The NFL has an obsession with speed. The love affair goes back at least as far as the 1960s, when former Raiders owner Al Davis carried out his fast-first philosophy. Davis brought on such game-breaking speedsters as would-be Olympic sprinter Willie Gault and all-world athlete Bo Jackson, a pixelated version of whom famously broke the game Tecmo Super Bowl. But it wasn’t just offensive skill players with quick feet that Davis was looking for. He made drafting players with low 40-yard dash times a priority at almost every position — and the modern NFL followed suit.
The list of fast players drafted by Davis is long, and his philosophy remained consistent throughout his career. In the years before the official scouting combine, Nebraska safety Kent McCloughan caught Davis’s eye in a game against Kansas when he ran down future NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers. Later, Texas A&I1 offensive guard Gene Upshaw, who stood 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, jumped out at Davis when he reportedly ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. The Raiders’ speed-first approach seemed to pay off: From 1967 through 1985, they won three Super Bowls and 12 division championships.
Perhaps because of Davis’s success — and since it seems logical that elite athleticism might, you know, be important in athletics — the NFL has consistently put a premium on footspeed at many positions. Even the massive humans on the offensive line are more highly coveted if they can run fast. Since 2006, 36 offensive tackles have been selected in the first round who also participated in the NFL Scouting Combine; those first-round tackles averaged a 5.09-second 40-yard dash. The average seventh-round OT averaged 5.27, and the mean speed goes up fairly consistently as the draft round increases. There’s a similar pattern with cornerbacks, running backs, linebackers, free safeties and — perhaps unsurprisingly — wide receivers.2
Of all the skill positions in football, it seems obvious that drafting fast receivers is a smart thing to do. After all, their job is to get open by running faster than the defender in front of them. And NFL teams seem to agree. Since 2006, the average 40-yard dash time for the 41 wide receivers who participated in the combine and were taken in the first round of the draft is 4.44 seconds, while seventh-rounders averaged 4.53 seconds.
What’s fascinating, though, is that being an elite speedster — at least as measured at the combine in raw, straight-line speed, like the 40-yard dash — doesn’t tell us anything about how good a receiver will be in the NFL. If we plot 40-yard dash time and career receiving yards per route run3 for receivers who participated in the combine and also ran at least 50 regular-season routes in the NFL, we find that higher speed isn’t associated with higher on-field production.
So does this mean that athleticism doesn’t matter in athletics? Well, no. The above analysis is, among other things, a pretty good example of selection and survivorship bias. By confining our analysis just to individuals who were invited to the combine — meaning they were judged by scouts as among the best 300 or so draft-eligible players in college football that season — and then further winnowing players by looking at just those who ran 50 or more routes in NFL games, we’ve eliminated from consideration an entire universe of people. It’s the opposite of a random sample, and it introduces a powerful bias into our analysis.
If we could somehow broaden our pool of athletes and include the entire population of would-be NFL receivers, it’s likely that we would find a reasonably strong relationship between speed and production, and we would conclude that speed does indeed matter.
Still, just because the analysis is biased doesn’t necessarily mean that NFL general managers are justified in continuing to pick fast wide receivers in the hope that they’ll be productive. And this year in particular presents challenges for those teams that tend to fall in love with hyper-athletic speedsters. Because of COVID-19, the annual neutral-field combine in Indianapolis was canceled, and “pro days” are being held regionally at major universities across the country.
If 40-yard dash times for receivers are mostly useless at predicting NFL success, pro day speed measurements might actually be worse.4 Prospects almost universally run faster on pro days than at the combine. Among 728 players who ran the 40-yard dash at both the combine and their pro day from 2000 through 2015, just 90 ran as fast or faster at the combine as they did on their pro days. Across all positions, a whopping 87.6 percent of prospects ran faster at their pro days.
What does all of this mean for evaluating prospective NFL talent? An obvious answer is for teams to directly measure the on-field athleticism of college athletes. And that is no longer a far-off dream. While it won’t solve the problem of biased analysis of non-random samples, college tracking data that captures in-game player speed is on the near horizon. In what would no doubt excite Al Davis, sharp teams are probably already using it or similar data to measure the speed of players running in pads and helmets, instead of in a straight line in their underwear.
But for this year at least, it’s entirely possible that the false signal from a gaudy pro day 40-yard dash could move some lucky player up a team’s draft board, making him slightly richer and the hapless team that picked him just a little bit poorer.