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Drafting a Wide Receiver: Are 40 times and other combine measurables relevant?

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Pretty much everyone who prognosticates the NFL draft expects the Bengals to take at least one wide receiver. How much of a factor should the combine and pro-day measurables play?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After the NFL Combine this past February, we witnessed the annual revision of mock drafts. It is the rite of passage all mock drafters undertake where game tape performances take a back seat to measurements such as how big a prospect’s hands are, how far he can jump from a standing position, and how quickly he can answer Wonderlic’s question regarding the age difference between Peter and Paul, if Peter will be twice Paul’s age in ten years; in other words, things that really don’t have anything to do with football.

Perhaps the most popular of these quasi-relevant measurements is the 40 yard dash, which has taken a life of its own, and shifted the draft fortunes of many a young NFL prospect over the years. This is especially true of the positions like wide receiver and cornerback, where speed is more of a requirement than a center or defensive tackle.

Before we move the smaller, straight line speedster Will Fuller into the first round due to his 40 yard dash time of 4.32 seconds, and before we drop Laquon Treadwell, who looked like a man among boys on game day, to the tail end of round one due to a slower time of 4.63 seconds, let’s ask if the 40 yard dash is any sort of indicator of how good a wide receiver prospect will be in the NFL. Let’s look at height and weight too, and see how the best NFL receivers of 2015 did in relation to their combine measurables.

If 40 yard dash times or size measurements are indicators of how good a receiver will be, we should expect to find that the most productive receivers all ran good 40 yard dash times and/or all have big frames.

Every NFL receiver with 100 Receptions:

Every NFL receiver with 1,400 Yards:

By Receptions

Julio Jones led the NFL with 1,871 receiving yards and tied for the lead with 136 receptions. He certainly seems to be the standard bearer for size and speed leading to performance. He ran a fast 4.42 time and measured in at 6’2" and 220 pounds. But Jones seems to be the outlier, as the opposite holds true for the receivers who finished just behind him.

Antonio Brown also led the NFL with 136 catches, and amassed a whopping 1834 receiving yards. Yet his 40 time was a pedestrian 4.57. Not only was Brown slow, but he measured in at at underwhelming 5’10" and 186 pounds. For everything that Jones represents in terms of combine measurables, Brown is the polar opposite.

After Jones, the next top four receivers in receptions all had 40 yard dash times of 4.56 seconds or slower. Only two of the top six reception leaders managed a time under 4.56 seconds.

The average combine profile of NFL receivers who topped 100 receptions in 2015 was: 4.54 speed, 6’1" height, 215 pounds. That average would represent a very generic, uninspiring prospect.

By Yards

That’s a look at receptions, but let’s look at the NFL’s leaders in yardage. In theory the yardage leaders will include more of the speedsters reeling off long plays. Perhaps the yardage leaders will be much bigger or faster than the reception leaders? Let’s take a look.

The top two leaders in yardage were Jones and Brown who we have already considered. Jones, as you recall, was an ideal combine specimen, while Brown was anything but.

The next four highest receiving yardage totals belonged to DeAndre Hopkins, Brandon Marshall, Odell Beckham Jr, and Allen Robinson. Hopkins and Marshall had slow 40 times, while Beckham and Robinson had good times under 4.50 seconds. Also, Marshall and Robinson are at least 6’3" and 200 pounds, while Beckham is under 6’0" and under 200 pounds, and Hopkins is pretty much average.

The average combine profile of the NFL receivers who reached 1400 yards in 2015 was: 4.50 speed, 6’1" height, 211 pounds.

It is a little faster than the receptions leaders, but again, that average measurement would represent a very generic, uninspiring prospect.

Bigger Picture

Here is a bigger look of the NFL’s leaders from 2015. Instead of just considering the elite producers from the 2015 season, we look at every NFL wide receiver who recorded at least 75 receptions. Their Combine numbers (and Pro-Day results if they didn’t run a 40 at the Combine) are listed below.

Every NFL receiver with 75 Receptions:

Of these top 21 receivers, only one of them, Brandin Cooks, recorded a time under 4.40 seconds. As far as height goes, one third of these wide receivers are under six feet tall, while just over one third of them are 6’3" or taller.

Based on this list of 21 wide receivers, the average combine measurement was: 4.47 speed, 6’1" height, 209 pounds.

Next we chart out these top 21 receivers from the 2015 season who had at least 75 receptions. The first chart shows the number of receptions in relation to their 40 yard dash time. The second chart shows the number of yards in relation to their 40 yard dash time. In the second chart, I added the trendline which highlights that the counter-intuitive finding that the slower the 40 time, the more receiving yards the wide receiver had. This trendline applies to both charts.

The NFL’s best receivers come from a wide assortment of speeds and sizes. From this we can reasonably conclude that a prospect’s speed or size isn’t going to be a significant contributing factor in determining whether that prospect will become a great NFL wide receiver or not. Instead, other non-Combine factors such as the ability to catch the ball consistently, adjust to the ball in the air, run crisp routes, and fight for contested balls – things found on the game tape, are likely going to be better determinants than running 40 yards in a straight line.

This is something to keep in mind before moving Will Fuller up into round one, demoting Laquon Treadwell to the end of the first round or ranking other draft prospects based on Combine results.