All About the 40

Now that the NFL combine has been complete for a few days, and everybody has had time to look at the results, it’s time for the annual over analyzing of those results. Did a prospect run faster or slower than expected? Did they come in over or under weight? Were they fluid in their movements? How did they handle the interview process? The questions go on and on. NFL players are heavily scrutinized and analyzed nowadays, and prospects even more so. As the draft nears, more and more mock drafts will be released with us telling you why each team will take each player and why each player will turn out, and we will once again all be wrong (here’s hoping nobody gets it totally right and makes me eat my words on that). In the end, it’s incredibly difficult to decipher who will turn into quality NFL players and who will be a bust, especially with players coming from such diverse backgrounds and experience levels. But what the heck, I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

Some important notes before I take you on this overly analytical journey: I’ll be focusing on the fantasy impact of players. As such, this article is on wide receivers, for several reasons. Wide receivers are vital in nearly all fantasy football leagues, there are several each year who see significant time as rookies, and in the increasingly pass-happy NFL, they are becoming more and more important.

Now, let us begin.

The recorded stats at the combine are the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, 3-cone drill, and shuttle run. Along with these drills, players do position-related drills. In the case of receivers, most of their position-related drills include route running and the gauntlet.

For those of you who don’t know, the gauntlet is a drill in which the receivers are required to run across the field while six quarterbacks are waiting to throw to them. The receivers stand still at the start, a ball is thrown to them, they then do a 180-degree jump and catch another ball, following that, they take off across the field while balls are thrown from alternating sides. Personally, I believe it’s the best drill at the combine. The players are in a high pressure situation and they are required to locate the football, catch it, and immediately move on to the next one. It shows who is a natural and fluid catcher of the football and who isn’t. As much as I love the gauntlet, and as much as I believe teams use it when evaluating players at the combine, it is a subjective drill and no recorded stats can be taken.

For now, we’ll focus only on statistics that can be recorded, and therefore compared, from player to player.  Of all the recorded stats on wide receivers only one has any noticeable correlation to their future production, and that is their 40-yard dash time. In studying this, I compared the combine 40-yard dash results of every receiver at the combine from 2011, 2012, and 2013 to the production during their rookie year, sophomore year, and third year in the league (production being measured by their fantasy points in standard, non-PPR leagues). I chose these years because each wideout has already spent substantial time in the league and reflects the receiver-happy drafts as passing numbers continue to increase league wide.

What did I find?

Wide receivers who ran a 4.45 40-yard dash, or faster, average 44.48 total fantasy points in their rookie year. Contrast that with players who ran a 4.60 40 or slower. Those players average 11.86 total fantasy points in their rookie year. You read that correctly. On average, being .15 seconds faster in the 40-yard dash correlates with them scoring nearly four times as many fantasy points. That trend holds throughout the first three years, with players who ran sub 4.45 averaging 46.23 points per year, and players who ran over a 4.60 averaging just 13.25 points per year.

Now, the reason I separated the players on those two cut offs, 4.45 and 4.60, is that a majority of receivers run in the high 4.4s and the 4.5s. Players in that median range prove much harder to predict, having great players equally mixed with busts, but once separated into the 4.45 or 4.60 category, the good vs. the bad becomes overwhelmingly staggered in each case.

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Some may cry foul at this; what about the 3-cone drill, shuttle run, broad jump, vertical jump, and bench press? Well, none of those drills prove useful in predicting success. Take what I like to call the curious case of T.J. Moe. Moe entered the NFL draft in 2013, and at the combine he ran a putrid 4.74 in the 40, which is tied for the 13th slowest by a wide receiver since 1999. However, if you only look at his other measurables, Moe was off the charts compared to the hundreds of other receivers since 1999. He did 26 reps in the bench press, third most for a receiver since 1999. He ran a 6.74 in the 3-cone drill, good for sixth best among wideouts since 1999. And he ran a 3.96 in the shuttle run, 19th best since 1999. His jumps weren’t off the charts (36-inch vertical leap, 120-inch broad jump), but respectable. If you don’t look at the 40-yard dash time, Moe has a case for the best combine by a receiver in recorded history. But, as it is, I doubt many of you have ever heard of him. Moe went undrafted, was claimed by the Patriots, and didn’t play at all before he tore his Achilles in 2013. He hasn’t been on a roster since he was cut by the Rams during their first round of cuts in 2014. While Moe is just one case, he exemplifies that it doesn’t matter how you do in the drills if you can’t run a fast 40-yard dash time. The NFL is a fast league, and players who can’t run fast simply cannot keep up.

All of this brings us to this year’s crop of wide receivers. Six wideouts reached the 4.45 mark, and 11 failed to break the 4.60 mark. The six who hit the mark are Will Fuller, Kolby Listenbee, Trevor Davis, Ricardo Louis, Malcolm Mitchell, and Charone Peake. For fantasy football players and casual fans alike, look for those six to massively outperform the 11 who failed to break the 4.60 barrier.  To those 11, the odds are far from in your favor, but hey, we’ve been wrong before.