How Dri Archer broke science

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Each year we’re smacked in the face repeatedly by a whole lot of numbers from the annual Scouting Combine. As I’ve reminded you almost daily, some of them matter, and most of them don’t. If you’d like to locate the former, look at the periphery of a position group.

But with still one day remaining as defensive backs take the field today, we already have this year’s number that will jettison your mind from its usual resting place. Thanks for that, Dri Archer.

Ultimately, a really fast guy is a really fast guy, and the style with which he approaches his running usually matters little. But Archer is the exception, because I still can’t really fathom how he tied Calvin Johnson’s record for the fewest strides taken in the 40-yard dash. And I mean that genuinely, so please help.

Archer broke science. The near record-setting 4.26 time posted by Archer gave Chris Johnson the shivers, as the Titans running back narrowly retained possession of his Combine best 4.24 set in 2008. But a day later we learned Archer did something far more remarkable by matching the other Johnson’s record. This is the part when I remind you that when standing at a full upright position Archer is 5’8″ and weighs 173 pounds, while Megatron checks in at 6’5″ and 236 pounds. Basically, that means Archer must be doing the running long jump with each step.

Or at least that’s the assumption logical-minded folk would initially make. Then you go and watch Archer’s best 40 time again, and quickly you discover that counting his strides to dispute any claims of matching Johnson is not an easy endeavor.

Go ahead and try. I did about eight times, and didn’t once get anything more than 18. In fact, I often arrived at a number below that in my own eyeballing, unscientific test, which remains difficult to comprehend. Even if we forget the weight difference which clearly allows Archer to move faster than Johnson, he’s nine inches shorter. By comparison when we put the two side-by-side that should result in Archer having a much shorter and choppier stride. Nope.

Predictably there we see a longer stride, with Johnson using his natural length to cover distance at a quicker rate. Archer, meanwhile, seems to generate the same result by staying low and crouched, but there’s nothing forced or unnatural about his approach. Whereas Johnson uses his long legs as his own unique tool, Archer’s are just along for the ride.

A few years back Sports Science did their Sports Science thing with Johnson, noting that his 4.35 time is only 2.5 percent slower than Chris Johnson’s all-time Combine record, even though Don Mega is 45 pounds heavier. Johnson is a remarkably unique specimen, but similar to the gazelle-like Colin Kaepernick, the main speed asset he has is his length and how he uses it to become a down-field threat. Somehow, Archer matched that.

Natural speed is a commodity general managers lust after with great delight every spring, especially now with the rise of the passing game and consequently the need for a running back who can create after the catch. That’s what has made Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead such dangerous threats, and now Archer can become a similar backfield presence on passing downs. His best year at Kent State came in 2012 when he finished with 1,990 total yards, 561 of which came through the air.

But now despite his speed, he’ll still likely be a mid-round pick while battling an all-too familiar foe: bone breaking. Archer struggled through injuries during his senior season, and combined with the presumed lack of durability because of his size that’s led to a fall in his draft grade.

That will matter little, though, because all the running backs will be bunched together in a muddled middle. This will likely be the second straight year with no player at the position selected in the first round, which speaks partly to the talent level of this group, and partly to a league trend. Archer then has a chance to become this year’s Andre Ellington, who waited until the sixth round to hear his name last April due to concerns about his size (he’s 5’9″), and now after 1,023 total yards in a limited role during his rookie season he’s set to see his touches increase.

If he can conquer the demon that is health, Archer could be an Ellington, or maybe something closer to a Woodhead if a team wants to use him that way with his ability to move around the formation and line up in the slot, and right now that seems like the much wiser direction given his injury history. He won’t be any every-down back, or at least not initially. But he can be preserved while making a valuable contribution.

As Tavon Austin showed us last year with his quick acceleration up draft boards after a very different acceleration at the Combine, there will always be a premium placed on raw, natural speed.¬†Archer has that, and he has it in a way that’s difficult for the human mind to understand.