Since the NFL has decreed that, coronavirus or no coronavirus, the annual draft of college players must go on in April, it is both interesting and instructional to look at the predraft experiences of the top two playmakers for the University of Wisconsin last season.

Call it a tale of two 40s.

When running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Quintez Cephus ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine at Indianapolis in February, both caught the attention of NFL scouts, Taylor in a positive way after his time was the fastest among the 28 backs, Cephus in a negative way after he was the slowest of the 45 receivers who ran that day.

The blazing 4.39-second 40 Taylor turned in surprised scouts, who knew he was fast but didn’t think he was that fast, especially after he weighed in at 226 pounds. The plodding 4.73 run by Cephus was also eye-opening for scouts, who didn’t think he was a blazer but expected him to run somewhere in the 4.5s. Cephus redeemed himself somewhat by running 4.56 at UW’s pro day at the McClain Center two weeks later, but NFL scouts live in their own world, a world where a slow 40 time is not easily forgotten.

Predictably, Taylor’s draft stock jumped when he broke 4.40, which is the magic number for backs. After three seasons of production unmatched in college history, Taylor left UW a year early — as he should have — and began the draft process as the presumed No. 1 back on the board and a likely first-round pick.

Problem is, the scouts are paid to nit-pick prospects and they kept wondering aloud whether Taylor’s heavy workload in college left too little tread on his tires or whether he would be dynamic enough as a pass receiver in the NFL since he wasn’t asked do much of that at UW until his final year. By the combine, Taylor had fallen behind Georgia’s D’Andre Smith and Ohio State’s JK Dobbins on many draft boards, largely because they were viewed as better fits for the modern offense in which backs are a big part of the passing game.

One or both of those backs might still be chosen ahead of Taylor, but his combination of speed and size caused scouts to change their thinking on whether he can be an every-down back who can carry the load, making it more likely that some team will draft him in the first round, where the big money is. Taylor had run away from defenders in the open field throughout his UW career, but seeing is believing for scouts and they became believers following his breath-taking 40 at the combine.

“I heard there was doubt,” Taylor said at pro day. “But every time you watch Wisconsin football, they talk about my track background and things like that, so I didn’t know how that kind of contrast happened. But I was happy with the time.”

Still, you never know what can happen to a player in the pressurized atmosphere at Indianapolis.

“I went (4.37) two weeks before at training, so you think about, ‘OK, either adrenaline’s going to kick in and you’re going to go faster, or you’re going to be right around that time,’” Taylor said. “It was within that range that I figured I’d be in.”

Cephus’ decision to leave school a year early was more surprising, especially given the large number of high-quality wide receivers in this year’s draft and the fact that he’d missed the 2018 season while dealing with legal issues. But his impressive size, strength and catch radius started showing up late in the 2019 season and he continually came up with contested deep balls, something NFL scouts — and quarterbacks — love to see.

Cephus wasn’t ranked among the top 20 receivers entering the combine and was seen as a fourth-round pick at best. He still would have been drafted in the late rounds because he was so impressive in pass-catching drills and during tests measuring strength, agility and explosiveness at the combine, but his bloated 40 time meant scouts would have had to look long and hard at the game film in order to go to bat for him in the draft room.

As luck would have it, UW’s pro day was early enough that it wasn’t canceled by the coronavirus outbreak, which gave Cephus a second chance. To his credit, he capitalized on it.

“I just knew I could run way better than I ran in Indy,” he said. “I didn’t know what the time was going to be. It was great coming out here and running, running better.”

The way Cephus explained it, two things helped him show his true speed: Getting his emotions under control and refining his technique, particularly staying low at the start.

“I had a couple more weeks to train again,” he said. “I felt like I picked up some things to help me. My emotions are a little bit better out here and I was able to run a great time today.”

Well, maybe not a great time, but certainly a good enough time given his many other physical attributes. For reference, Green Bay Packers Pro Bowler Davante Adams also ran a 4.56 for scouts.

“I’m a lot faster than (4.73),” Cephus said. “My film, the football part of it, they know I can play football. My film is what really speaks for itself. I was going to come out here today and run a better time and I did that.”

With so many tall, fast wide receivers in the draft, Cephus will have a hard time getting picked on the first two days. But he had to know when he entered the draft that he wouldn’t be able to make big money until his second contract. His performance at pro day likely put him back in the fourth- or fifth-round range, which ultimately will give him every opportunity to earn a second contract.


Here’s how NFL draft analysts see ex-Badgers’ prospects

Contact Tom Oates

at toates@madison.com.

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