goodwin from NFL personnel. Can he really catch? How well does he run routes? And the most popular -- and most irksome to Goodwin: Are you really committed to football?

"I don't get why people question whether I'm a football player trying to run track or a track guy trying to play football," Goodwin said. It's really embarrassing to me to even have to answer the question."

"But continue to doubt me. It's like I was told as a kid, 'If people aren't talking about you then you're not doing something right.' "

To better understand the questions surrounding Goodwin, look no further than his hometown Rowlett, Texas and the high school's football stadium, which, like many Friday night coliseums in the state, is bordered by a track. It's the place where Goodwin's two worlds have collided for more than a decade. He started running track and playing football at nine, and for the next 13 years his life has revolved around both sports. Football in the fall, track in the spring.

But no longer.

Goodwin is engaged in a full sprint toward the next phase of his life. He chose to forgo his senior season on the track to prepare for the draft this spring. His skills as a long jumper propelled him to track's pinnacle, and now he will utilize those same athletic gifts to fulfill his NFL dream.

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It's a long road ahead of him, however. Goodwin's 40-time and impressive pre-draft showing has lifted him into the second day discussion, but it will take nothing short of brilliance on the field to overcome the negative stigma many failed speedsters before him have fostered.

Twelve athletes have run a 4.3 40 split or better since the combine instituted electronic timing in 2000, with each blistering pace altering the individual's draft forecast significantly. On average, the 12 players were selected 60th overall. But despite the lofty expectations that come with their speed, the group has combined for only five Pro Bowl appearances between three players -- Johnson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Jerome Mathis (as a kick returner). The other nine (Jacoby Ford, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Stanford Routt, Trindon Holliday, Fabian Washington, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Yamon Figurs, Darrent Williams and Tye Hill) have found only marginal NFL success, clinging to the back end of rosters, often as return specialists.

Nick Winkelman has trained players for the rigors of the NFL combine the past seven years as a coach at Athlete's Performance, specifically focusing on speed development. He's worked with Robert Griffin III, Julio Jones and A.J. Green; in other words, he knows special speed when he sees it. At Athlete's Performance, he runs a six-week program specifically designed to reduce a player's 40 time. But even Winkelman's quick to concede outstanding straight-line velocity alone doesn't mean much.

"The 40 has low correlation to change of direction," Winkelman said. "If you don't have a guy who knows how to stop in space, his speed is useless."

Winkelman often observes this disconnect in former track athletes and workout stars who do nothing more than masquerade as front-line prospects. Most of the time they lack the ability to stop in space, which is paramount for precise route running, as it allows corners to jump routes essentially negating any separation a player's burst may have created.

"That's why so many guys, who are vertical guys, are not all down wide receivers," Winkelman said. "They can't actually play the position."

Examples of this are sprinkled across the NFL as cautionary tales. Speedy wideouts are often cast to the bottom of depth charts because of an inability to reel in the ball or run proper routes. This is evident when examining the career arc of the fastest receiver at the combine over the past 10 years. Outside DeSean Jackson, whose 4.35 40 time was fastest among receivers in 2008, the group has combined for 4,170 career receiving yards, a number 43 active NFL players have surpassed.

The group is a who's who of NFL washouts. Only one other player, Heyward-Bey, has reeled in over 1,000 yards for their career and only four of the ten remain in the league. The six receivers drafted from 2002-2007 -- Aaron Lockett (2002), Tyrone Calico (2003), Carlos Francis (2004), Jerome Mathis (2005), Chad Jackson (2006) and Figurs (2007) -- combined for only 855 receiving yards over 15 seasons.

Goodwin is the next in line for this list, leading to the question: Will he continue to bear a standard of mediocrity like Figurs, or be more like Jackson, the two-time Pro Bowler?

If statistics were the only determinant, Goodwin projects to shade toward the former. In his four seasons in Austin, Goodwin had 120 receptions for 1,364 yards, coming mostly on deep routes across the field or bubble screens to the outside. To put that in perspective, Tavon Austin, the second-fastest wideout at the combine and the likely first receiver off the board, caught 114 balls for 1,289 yards in 2012 alone. Austin and Goodwin have similar builds and explosiveness, but it's these statistics that separate them as prospects in the eyes of NFL personnel.

However, the Olympian attributes the huge numbers gap to one thing. Opportunity.

"If I had 1,000 yards or even three extra touchdowns nobody would even question if I was a football player," Goodwin said. "If I got as many balls as Tavon Austin no one would even question if Marquise Goodwin is a top pick in the draft."

It's impossible to tell exactly why a 9-4 team couldn't find a way to utilize Goodwin, but there was a clear disconnect between him and former Longhorn's offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. As it happens, Goodwin's best game of the year, the Valero Alamo Bowl, came under the direction of newly appointed OC Major Applewhite. In the win over Oregon State, Goodwin busted out for a 64-yard touchdown run and added five catches for 68 yards, including a 36-yard game-winning grab.

On the play Goodwin lined up on the right side, streaked 20 yards downfield and then slowed to make a break to the inside. But then, in an instant, Goodwin accelerated toward the goal line, blowing past the corner with a double move, and seconds later made a graceful over-the-shoulder catch in the right corner of the end zone.

It's the type of play Goodwin's elite athleticism enables. But since it's one of only a few on a short highlight reel, the questions about his ability to play the position persist.

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Still, the most pressing question, and most important to teams, is about Goodwin's commitment to the game. He would have a comfortable career as a track star if he chose that path, free of the rigors and catastrophic injury risk that come with football.

It's the same decision Jeff Demps, former Florida dual-sport star and current Patriots running back, faced this offseason. Demps won a silver medal in London as a part of the 4X100 relay team, and is perhaps the only real recent comparison to Goodwin in terms of ability on the track and gridiron. And it seems Demps will be taking that skillset back to the track.

"If you would have asked me growing up, would I had turned down football stuff to run track, I would have looked at you like you had 10 heads," Demps said. "But I love it, I have so much passion for it, and it's just something I want to do."

But that's where Goodwin and Demps differ. Goodwin is still the same kid who played both quarterback and wide receiver in backyard Super Bowls, lofting the ball up to the North Texas sky and catching it seconds later with the announcer in the background, also Goodwin, screaming "And they have won the Super Bowl!"

He adores track, but it has never had the same allure as football. He wants his moments to last 60 minutes, not just the seconds it takes to spring off the board. And that's what he's desperate for teams to understand.

"I am a football player," Goodwin said. "I don't need track. If everything works out as I planned I won't ever need to run track again."

He's sure to attack the game in quick bursts. But until he shakes the ghosts of workout warriors past, the questions will always lurk close behind.

BANKS: Mock Draft 6.0 | BURKE: Big Board 5.0

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