MINNEAPOLIS -- Rick Spielman was cut by the San Diego Chargers in the fall of 1987 just as his younger brother Chris was beginning his senior season at Ohio State. The Buckeyes linebacker entered the 1988 draft with plenty of interest from NFL teams, despite the fact he stood just six feet tall, and when scouts came to watch the younger Spielman work out, his older brother would seize the opportunity.
"When teams used to come and work him out, on his pro day, I would run," said Rick Spielman, who was a linebacker at Southern Illinois. "I'd run [the 40-yard dash] two-tenths faster than him, and I'd jump the vertical jump. We were doing a broad jump, and Hank Bullough and Dick Jauron came in and worked us out. You had to try to cover 10 yards in three jumps, like a broad jump. Chris got out there, and he went to like, eight-and-a-half, nine yards. So I'm at seven-and-a-half on my second jump, and I thought, 'Oh, I'm going to beat him again -- three times in a row.' And sure enough, I was in midair, and he came from the side and just clocked me. Just clotheslined me. He said, 'This is enough of this. Let's play football.'"
The Detroit Lions drafted Chris in the second round, and he made four Pro Bowls in a 12-year career. Rick was invited to Lions camp in 1988, but got cut and began his scouting career in 1990. Who better than his little brother to teach the young evaluator that the 40 had its limitations?
"It comes down to football speed," Rick Spielman said. "If you want to go out and just get all 4.3 guys or 4.2 guys, we'll go out and start scouting the Olympic track team. They have to know how to play the game."
For all of his scrupulous data collection, during which the Minnesota Vikings general manager ranks prospects on a scale that goes to the fourth decimal point, Spielman seems to know that not everything about a player is quantifiable. His 2016 draft, perhaps more than any other since he became the Vikings' GM in 2012, features players whose endearing qualities had to come from somewhere other than the combine. The Vikings' first-round pick is a steely, savvy receiver whose best 40 times barely surpassed 4.6 seconds. Their second-rounder is a 5-foot-10 corner who became one of the nation's top cover men, and their fifth-rounder is a tackling machine who stands six feet tall.
The Vikings' draft class of 2016 has its share of workout stars, too; German receiver Moritz Boehringer has a rare combination of size and speed, and Vanderbilt's Stephen Weatherly follows Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr in the Vikings' line of lean, agile pass-rushers. And in some cases, the Vikings used more nuanced tests, such as flying 20s, to measure a player's top gear more than they relied on the 40 time.
But in many cases, the Vikings took a shine to their draft picks because of film, not workouts.
"I know there were a lot of guys that ran fast and didn't play very well, too," Spielman said when discussing first-round pick Laquon Treadwell. "That's why you always come back; you can have all the analytics and all the times, but it comes back to, what do you see on tape as a football player? I think we felt very strongly about him as a football player."
It's reasonable to think Treadwell might not have been available to the Vikings had he run a faster 40 time, and the Vikings believe he'll get faster as he continues to recover from the broken leg and dislocated ankle he suffered in 2014. But they ultimately were drawn to Treadwell for qualities beyond his straight-line speed: his understanding of route-running, his ability to box out defenders and his tenacity as a run-blocker among them.
Had the 40 been the ultimate judge for Chris Spielman, his career might never have reached the heights it ultimately did. And as Rick Spielman builds his team, he's out to gain a more complete understanding of a player's speed than just one test might show.
"You do put an emphasis on speed, but if they play fast, then you are going to say that this guy plays a lot faster than that speed," Spielman said. "At the same time, I see guys that go to the combine that run 4.35 or 4.4 40-yard dash times, and I estimate that guy is going to play at 4.65 or 4.7 speed by how he plays. A lot of these guys know how to play. They play at a high level and they play to a higher speed than they probably time."