The 40-Yard Dash is widely considered the most important drill at the NFL Combine. Many believe that running a blazing-fast 40 makes an athlete more likely to be selected early in the Draft, secure a more lucrative contract and, presumably, go on to a successful career. But an analysis of the top performers in the 40 in recent years reveals this is not true.
In short, the data shows that speed looks cool at the Combine, and it may even win you a contract with adidas. But it isn't a reliable indicator of an athlete's NFL potential.
STACK examined the fastest overall 40 time in each of the 10 position groups tracked at the Combine—quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks and special teams players. We used the data available at NFL.com, which has recorded top Combine performances for the past nine years, dating back to 2006. That gave us a total of 85 athletes who ran the fastest times in their position group during a given year (nine years multiplied by 10 position groups, minus five instances where no athlete tested for a specific position in a certain year.)
The data show that although running a fast 40 appears to give players a strong chance of being drafted, it in no way guarantees NFL success. Of the 85 fastest athletes, only seven went undrafted, but only 54 remain in the league today.
Speed seems to offer the biggest draft boost to receivers, offensive linemen and defensive linemen. At each of these positions, the player who ran the fastest 40 at the Combine went on to be drafted, making them the only positions where the speediest guys have a 100-percent placement rate.
Of the three, the speediest defensive linemen appear to excite coaches and GMs the most. Of the nine group-leading defensive linemen drafted since 2006, four were selected in the first round, the most first-round draftees of any position group. (Tight ends come in second place, with three first-rounders.) One of those D-linemen, Jadeveon Clowney, was the first overall pick in the 2014 Draft.
Unfortunately, those big defenders also seem to have short careers. Of the nine drafted D-linemen, only two (Manny Lawson and Lawrence Sidbury Jr.) have had careers lasting longer than three years. To be fair, each of the fast defenders selected in the past three years—Seattle's Bruce Irvin, Washington's Trevardo Williams and Houston's Clowney—remain in the league. However, Clowney is already battling the injury bug.
Offensive linemen, by comparison, appear to be a steal. Only one of the nine group-leading O-linemen was a first-round draft pack (Taylor Lewan, selected by the Tennessee Titans last year), but nearly all of them were starters or received a significant amount of playing time. Most (seven of nine) remain on NFL rosters today.
The position where top Combine speed matters least seems to be linebacker. Five of the nine fastest linebackers are no longer in the league; 40 time seems less of factor for the position. The only first rounder among the group, Aaron Curry, who ran a 4.56 in 2009, was drafted by Seattle and later traded and eventually waived.
The fastest 40 time ever recorded at the Combine was run by New York Jets running back Chris Johnson, who covered the distance in 4.24 seconds in 2008. A small-school product (East Carolina), Johnson is thought to have earned himself a spot in the first round with that run, and he has been a productive back throughout his seven-year career, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and running for more than 2,000 yards in 2009. But the only other group-leading running back with a notable NFL career is Maurice Jones-Drew.
Speed also doesn't appear to be a huge concern when evaluating quarterbacks. Reggie McNeal ran the 40 in 4.35 seconds—the fastest among all quarterbacks since 2006. He was drafted by Cincinnati in the sixth round, but never played a snap in the NFL. Several of the greats who are still in the game—guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Tony Romo—all ran 40s closer to the five-second mark (recording 5.28, 4.8, and 5.01, respectively).
Often, the player who records the fastest 40 time in his group at the Combine goes on to be eclipsed by a slower (but perhaps more skilled or more determined) player. In 2006, Chad Jackson of the University of Florida boasted the best time among wide receivers with a 4.32. He was taken in the second round by the New England Patriots. The same year, Miles Austin ran a 4.47 and went undrafted, but later signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Austin became a two-time Pro-Bowler, while Jackson lasted only three seasons with limited play.
Similarly, in 2011, Dontay Moch of Nevada finished nearly a half-second ahead of J.J. Watt in the 40 (Moch ran a 4.44 to Watt's 4.81). But Watt is arguably the best defensive player in the game today, and many believe he should have been named league MVP last season.
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