Eight weeks ago a tall football player with floppy, blond hair who looked like he could use some sleep stepped to the starting line of the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. This wasn't one of those guys who stretched and fidgeted and took a bunch of deep breaths before he ran. He got down in his stance, and boom! He was gone. The scouts at the finish line barely had time to set their watches before he took off. ¬∂ "It was funny," recalls Matt Jones, the most intriguing player in an NFL draft that is full of uncertainty. "I'm 6'6" and 242, and the scouts all asked me what time did I think I was going to run. I told them I ran a 4.41 three weeks ago, and they chuckled. I'm sure most of them thought I'd run a 4.6, maybe a 4.5. But I knew I'd have the adrenaline, and when I was running, I felt like it was the best 40 I ever ran. What better stage to do it on?"
The combine's hand timer clocked Jones at 4.37. The electronic timer showed 4.40. One scout at the finish line also got 4.40, but he figured it had to be wrong, so he turned to a counterpart from another team and asked what he had. "Four-three-eight," came the reply.
Jones, a quarterback at Arkansas, doesn't throw the ball well enough to be a top prospect at that position. He'll probably enter the league as a wide receiver, though if you talk to 10 NFL coaches and general managers, you'll get five or six different answers about where he should play. This much is clear: We haven't seen this type of player come around in a long time. "I've been preparing for drafts since the late '50s," says Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys player personnel director and now an analyst for NFL.com and Sirius NFL radio, "and there hasn't been a player this big this fast." Of the 129 players at the combine who play the speed positions--wide receiver, running back, defensive back--only seven were electronically timed at under 4.40.
So when the two-day draft begins this Saturday in New York City, one of the biggest questions will be this: Who's bold enough to use a high pick--Jones is likely to be selected sometime between the middle of the first and second rounds--on a guy who, during a four-year college career, had far more dunks playing part time for the basketball team (22) than he had catches for the football team (four)? Change-of-position projections are always difficult; ask the St. Louis Rams, who picked Heisman-winning quarterback Eric Crouch in the third round in 2002 and watched him flounder at receiver.
And what is the best position for a guy who has never blocked and rarely made a reception?
"Wide receiver," says Houston Texans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. "You see size, great speed, the fact he played basketball in the SEC. You wonder, Is this guy another Terrell Owens?"
"I think he's a safety," says Rams coach Mike Martz says. "The range, the speed, the competitiveness.... I think he'd be a very good defensive player."
"He's a Slash guy, a quarterback/receiver like Kordell Stewart was," says Carolina Panthers coach John Fox. "If someone had big brass ones, they'd suit him up as the second quarterback, give him his own package as a receiver and make him a core special teams player. Let's say you used him as the personal protector on the punt team, the up man. The defense would have no idea how to defend him. I think he'd make so many plays, but not at a single position."
"I thought at the Senior Bowl he looked like an H-back, or maybe a red-zone wide receiver because of his height," says Texans general manager Charley Casserly.
"I could see him as a situational running back, a quarterback and a receiver," says Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "With Matt you'll only be limited by how creative you can be."
You can say that again. The Jacksonville Jaguars worked him out as a punt returner. The Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions put him through tight end drills. Last Friday a delegation from the Philadelphia Eagles watched him work at quarterback and catch passes as a tight end, lined up in the slot and split wide.
The NFL loves the athleticism of a player who on 88 occasions as a collegian ran for 10 or more yards. The NFL loves the athleticism of a small forward who guarded Kentucky star Tayshaun Prince in an SEC hoops game, who in a game against Florida dunked over current Miami Heat starting forward Udonis Haslem and who had a seven-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist, zero-turnover game against Tennessee. But most of all, the NFL loves speed.
If there's one serious concern among the men deciding Jones's fate--other than the change of position--it's how he'll react to the adversity he's likely to face as he adjusts to the NFL. "My big question," says Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, "is how committed he'll be if he doesn't have success early."
Jones sighed when he heard that. "People want to look for reasons not to draft me," he says. "I know wherever I play, there's going to be an adjustment period. Look at the young basketball players making the transition from high school. Jermaine O'Neal and Kevin Garnett struggled early, but they had a dream to be the best. I have that dream too. I really believe the only way I won't succeed in the NFL is if I get hurt."
Jones is a country boy, amazed by all the attention he's getting. The son of a football coach from Fort Smith, Ark., he's perfectly willing to switch positions, which many star college quarterbacks are loath to do. "I think it's a blessing to play in the NFL," he says. "Receiver, running back, quarterback, whatever, I don't care. If they want me to play more than one spot, or offense and defense, maybe nickelback, whatever, I'm fine with it. Eric Crouch wanted to play quarterback, and he ended up not playing at all. [Pittsburgh wideouts] Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El just wanted to play, and look at the careers they've had. I just want to play."
Ward was a part-time signal-caller at Georgia, Randle El a full-time option quarterback at Indiana. At Arkansas, Jones operated out of pro-style and option sets. As a runner he often looked like a man among boys. Last season he took a snap at the Alabama six and made a play-action fake to his running back. By the time he turned around five yards behind the line, defensive end Mark Anderson was on top of him and linebacker Juwan Garth was closing fast. Jones pirouetted to his right and retreated to put some distance between him and his pursuers. Anderson dived and missed Jones at the 16, but as he headed for the goal line, Garth appeared to have the angle on him as he tightroped the sideline. Jones was too fast, though, and Garth missed on his diving tackle attempt. As Jones burst into the end zone, two more Alabama defenders bounced off each other like a pair of Keystone Kops.
Of course, teams will want more from Jones than that 4.4 speed. They'll want the kind of hands that Ward has shown in the NFL. They'll want consistency. They'll want toughness. Right now, they have no idea if Jones has those tools. But they're also scared to death that if they pass on him, he'll be a star for someone else. "In the end," says Palmer, "you have to ask yourself if you've got the courage to be wrong on a high pick. But he's so rare. Someday, I think there's a very good chance these same scouts will be asking, 'Who's the next Matt Jones?'"
The last mystery player to create such a stir was Mike Mamula, a 250-pound pass rusher from Boston College who in 1995 had a boffo combine workout. The Eagles traded a first-round pick and two second-rounders so they could take Mamula seventh in the draft. Mamula never developed into the every-down pass-rushing terror the Eagles had envisioned.
A decade later Philadelphia could be the perfect fit for another athletic freak. By virtue of smart trades in which they moved guard Jon Welbourn and quarterback A.J. Feeley in 2004, the Eagles have five picks in the first three rounds. With no glaring needs on a team that reached the Super Bowl last season and the NFC title game in the previous three years, the Eagles could ease Jones into their system.
"I understand why people wonder about me," Jones says. "I would too. I caught four passes in four years. But I say, Just watch me play football. I don't like to talk about myself, but I put up some numbers. It's not just at the combine that I did good. I'm not saying I'm the best wide receiver in the draft. But I honestly think that as a rookie, in the right system, I'll have 50 or 60 catches with 10 or 12 touchdowns."
Now, who's got the nerve to see if he's right? ‚ñ†