KJ Hamler a Mystery Man in Bears' Search for Speed

Lack of a legitimate 40 time can make NFL Draft decision by Bears on Penn State's small, speedy receiver a difficult one
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KJ Hamler is leaving a good deal to the imagination of scouts, although at this point he must.

The Bears are among the teams in need of a speed receiver and Penn State's Hamler might be someone to consider, except finding an objective measure of his speed is difficult.

Hamler didn't run at the NFL Scouting Combine due to a pulled hamstring, then the Penn State pro day was canceled. The coronavirus forced cancellation of any chance for private workouts.

NFL Network's Mike Garafolo has reported Hamler is using his speed measured by the school's sports-science staff the last two years. They had him wearing what is known as a Catapult vest, and the school gave the readings at 21.76 mph and 21.58 last season. This reportedly would have put Hamler among the top 10 fastest receivers in the NFL. The readings were taken on two plays, both big gains when he was able to run for an extended period in a straight line.

The hamstring injury came during training for the combine.

"During training, I ran 4.27 when I tweaked it," Hamler told reporters at the combine. "I was going to run in 4.2 range and I wasn’t going to accept nothing less."

The list of receivers who were going to run 4.2s in the 40 at the combine is long. Only one receiver did it this year.

Times at regular pro days are always in doubt. Video "pro days" submitted by some players  are even less objective tests. A measurement from an electronic vest taken last year and the prior year really requires a leap of faith from teams.

In actual games, Hamler showed he can be a big-impact player. He caught 56 passes for 904 yards last year with eight touchdowns.

His speed is great regardless of which kind of clock is used to measure it and what the number after the decimal point reads. 

It's good enough so he compares himself to veteran receiver DeSean Jackson, who actually did run at the combine and had an official clocking of 4.35.

"He's been the player I've been watching since I was younger," Hamler said. "I watch him, I watch Steve Smith, who played for the Carolina Panthers back in the day, so those are the two main guys I really watch."

Another player of similar size and speed to Hamler and Jackson is the receiver the Bears just cut, Taylor Gabriel. He wasn't quite as fast, recording a 4.4 on his pro day, and was 5-foot-7, 168. Jackson was 5-10, 169 on his pro day and Hamler is a bit stronger than both at 5-9, 178.

The difference between Hamler and Gabriel is Hamler really hasn't had much experience as an outside receiver. He's more of a slot receiver who makes his big plays with the ball and not by getting deep and stretching defenses. In essence, his best big plays come with the ball after someone else has stretched the defense.

"I just like short routes and taking them long," Hamler said. "That's just me. I don't necessarily like doing go routes, stuff like that. I just think actually being a technician and the route tree is the best thing."

A fit with the Bears would require being able to get downfield deep and take the top off of defenses at the "Z."

"I'm versatile," Hamler said.

To Hamler's credit, he's honest about his skills. He described a need to improve his pass-catching abilities.

"Most definitely my hands last year," he said of the area most in need of improvement. "I'm not proud of it. I dropped eight balls last year. A lot of teams know that by now. 

"That's why we were always 15 minutes early before practice. If you weren't 15 minutes early, you were doing down-ups and nobody wanted to do that. (Coaches) had us focusing on ball-focusing drills and I think, for me, it was a lack of focus, lack of concentration while catching the ball. I would always turn my head and try to get upfield before ever securing the ball. The most important thing on the field is the ball. Basically just focusing on that, focusing the ball all the way into the tuck, I've been working on that from offseason until now."

There are other speed receivers expected to be available in Round 2 or late Round 1 of the draft. Jalen Reagor of TCU is one. Arizona State's Brandon Aiyuk is another.

Both are more capable of playing the outside or "Z" receiver spot as well as going into the slot.

Whether Hamler is versatile enough to be on the outside isn't known, but his toughness hasn't been questioned by scouts. He's a little stronger than Gabriel, whose two concussion last year likely had an impact in the Bears' decision to let him go. 

And no one can question Hamler's willingness to work for success.

"That's probably the main thing," Hamler said. "Like I said, it's a grown man's sport, so basically you have to fight for another man's job."

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