Teams searching for speed at CB

For the past month, Chris Gamble of Ohio State and Will Poole of Southern Cal have been behind the times. They keep running, but they can't seem to catch up to DeAngelo Hall of Virginia Tech and Dunta Robinson of South Carolina.

At stake is millions of dollars. Which is why Poole has scheduled two additional workouts -- Wednesday and Friday -- to improve horrible 40 times of 4.65 and 4.66 he ran on March 24. Gamble's plight hasn't been much better. He's tried twice and actually got worse, parlaying a 4.5 and 4.55 performance on March 12 to 4.61, 4.57 and 4.53 on April 5.

While their times haven't been good, their timing has been even worse. At the NFL annual meeting at the end of March, the league decided to make illegal contact on receivers after five yards a point of emphasis this season, meaning more flags. If a cornerback can't grab a jersey after five yards and if a cornerback can't disrupt a route with a bump after five yards, how is he going to cover all the bigger, taller receivers who are just as fast if not faster than him?

The result is that speed will be even more of an emphasis for cornerbacks than it has been in the past. The cornerback better have it.

"If you are going to play some bump-and-run coverage, you better have speed," Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. "You can't play true bump-and-run anymore if you can't run fast. That should help the receivers coming in. One of the toughest things for first-year receivers to do is get off the jam. The cornerback is not going to do that if you don't have true speed. They are probably going to have to end up playing in more Cover 2 zones."

But this class of cornerbacks isn't fast. Little did scouts know that performances at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis told the tale of the cornerback class of 2004. Hall ran a 4.37 40, Robinson a 4.34. Joey Thomas of Montana State came in with a 4.4 and established himself as a sleeper pick for the second round. Ahmad Carroll of Arkansas came in at 4.34.

Like most years, many of the other top prospects decided to run at their schools on their own turf, taking the extra month to train and try to impress scouts, coaches and general managers. So far, that strategy hasn't worked. Derrick Strait of Oklahoma ran a 4.55 and a 4.52. Poole and Gamble struggled.

As it turned out, a cornerback who wasn't even invited to the combine, Shawntae Spencer of Pitt, shot up the charts by running a 4.48 and a 4.5 and further impressed everyone with a 10.5 in the long shuttle. He's in the process of visiting 17 teams for physicals and could be a sleeper who could slip into the low first round.

Teams already are reacting. Faced with the prospects of taking Gamble with the 17th choice, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis traded down seven spots, picking up Deltha O'Neal from the Broncos along with a fourth-round choice. The Saints, initially scheduled to pick one spot lower at No. 18, faced the same questions. Do you focus your first-round cornerback need on a player who can't crack the 4.5 in the 40?

The Saints answered their question by trading a fifth-round choice for Jaguars cornerback Jason Craft and putting him in the mix to compete against Ashley Ambrose for a starting spot. Now, the Saints don't have to address their cornerback needs in the first round.

Cornerbacks, by nature, are a confident lot. Hall was that way at the scouting combine, and he has a right to be. He had no problem running in the RCA Dome, which for years has been trying to improve the artificial surface to make players feel as though they can get good times.

"You see a lot of corners who are small and can't run," the 5-10, 202 pound Hall said. "I'm just the total package. I'm a big corner, can run and (I'm) real physical, and I think that's what a lot of the scouts like."

Scouts indeed loved what they saw. Speed is speed. He could go as high as the seventh or eighth choice in the draft, but Hall established himself as the top cornerback at the combine and no one has caught up. He won't slip past the Texans with the No. 10 choice. Robinson, meanwhile, could have locked up the No. 12 spot with the Jets and could go even higher if Hall slips into the top eight.

Hall has the make-up speed that will be necessary to adjust to next season's rule emphasis on contact. He also has impressive tape to back it up. In the Big East, he went against Larry Fitzgerald of Pitt.

"I did real good, holding him to two catches for seven yards," Hall said of his game against Fitzgerald. "I didn't play the first half because I got suspended because of the Miami game. But when I came in to face him in the second half, he had two catches for 7 yards."

Hall knew that was a money game. Fitzgerald's route running was already legendary. Fitzgerald was five inches taller and 23 pounds heavier, a perfect preview of what Hall was going to face in the NFL. He knew this was a big game for him.

"I had heard the stories about how fast he was but I really wasn't expecting that kind of speed that he came off the line with," Hall said. "But as the game progressed, I was able to adjust to him and be able to play him. You just have to be patient. A lot of receivers want to dance at the line of scrimmage and you can't pick a side. You just have to be patient when they're dancing and just get your hands on them and slow them down."

The hand stuff has to go after five yards, but Hall knows and so do the scouts that he matches up against top receivers. The difference between a cornerback who is two-tenths of a second faster than the others is that the Halls and Robinsons can play the bump-and-run and press coverages because they have the extra makeup speed. If they can jam the taller receivers at the line of scrimmage and then be able to bounce back and run along side of them with the make-up speed, they will be successful.

Gamble's inability to get into the 4.4s may knock him out of the first 15. Poole, meanwhile, needs a great time to prevent himself from going into the second or third round.

What teams know is it's a tough conversion for rookie cornerbacks coming from college. Ask Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, who led the league with seven interference calls. Tillman got most of his calls in the first half of the season before he settled down and established himself as one of the better corners from last year's draft. According to Stats Inc., 21 cornerbacks surrendered five or more touchdowns last season. Three were rookies -- Sammy Davis of the Chargers, Rashean Mathis of the Jaguars and Marcus Trufant of the Seahawks.

Three rookies -- Trufant, Davis and Terence Newman of the Cowboys -- had the most passes thrown on them, according to Stats Inc. And those three corners had speed.

Members of the Competition Committee will tell you the contact emphasis against cornerbacks will only affect the extreme cases such as the physical play of the Patriots corners or the grabbing and constant contact of the Dolphins corners. But rookies are rookies. They get flagged and they get burned.

For this draft, the ones with speed have increased value. The corners lacking the closing speed will fall.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.