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Smith: The 40-yard dash is overrated

| Thursday, April 8, 2021

The NFL is obsessed with speed. The 40-yard dash is the main event every year at the NFL Combine and at pro days, with fans, scouts, and players drooling over prospects who run between 4.2 and 4.4 seconds. Social media blows up over the potential emergence of the next Tyreek Hill or Chris Johnson, two speedsters that took over the league at wide receiver and running back, respectively. 

However, do these times even matter? Does having a fast 40-yard dash time actually translate to success in the NFL? These questions have come up recently as prospects prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Due to COVID-19, the annual NFL Combine was canceled. Therefore, prospects have only been able to show off their athletic abilities at their pro days. Prospects have been posting remarkable 40-yard dash times, and many current NFL players have questioned how accurate these times are.

Denver Broncos tight end Noah Fant tweeted that he should have declared for the draft this year so that his time would have been faster. Broncos teammate and defensive back Essang Bassey also joked about the times on Twitter, posting a GIF of Oprah handing out fast 40-yard dash times. An article from FiveThirtyEight determined that 87.6 percent of prospects post faster times at their pro days than at the NFL Combine, so we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on how fast prospects are running this year. Nevertheless, should we even care about these times in a normal year?

The answer seems to be no. In the same article, FiveThirtyEight plotted 40-yard dash times and career receiving yards per route for wide receivers and concluded that “higher speed isn’t associated with higher on-field production.” Considering how players use their speed in the NFL, this conclusion makes sense. 

Players are not running in straight lines every single play. Wide receivers and running backs are constantly cutting, shifting, and juking to create separation from their defenders, and linebackers and defensive backs mimic these movements to keep up with them. They are constantly moving in multiple directions, not just one. Wide receivers are the most valuable if they can combine their precise route-running with their speed, but this is much different than straight-line speed.

Looking at the 40-yard dash times for statistical leaders from the 2020 NFL season also seems to support that these times do not directly lead to success in the league. Of the top ten leaders in rushing yards, none posted a time that was faster than 4.41 seconds at the NFL Combine. Lamar Jackson, the league’s ninth-leading rusher, claimed that he ran a 4.34, but that time has not been confirmed. 

Of the top ten leaders in receiving yards, only two ran faster than 4.40 seconds with Tyreek Hill at 4.29 seconds and D.K. Metcalf at 4.33 seconds. Hill’s time comes from his pro day rather than the NFL Combine, but I think it’s safe to say that his time is probably accurate based on how he burns past defensive backs on a weekly basis. Hill and Metcalf are both athletic freaks, and they should be considered outliers rather than the norm for the prototypical wide receiver.

So while social media freaks out about Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore running his 40 in 4.29 seconds and Florida tight end Kyle Pitts posting a time of 4.44 seconds, just know that this does not automatically crown both as top-five players at their respective positions once they are drafted. I’m sure both of them will be extremely successful in the NFL. But this is due to the fact that Moore and Pitts are highly skilled, athletic players, not that they ran fast 40-yard dashes in their underwear.

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