I may be posting a little late for this topic, but I thought with the emphasis of watching players in Training Camp, it would be nice to observe how they play in pads against competition versus expecting great things due to their combine measurables.
The Alphonso Smith debate a few weeks ago, with a great Myth-busting front page post by BroncoBear here, and all the ensuing conversation it provoked, nudged my thinking cap back into its (seldom used) position. I started wondering about 40-yard dash times and whether a player’s straight line speed without pads on a fast track surface in a non-game day situation made the difference between good and great players in the NFL (or whether a cornerback registering a 4.51 second 40-yard time is fast enough to cover all those "blazing fast" NFL wide receivers).
As a result, I researched 40-yard dash times - Googling a number of different sites for accuracy since there were minor discrepancies in times for a majority of players – and what I came across surprised me as the research continued. It wasn’t because straight line speed without pads made a little bit of difference versus a lot. It was that more than a few elite/HOF/star/(insert superlative description here) NFL wide receivers are/were downright plodders in the 40 (as well as a number of running backs, but they weren’t the primary focus of my research).
It appears we can get blinded by the brilliance of Champ or Nnamdi Asomugha and start thinking all CB's should be like them, but there is a reason "shutdown corners" are so coveted and well-paid by the league, there aren't a ton of them available. The next tier would be "good/solid" corners, with this tier expected to cover most NFL wide receivers a majority of the time (except "elite" WR's who are acknowledged league-wide to need double-team/safety help or when a QB just gets too much time in the pocket to throw).
To begin the speed debate, I will acknowledge that Champ and Nnamdi's 40-yard dash times were off the charts, which is a part of what makes them "shutdown corners."
Champ Bailey, CB, Denver - 4.28 sec 40 yard dash
Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Oakland - 4.36 sec 40 yard dash
After looking up a number of elite and talented NFL wide receiver's (past and present) dash times at the combine, it appeared speed wasn't the only thing that made/makes them successful. A term called "game speed" kept coming up in article after article when describing how players with poor 40-yard dash times became successful at the NFL level. The surprise was that "game speed" (the ability to produce at a high level during a game against opponents with better 40-yard dash times or straight line speed without pads) was not an anomaly, but something of a regular occurence over the years.
For evidence, I give you a long list of 40-yard dash times for successful NFL WR's, going from fastest to slowest. The results may surprise you as much as they did me. The intial fastest times are not astonishing, but the 4.45 seconds or slower times (which is not considered NFL elite by any stretch of the imagination) and who own them just might be.
Randy Moss, WR, New England - 4.25 sec. 40 yard dash
Donnie Avery, WR, St. Louis - 4.34 sec. 40-yard dash (5' 11" 192)
Torry Holt, WR, Jacksonville - 4.34 sec. 40 yard dash
Calvin Johnson WR, Detroit - 4.35 sec. 40 yard dash
DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia - 4.35 sec. 40-yard dash (5' 10" 167)
Terrell Owens, WR, Buffalo - 4.36 sec. 40 yard dash
Steve Smith, WR, Carolina - 4.38 sec. 40 yard dash
Marvin Harrison, WR, Indianapolis - 4.38 sec. 40 yard dash
Eddie Royal, WR, Denver - 4.39 sec. 40-yard dash (5' 10" 182)
Andre Johnson, WR, Texas - 4.40 sec. 40 yard dash (6-2, 230)
Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis - 4.35-4.40 sec. 40 yard dash
Chad Johnson, WR, Cincinatti - 4.4 40 yard dash
Greg Jennings, WR, Green Bay - 4.42 sec. 40 yard dash
Roy Williams, WR, Dallas - 4.42 sec. 40 yard dash
Anthony Gonzales, WR, Indianapolis - 4.44 sec. 40 yard dash
Sterling Sharpe, WR, Packers - 4.44 sec. 40 yard dash
---------- 4.45 second plus times -------------------------
Roddy White, WR, Atlanta - 4.45 sec. 40 yard dash
Wincent Jackson, WR, San Diego - 4.46 sec. 40 yard dash
Braylon Edwards, WR, Cleveland - 4.48 sec. 40 yard dash
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona, - 4.5 sec. 40 yard dash
Dwayne Bowe, WR, Kansas City - 4.51 sec. 40 yard dash
Marques Colston, WR, New Orleans - 4.55 sec. 40 yard dash
Wes Welker, WR, New England - 4.55-4.60 sec. 40 yard dash
TJ Houshmandzadeh, WR, Seattle - 4.54-4.61 sec. 40 yard dash
Plaxico Burress, WR, New York - 4.6 sec. 40 yard dash
Lynn Swann, WR, Pittsburgh - 4.65 sec. 40 yard dash
Jerry Rice, WR, San Fancisco - 4.65 sec. 40 yard dash
Chris Carter, WR, Minnesota - 4.7 sec. 40 yard dash
Rod Smith, WR, Denver - 4.7 sec. 40 yard dash (couldn't find definitive answer)
John Stallworth, WR, Pittsburgh - 4.8 sec. 40 yard dash (retested later to 4.5)
There is no doubt there are quite a few "burners" on the list, and that is one of the reasons they are successful in the league, but the amount of very successful receivers with 4.45+ times were eye-popping to me.
The reason I looked at this data was to see if speed was THE major factor in the success of NFL WR's. I wanted to extrapolate that factor onto the ability of cornerbacks to cover those receivers (as a result of the "Alphonso Smith isn't fast enough to be a very good NFL cornerback and, accordingly, isn't worth next year's #1 pick" debate). It seems while speed is A factor, it is not THE factor for NFL success.
Armed with the above information, it appears relevant to go to Training Camp with an eye out for who is performing on the field against competition, rather than dismissing certain players because of their measurables. I believe we are all of the opinion that is what Coach McD will be doing.
With all the new players and rookie FA's we have acquired, it should be interesting to see how both the offense and defense play this year and who makes the team.
Just for fun - a few more 40-yard dash times I discovered during my research:
Terrell Davis, RB, Denver - 4.7 sec. 40 yard dash
Peyton Hillis, RB, Denver - 4.58 sec. 40 yard dash
Knowshon Moreno, RB, Denver - 4.62 sec. 40 yard dash
Brian Westbrook, RB, Philadelphia - 4.57 sec. 40 yard dash