With the NFL Combine in the books and scouts poring over the results, Nick Dunkeyson takes a look at the blue-riband event – the 40-yard dash – and what’s happened to players running the ‘fastest 40’ in the years since they set the records.
Speed. It’s important in the NFL. There’s not a position that doesn’t benefit from a burst of it. Pass rushers can get past tackles. Quarterbacks can scramble for that first down. Receivers can run away from cornerbacks, and cornerbacks can keep up with them.
Every year, there’s a palpable frisson of excitement at the prospect of speed freaks running faster than anyone has before. Every year the player running the fastest 40 enjoys his five minutes of fame, and then we all get on with things. Sometimes, teams go mad for combine sprinters. Bizarrely, the Oakland Raiders are responsible for drafting 5 of the fastest 17 players at the combine. Though, that’s the Raiders from 2005 to 2011, in the midst of the thirteen-year run without a winning season.
So, how important are these fastest 40 times? Well, I’ve had a look at the last ten players to ‘win’ the combine, to check in on the career they’ve had.
2008 – Chris Johnson, 4.24 seconds
If the 40-yard dash enjoyed a boost in popularity in the last ten years, it’s down to Johnson. Johnson went from being a somewhat-known running-back from mid-major East Carolina, projected to maybe sneak into the third round, to being the Titans’ first round pick at number 24. All on the basis of setting the combine record for the fastest 40.
Johnson would go on to enjoy a pretty fantastic start to his career, making three Pro Bowls in his first three years. His 2009 campaign set up his nickname –CJ2K – a reference to recording 2,000 rushing yards (at 5.6 yards/carry!). His season was the kind that made people go a bit loopy, culminating in CBS announcer Gus Johnson describing him as having “getting-away-from-the-cops speed”. The less said about that, the better, eh?
But speed fades – Johnson carried on recording 1,000 yard seasons for the Titans, but by 2013 his yards-per-carry had dipped below 4 and Tennessee cut bait. He had something of a resurgence in 2015, rushing for 814 yards in 11 games before fracturing his tibia, and ultimately falling to the emergence of David Johnson. Still, a pretty good run.
2009 – Darrius Hayward-Bey, 4.3 seconds
Picked number 7 overall by the Oakland Raiders, Hayward-Bey has been one of the more hilarious busts in recent years. Having 4.3 speed is all well and good, but most of Hayward-Bey’s career has been punctuated by drops, and comments about “Ol’ Stonehands”. The Raiders at the time were somewhat fixated on drafting athletes rather than footballers, part of why they didn’t have a winning season until 2016.
It’s amusing that Michael Crabtree, a receiver expected to be drafted before Hayward-Bey that, er, wasn’t, is now enjoying a decent swansong in Oakland. Hayward-Bey was terrible at Oakland and Indianapolis. He’s had an okay couple of years in Pittsburgh, but still drops too many balls, and looks like he was picked 2-3 rounds too early.
2010 – Jacoby Ford, 4.28 seconds
The first player here you’ve probably not heard of, you won’t be surprised to learn Ford was another Oakland pick, albeit this one in the fourth round. Ford actually had a decent start to his career, especially as a kickoff returner. He returned 3 for touchdowns in his first year in the league, and another in his second. Ford managed 470 receiving and 155 rushing yards in 2010, with four touchdowns.
That was about it though. His 2011 was poor, then his 2012 was spent on injured reserve with foot injuries. I would say he never looked the same again, but…well, he never was that good. Ford was cut by the Raiders and then the Jets in 2014, the Titans in 2015, and two Canadian Football teams in 2016. He had an underwhelming career even for a fourth-round pick.
2011 – DeMarcus Van Dyke, 4.28 seconds
It takes a special kind of determination for a team to say “draft whoever runs the fastest 40 at the combine!” Yes, Oakland managed this three years in a row, with Van Dyke closing out the triumvirate in the 2011 third round. As seems to be the pattern, Van Dyke started fairly well, enjoying a decent October. Against Kansas City in Week 6, he recorded 4 tackles, one for a loss, and intercepted a pass.
And that was as far as his career went. He drifted pretty quickly out of the reckoning in Oakland, recording two tackles more in total the rest of the year. Then came a two-year spell at Pittsburgh in which he barely saw the field, followed by cuts from the Chiefs, Vikings and Falcons. For a third-round pick, that’s a pretty dreadful turnaround. But…the Raiders drafted a guy who only got the start for three out of thirteen games in his senior year, for an ACC team that went 7-6. And there were no future NFL stars in that team. What on earth did they expect?
2012 – Josh Robinson, 4.29 seconds
Josh Robinson hit the headlines in 2015 when he compared same-sex marriage to paedophilia and incest. That’s about the most this former third-round pick of the Vikings ‘achieved’. He has five total interceptions for his career, and is still on the books of the Buccaneers, but he doesn’t even earn a second paragraph in this write-up.
2013 – Marquise Goodwin, 4.27 seconds
It’s unsurprising that a long jumper should be able to run the fastest 40 in a given year. Goodwin was drafted by the Bills in the third round as a former World Junior Champion. He qualified for the 2012 Olympics, but missed finished 10th. He pops up now and then at track meets, generally running a 60m indoors, a 4x100m relay and, of course, a long jump.
I actually had the impression Goodwin’d had a better career than he actually has. Bills receivers not named Sammy Watkins do tend to blend into one. Anyway, 2016 was Goodwin’s best year, recording 29 catches for 431 yards and 3 touchdowns. He had a quiet 2013, quieter 2014, and suffered with injury in 2015.
Goodwin is a pretty decent representation of what speed players can be. He has a good yards-per-catch figure, but a woeful “efficiency” measure. Those 29 catches? They came from 68 targets – a woeful 42.6% catch rate. Again, you’re looking at someone who did little in college but rose because of their athleticism. Goodwin recorded just 340 yards of receptions in college. In the field drills at the combine, he charitably looked like a “work in progress”. He was probably a fifth- or sixth-round pick at best, in reality.
2014 – Dri Archer, 4.26 seconds
Ah, Dri Archer. Running the closest to Chris Johnson’s time until this year, Archer went from being a late-round RB/WR hybrid to being drafted with a third-round compensatory pick, as a running back, by Pittsburgh. And they never got much out of him. Archer seems too small and fragile to flourish in the NFL. He doesn’t have the power to play running back, and can’t get physical enough to play slot receiver. In the return game he’s done okay, but struggles to break tackles.
Can’t lie archer had the boi nervous
— Chris Johnson (@ChrisJohnson28) February 23, 2014
Archer got sparing use outside of the return game in 2014, but was only a returner in 2015, ending his time in Pittsburgh with 23 kickoff returns for an average of 22.4 yards and a long of 38. Given a touchback starts you from the 25 yard line, it’s interesting to consider if the kickoff return is dying, but either way. Archer was signed and cut by the Jets in 2016, then claimed on waivers by the Bills in May of that year. Apparently not wanting to play for the Bills, Archer never reported. And that would seem to be that.
2015 – JJ Nelson, 4.28 seconds
Nelson could have ended up being one of the last ever draft picks from UAB, before they reinstated their football programme for the 2017 season. He got uncommonly little attention for someone running the fastest 40 at the combine. Compare the fuss over Dri Archer, who only ran .02 of a second faster and looks like a fraction of the player.
Nelson is providing good value for the fifth-round pick Arizona spent on him, partially because he’s not completely one-dimensional. He’s still a deep threat (his 11 catches in 2015 were for an average of 27.2 yards!), but 568 yards for 6 touchdowns, with a further 83 and a touchdown added with rushes in 2016 demonstrates that he’s pretty useful. Don’t be surprised if, despite being a fifth-rounder, Nelson has a better career than any of the speed-merchants above, save for Chris Johnson.
2016 – Keith Marshall, 4.31 seconds
The slowest fastest-man-at-the-combine is running back Marshall. 4.31 is a fast time, but feels a bit more…normal. Still, it helped a player who’d spent his college career at Georgia behind either Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, or both, get drafted. Granted, it was with Washington’s seventh-round pick, and granted, he spent the season on injured reserve, allowing undrafted Matt Jones (a very different type of running back) to lead Washington in rushing in 2016. He probably won’t have much of an NFL career, Marshall, but he’s a seventh-round pick. That’s not unusual, and you can’t really read too much into it.
2017 – John Ross, 4.22 seconds
And so here we are. The new record holder. A few people have come out and said that Ross’ fastest 40 time won’t help his draft stock. Odd as it sounds, when you look at some aforementioned overdrafted players, that’s probably right. Why? Because John Ross is pretty good, and everyone knew he’s super fast. People were expecting about a 4.3 time, and had graded and evaluated him based on that. Turns out, he is very fast! But the things that’ll see him be a late-first-round pick aren’t just his speed.
He’s a decent route-runner, surprisingly running a number of slants and flats in college, and is of course a fantastic deep threat. He’s got reasonable hands (always the thing one worries about with speedsters) and draws an impressive amount of defensive pass interference flags. I’ve got a scouting report on Ross coming soon, but he was a known quantity, and still is. Because of his game, the difference between if he’d run a 4.3 and running a 4.22 is oddly minimal.
So, Some Trends?
Players get overdrafted based on their fastest 40 times when either a) people knew nothing about them before and that was their first impression, or b) they’re the late-00s/early-10s Oakland Raiders. Regarding the first, it’s such a trope across all team sports – everyone wants to find the future superstar that no-one else saw coming. Of course, these players are athletes first and foremost, and they’ll need to be trained. That’s not an easy task. For every Antonio Gates (possibly the most successful athlete-not-footballer in football in recent years), you’ve got several…well, the majority of this list!
Josh Robinson and DeMarcus Van Dyke could run fast but couldn’t cover receivers, couldn’t deal with route changes, and lacked ball skills. Speedy receivers like Darrius Hayward-Bey and Marquise Goodwin can’t catch. Dri Archer’s slight build allowed him to move quickly, but he never got the hang of moving through a crowd. Some players just don’t have the acumen or body type to adjust to the NFL’s skill requirements. Plenty of coaches can’t get the best out of them, too.
And then you’ve got the late-00s/early-10s Raiders, essentially a failed experiment in creating a team out of athletes. The coaching staff wasn’t really up to converting athletes to footballers, but maybe the players just weren’t the right kind. They were still trying it up to 2013 with Terrelle Pryor at quarterback! Now they’ve ditched that approach, suddenly they’re back to winning ways. Their attempt at a revolution in a sport where revolutions don’t tend to lead to sustained success, and where most purported revolutions are actually evolutions, fell flat.
But people who are good at football are still likely to be good at football! Chris Johnson was great at East Carolina; John Ross was fantastic at Washington. If Ross performs short of his drafted spot, it won’t be because he was overdrafted because of his forty time. I probably see Ross as a second-round pick based on his tape; plenty of teams already had him as a first-rounder. But feting a player just because they’re an athlete, when they likely can’t play a lick? Don’t do that.