DeMarcus Van Dyke ran the fastest 40 time of the 2011 combine
In the 1940’s legendary coach Paul Brown started timing his players in the 40 yard dash as a means to gauge how fast they could leave the line of scrimmage when a punt is kicked and reach the point where the ball arrived.
Years later it has become the marquee event at the annual NFL Scouting Combine.
I have often questioned the importance of players’ 40 times in regards to their draft stock; not every football player is a track star, and not every track star a football player. Without getting into the argument of the validity in timing the 40 yard dash itself, the answers I found were vast, and mostly depended upon who was asked.
At the 2008 NFL Combine then-Indianapolis Head Coach Tony Dungy said, “The 40 and those times have never been that big of a deal…Whether this guy’s a tenth of a second faster than that guy, that’s never really been that huge to me.”
Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichik seems to put little stock in the combine as a whole. In 2009, New England drafted four players (Offensive Linemen Sebastian Vollmer, Rich Ohrnberger, George Bussey, and Wide receiver Julian Edelman) not invited to the combine. When asked to recap the Patriots’ selections, Belichik said, “I think it’s a little bit unusual that we ended up with all three (Offensive) Linemen who were non-combine guys. The fact that they weren’t at the combine, and kind of the way that we evaluated them in their private workouts and so forth, I think all of them are pretty impressive, all different.”
If it’s not important to two of the most successful NFL coaches in the last decade, why is it important to sports media, journalists, analysts, and draft writers?
I began searching for concrete evidence which proves the importance of the 40 time. Since 1999 (the first year electronic timing was used at the combine) 10 players have run the 40 yard dash in under 4.3 seconds. Although several were drafted in the first round, not one was drafted first overall:
- 4.24 Rondel Melendez, WR, 1999, Rd. 7/247 overall by Atlanta Falcons
- 4.24 Chris Johnson, RB, 2008, Rd. 1/24 overall by Tennessee Titans
- 4.25 Fabian Washington, CB, 2005, Rd. 1/23 overall by Oakland Raiders
- 4.25 Darrius Heyward-Bey , WR, 2009, Rd. 1/7 overall by Oakland Raiders
- 4.28 Champ Bailey, CB, 1999, Rd. 1/7 overall by Washington Redskins
- 4.28 Jerome Mathis, WR, 2005, Rd. 4/114 overall by Houston Texans
- 4.28 Jacoby Ford, WR, 2010, Rd. 4/108 overall by Oakland Raiders
- 4.28 Demarcus Van Dyke, CB, 2011, To Be Determined
- 4.29 Stanford Routt, CB, 2005, Rd. 2/38 overall by Oakland Raiders
- 4.29 Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, 2008, Rd. 1/16 overall by the Arizona Cardinals
I continued by researching the five most productive running backs of 2010, including their 40 times and when they were drafted:
- Arian Foster (Houston Texans), 1,616 yds., 16 TDs, 4.68, Undrafted
- Jamaal Charles (Kansas City Chiefs), 1467 yds., 5 TDs, 4.38, Rd. 3/73 overall
- Michael Turner (Atlanta Falcons), 1371 yds., 12 TDs, 4.49, Rd. 5/154 overall
- Chris Johnson (Tennessee Titans) 1364 yds., 11 TDs, 4.24, Rd. 1/24 overall
- Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville Jaguars) 1324 yds., 5 TDs, 4.39, Rd. 2/60 overall
Only one player appears on both of those lists.
Why is the 40 time the most discussed statistic from the combine if it appears to have very little bearing on the future successes of the players running it? More so, why do some mock drafts use the 40 as a means of rising or dropping a player?
I decided to ask three draft gurus their opinions. I sent Justin Pawlowski (620 WDAE, Tampa, FL), Gil Alcaraz IV, and Ryan Lownes (both from draftbreakdown.com) emails asking all of them the same questions. Their responses are unedited below:
1. What are your general thoughts about the importance of the 40 time?
Justin: “A 40-time will only make me go back and reevaluate a player, whether it be positively or negatively.”
Gil: “I think that the 40 time is an extremely overrated tool in evaluating talent for the NFL Draft. It is a measure of someone’s straight-line speed, which is rarely used during an actual football game. The only thing that really stands out to me in the 40 is the first 10-yard interval, which shows burst and explosion off of the line. Overall, the only reason that I would see any real importance in the 40 time is if a player runs an extremely impressive time that wasn’t expected or someone who runs an extremely disappointing time.”
Ryan: “I generally think a player’s 40 time is a pretty useless, unimportant number by itself. Speed is an attribute that can usually be picked up on film pretty easily. It is, however, beneficial for players to run faster that expected. Like-wise, it can definitely hurt a player to run significantly lower than expectations. The number is significantly less important for positions along the Offensive Line or Defensive Tackle, where the player’s 10-yd split is often the more coveted number. Because running the 40 can allow scouts to track both acceleration and breakaway speed, I’d have to say the event is useful though. I’m with* those who wish players were required to wear pads for the tests. Some guys can just be so well coached/prepared in the 40 and others are just track guys (Maryland’s Da’Rel Scott – 4.34 for example)… so that said you have to kind of pick and choose when and how much you value that 40 number player-to-player. “
2. Do you use the 40 time to rise or drop player rankings?
Justin: “I’d say yes if it’s a corner that had questions on his speed and he has a great 40 or vice versa.
Gil: “Very seldom do I ever use a 40 time to rise or drop a player unless they had a stand-out performance, either good or bad. Sometimes it can become a tie-breaker if I’m on the fence between two players, but in general, it doesn’t have a huge impact on my rankings”
Ryan: “At times I do. I can tell you for sure that Oklahoma OLB Jeremy Beal (5.18 unofficial), San Diego State WR Vincent Brown (4.71 un.), North Carolina CB Kendric Burney (4.75 un.) and Florida FS Ahmad Black (4.74 un.) have slid down my board. Notice all these players aren’t the biggest guys; so I’d say I’ll move players down significantly only if they may lack both the size and the speed to compete in the NFL. Beal, is a converted college DE that is too small for that position and may now be seen as too slow to play in space at the next level. Burney and Black are both more quick than fast, that much is evident on film. They still will be haunted by poor 40 times because they play positions where speed is relevant and small & slow isn’t the best combination for an NFL DB. (I will say that I do like Burney/Black on the field, but size/speed should keep them from consideration until the draft’s third day.) The four players I listed all could have been day two picks, but I think after their Combine (more specifically the weigh-in/40 yd dash) each player will have to wait until Saturday (Rds 4-7) to hear their name called.”
3. Do you feel that other stats/attributes can be more helpful in evaluating a player?
Justin: “Absolutely. I look at the combine as a gigantic puzzle. Every part is important to piecing together the entire puzzle, but some parts are bigger and more important than others. I wouldn’t call the 40-yard dash a corner piece.”
Gil: “The stats that I feel are more important than the 40 is the broad jump (a great measure of explosion) and the 3-cone drill (a wonderful display of a player’s ability to change direction quickly and effectively). Both have more impact, in my mind, on the value of a prospect, especially for linemen. The most important thing in evaluating prospects, however, is watching game-film. There are plenty of people who can be workout warriors, but that doesn’t always translate into a play-maker on the field.”
Ryan: “Absolutely. If a player looks slow on tape then a good 40 time probably isn’t going to make a world of a difference. Depending on the position: size, level of conditioning, are fluidity (feet & hips) are far more important than straight line speed. The game is very rarely played 40 yards in a straight line, so the ability to accelerate out of cuts is infinitely more important than the number you get from to 40 yd dash. Then there’s the entire mental aspect of football, which always surpasses pure speed as an evaluation tool.”
4. Why do you think there is such an emphasis on player’s 40 time and not on other workouts at the combine?
Justin: “I think the 40-yard dash is important to the fans because we are a very lazy and naive society. What’s easier to breakdown than a guy running fast in a straight line?”
Gil: “The 40 seems to be so important because it is a common misconception that speed translates to talent. If speed were everything in football, Usain Bolt would be the first overall pick in the draft. There’s a reason why the Oakland Raiders, who draft mainly for speed and athleticism, end up struggling to find franchise-caliber talent through the draft.”
Ryan: “Well the 40 yard dash is just very simple, it measures straight-line speed & acceleration. Additionally, the general public already knows a good time from a bad time. You could push the 3-Cone drill, but the casual football fan probably couldn’t tell you that 6.00 in that drill is out of this world while 8.0+ is extremely sluggish. Everyone knows what it means to run a 4.3 40. That said, the positional drills, interview process, and medical exams are the most significant Combine stock dictators.”
There doesn’t appear to be conclusive evidence, which I have found, as to the relevance of players’ 40 times in regards to their future NFL success. Although, I did find an interesting article from the New York Times (By Michael David Smith, published: April 27, 2008) that claims there is:
Bill Barnwell of the Web site FootballOutsiders.com formulated an equation that combines 40 time and body weight, and is an even better predictor of N.F.L. success than 40 time alone. Multiply a running back’s weight by 200, then divide that product by his 40-yard dash time, raised to the fourth power. The result will be a number that is, on average, about 100 for an N.F.L. running back, with big, fast players having higher numbers and small, slow players having lower numbers.
By this equation, the highest score of the last 10 years was achieved at the 2005 combine by Brandon Jacobs, at the time a little-known running back from Southern Illinois who weighed 267 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.56 seconds. The Giants chose Jacobs in the fourth round that year; he was an integral part of their Super Bowl-winning 2007 season.
I only found that equation mentioned once – in that article, and it never gives Jacob’s actual score. I’m not convinced it is an accurate predictor, and until the NFL scouts start breaking out their scientific calculators and using that equation – I won’t either.