It was the single trait Bill Nunn valued most in wide receivers he was scouting: speed going into and coming out of the breaks. Beyond the actual catching-of-the-football aspect, that ability to make cuts at top speed, Nunn believed, was the most accurate predictor of a college receiver being able to make a successful transition to the NFL.
Today, players with that skill are praised as good route-runners, or are said to possess good short-area quickness, and because the sport at the NFL level is played largely from sideline-to-sideline and in a 20-yard area beyond the line of scrimmage, those kinds of receivers are typically the best kinds of receivers.
As Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake pointed out, there are maybe only a few pure speed receivers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – he cited James Lofton and Randy Moss, plus there’s also Olympic gold medalist Bob Hayes – while most of the others with busts in Canton would be considered by scouts as “4.5 guys.” That list includes Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, Cris Carter, Fred Biletnikoff, Lance Alworth, Paul Warfield, and you get the idea.
That’s why when Drake faced questions about Diontae Johnson, the Toledo receiver the Steelers selected with their first pick of the third round, he dismissed concerns about the 4.53 he posted in the 40-yard dash.
“To me speed is overrated, and I’m going to say this because if you look at the greatest receivers who have played the game, those guys who are in the Hall of Fame … those guys are 4.5, 4.55 guys,” said Drake. “I had a guy in Arizona (Larry Fitzgerald) and he’s going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, and he was not a 4.4 guy, but he’s a 4.4 player. Don’t get me wrong, you like to have that guy who can run really fast and run all of the routes and make all of the plays, but it’s very rare to have that. A guy who played here, the Steelers all-time leading receiver, what did he run? I’m talking about Hines Ward. He wasn’t really fast, but he had the native ability to learn how to get open. So to me, yes, speed is overrated, but we make such a big deal about it. We want that blazer but normally that package, with that dynamic speed, very seldom do you get the total package. Most of those guys who are 4.5 guys, they are total package guys. This guy has the ability to be a total package guy.”