Jeff Demps sprints to the NFL at the perfect time
The track nerd in me rejoiced when I saw former University of Florida two-sport star Jeff Demps settle into the blocks to run the leadoff leg for the United States’ 4 x 100-metre relay team in the semi finals at the Summer Olympics in London.
Most American sports fans probably knew him as a powerfully-built speed demon running back and kick returner for the powerhouse Gators football program, but he had dropped 15 pounds since winter, when he decided to dedicate himself to making the Olympic track and field team. And as he and his relay teammates broke a 20-year-old national record in the relay Demps looked as slim and swift as anybody on the track.
In short, he looked like a world-class sprinter.
And in January he announced that’s exactly what he intended to be for the foreseeable future.
For nearly four years Demps showed tantalizing potential in both sports, bulking up every summer to play football in the fall, then shedding weight to reclaim the footspeed that carried him to four NCAA sprint titles. Track geeks like me would watch him dust track specialists every spring and wonder just how much faster Demps could run with health and a couple years of dedicated track training.
When he blazed the opening leg in that relay — motoring away from full-time track stars like Richard Thompson — I thought I saw more than a glimpse of what Demps could accomplish now that he had decided to focus on track.
Then, less than a week after collecting his Olympic silver medal Demps signed with the New England Patriots.
It was a reversal-of-field that would make Bo Jackson proud, and I’m sure I’m not the only track nerd in the world who felt betrayed because I’m not the only one who worries about the future of U.S. men’s sprinting.
Yes, the relay team circled the track in an American record 37.04 seconds in the London final, but it’s hard to ignore that the team’s two fastest members — Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay — will soon be on the wrong side of 30. There’s no guarantee he reels off 9.8 second 100s like Gatlin and Gay have, but with Jamaica producing new medalists every year (who among us had heard of Warren Weir before this season?), the U.S. will need need people with Demps’ blend of youth and untapped potential if they hope to keep pace.
Still, I can’t argue with Demps’ choice to run full-speed toward the six-figure contract the Patriots dangled. And while the football fan in me loves the substance of Demps’ decision, the business reporter in me applauds the timing.
If we’ve learned anything from U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones’ rapid rise to stardom, it’s that revealing the right information at the right moment can transform an athlete into a one (wo)man brand overnight.
Demps read his cards and played them perfectly, announcing his intention to return to football during the one week when Olympic afterglow overlaps with NFL pre-season hype.
The U.S. men’s sprint talent pool will miss him, but Demps is one man with one body and one chances to make as much money as possible before time and injuries slow him down. And entering the NFL via free agency in August gives him a much better chance to capitalize than entering in April via the draft.
The difference isn’t Demps’ ability to play the game. He’ll have to regain some weight and scrub off some rust, but whether drafted or signed as a free agent he fits into the NFL as a game-breaking return specialist.
Instead, the difference is the precious leverage Demps gains by waiting until after the Games.
Entering the draft following a lacklustre senior season would have invited scouts to focus on Demps’ flaws:
Commitment to the sport.
Plus he’d have had to endure the indignity of running 40-yard dashes timed by hand just to answer lingering questions about his speed… because conference and national titles aren’t strong enough evidence he can fly.
If he plays it that way he’s the late round pick of team whose long-term plans may or may not include him.
But in jumping to the NFL post-London Demps cashes in on our obsession with seeing Olympic-medal sprint speed on the gridiron. He’s no longer one of several hundred prospects begging an NFL team to select him; he’s a silver medalist offering his world-class speed to the team that presents him the best opportunity.
That’s free agency, with emphasis on agency.
But now that Demps has exercised his free will, how will he perform in the NFL?
Financially, better than he would on the track.
Guys like Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay have no reason entertain the NFL rumours that swirl after every Olympic games, but they’re proven performers on the track who haul in six-figure appearance fees across Europe every summer. Demps is talented but a sprinter with his résumé isn’t promised six figures — unless it comes via an NFL contract.
On the field, it’s still tough to tell.
Best case scenario he’s the second coming of Michael Bates, who won bronze in the 200 metres at the 1992 Olympics then graduated to an NFL career that included five Pro Bowl appearances as a kick returner. And if you’ve been watching pre-season action this year it’s hard not to notice another undersized NCAA sprint champ, Trindon Holliday, terrorizing coverage teams with his shiftiness and rare speed.
Once Demps re-adjusts to football’s rhythms he’s instant intrigue and field position for the Patriots. Opponents kick it to him and risk giving up six points, or surrender real estate for security by kicking it short or out of bounds.
The football fan in me can’t wait to see how it plays out — even if the track nerd in me will spend the entire season sulking.
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