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Evaluating the importance of the 40-yard dash

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Is a prospect’s 40-yard dash time really a good indiacator of NFL talent?

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Historically, the 40-yard dash has been one of the most quoted measurements for the majority of players at the NFL Scouting Combine. Certain skill positions like running back, wide receiver, and defensive back come in with higher expectations than others, but unless you’re a quarterback or a kicker, the 40-yard dash is one of the most important drills to perform well in, for the sake of draft positioning.

The best 40-yard dash time since the NFL began electronically recording times was held by Chris Johnson (4.24). But, on Saturday wide receiver John Ross broke the record with a 4.22 second time.

Currently in the later stages of his career, Johnson has been very successful in the NFL, having played for nine seasons. In his first six seasons, all with the Titans (who drafted him), he ran for at least 1,000 yards and four touchdowns annually.

His breakout year came during the 2009 season in which he recorded 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground as well as 503 yards and two touchdowns in the air. Over the last few years, he has spent time with the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, but has still been somewhat effective, even at 30-years-old.

His draft stock soared from the third round to eventually being the No. 24 overall pick after his incredible 40-yard dash time. Giving the Titans 7,965 yards and 50 touchdowns in six seasons, you would have to say his 40-yard dash time was a good, but not perfect indicator of his future success.

However, there are also plenty 40-yard dash performances that throw scouts completely off. The next four fastest 40-yard dash times in the era of electronic clocking are Dri Archer (4.26), Marquise Goodwin (4.27), DeMarcus Van Duke/Jacoby Ford (4.28), and Tye Hill/Darrius Heyward-Bey/Yamon Figurs (4.30). Of those players, only Heyward-Bey and Goodwin are still in the NFL, and only Heyward-Bey has started more than 10 games in a season.

By comparison, consider the cases of three of the NFL’s best active running backs. Future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson only ran a 4.4 second 40-yard dash. Current Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott only ran a 4.47, and current Steelers star Le’Veon Bell ran an unimpressive 4.6. The Bengals’ running back tandem over the last few years, Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, only ran a 4.53 and 4.66, respectively.

As it is with most things on a scouting report, a player’s 40-yard dash time must be taken in context with other things. Based on Friday’s 40-yard dash performances for running backs, North Carolina’s T.J. Logan should be considered the top running back in the draft, recording a position-best 4.37. However, most teams would much prefer the services of Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, whose 4.49 time was the best among other running back prospects who were ranked as first or second round prospects before the Combine.

40-yard dash is, without a doubt, an important measurement. It doesn’t take much of a logical leap to figure out that players who perform well in this drill are very fast and accelerate quickly. That is an important skill to have for positions like running back and wide receiver, positions at which players need to out-run defenders once they get past them. It is also an important skill for defensive players to have, so they aren’t out-run by speedy ball-carriers. However, putting too much importance on speed can backfire. If a player relies on their speed and hasn’t developed in other areas, they won’t make much of an impact in the NFL.

Running Back Combine Results

Player School Height Weight Off. 40 Time Unoff. 40 Time 10-Yd Split Bench Vert Broad Hand Arm
Player School Height Weight Off. 40 Time Unoff. 40 Time 10-Yd Split Bench Vert Broad Hand Arm
Christopher Carson Oklahoma State 6-0 218 4.58 4.58 -- 23 37 10-10 9 5/8 33 1/4
Corey Clement Wisconsin 5-10 220 4.68 4.68 -- 19 28.5 9-7 9 3/4 30 1/2
Tarik Cohen North Carolina A&T 5-6 179 4.42 4.42 -- 11 31.5 9-10 10 1/8 29 3/4
James Conner Pittsburgh 6-1 233 4.65 4.66 -- 20 29 9-5 9 7/8 31 1/4
Dalvin Cook Florida State 5-10 210 4.49 4.5 -- 22 30.5 9-8 9 1/4 32 3/8
Justin Davis USC 6-1 208 DNP DNP DNP 21 DNP DNP 9 5/8 31
Matt Dayes N.C. State 5-9 205 DNP DNP DNP 18 28 9-1 10 1/2 30
D'Onta Foreman Texas 6-0 233 DNP DNP DNP 18 DNP DNP 10 1/8 31 3/8
Leonard Fournette LSU 6-0 240 4.51 4.51 -- DNP 28.5 DNP 9 1/4 31 5/8
Wayne Gallman Clemson 6-0 215 4.6 4.57 -- 21 29.5 10-0 9 1/8 32 5/8
De'Angelo Henderson Coastal Carolina 5-7 208 4.48 4.48 -- 20 34 10-0 9 1/2 29
Brian Hill Wyoming 6-1 219 4.54 4.54 -- 15 34 10-5 8 7/8 31 3/8
Elijah Hood North Carolina 6-0 232 DNP DNP DNP 18 DNP DNP 9 3/8 30 3/8
Kareem Hunt Toledo 5-10 216 4.62 4.62 -- 18 36.5 9-11 9 5/8 31 3/8
Aaron Jones UTEP 5-9 208 4.56 4.5 -- 16 37.5 10-7 9 1/2 32 1/2
Alvin Kamara Tennessee 5-10 214 4.56 4.53 -- 15 39.5 10-11 9 1/4 32 3/4
T.J. Logan North Carolina 5-9 196 4.37 4.37 -- 17 33.5 10-1 9 32
Marlon Mack South Florida 5-11 213 4.5 4.5 -- 15 35.5 10-5 9 32
Christian McCaffrey Stanford 5-11 202 4.48 4.49 -- 10 37.5 10-1 9 30
Elijah McGuire La.-Lafayette 5-10 214 4.53 4.52 -- 15 36 10-0 9 31
Jeremy McNichols Boise State 5-9 214 4.49 4.49 -- DNP 35.5 10-1 10 31 1/2
Dare Ogunbowale Wisconsin 5-11 213 4.65 4.65 -- 14 35 10-0 9 1/8 31 3/8
Samaje Perine Oklahoma 5-11 233 4.65 4.66 -- 30 33 9-8 10 30 3/8
D.J. Pumphrey San Diego State 5-8 176 4.48 4.49 -- 5 33.5 9-9 8 1/2 29
Devine Redding Indiana 5-8 205 4.76 4.78 1.7 16 30.5 9-8 9 5/8 29 1/4
Sam Rogers Virginia Tech 5-10 231 4.93 4.93 1.72 19 32 9-6 9 3/4 30 1/4
Rushel Shell West Virginia 5-10 227 4.74 4.75 1.71 21 32.5 DNP 9 5/8 30
De'Veon Smith Michigan 5-11 223 DNP DNP DNP 22 29 9-0 9 29 1/2
Freddie Stevenson Florida State 6-0 234 4.75 4.79 1.68 24 28 9-3 9 5/8 32 3/4
Jahad Thomas Temple 5-10 190 4.62 4.63 1.6 11 32 9-8 9 30 1/8
Jamaal Williams BYU 6-0 212 4.59 4.6 1.6 DNP 30 10-3 10 31 1/4
Joe Williams Utah 5-11 210 4.41 4.42 1.65 14 35 10-5 9 3/8 30 3/4
Stanley Williams Kentucky 5-7 190 4.51 4.44 1.59 18 36 10-1 8 5/8 30