The paradox of speed in the NFL: Wide receivers

DT - speed, size and hands - Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Some fans, coaches, owners and teams are obsessed with measured 40-times, but for every player who runs a great 40 at the combine and succeeds there seem to be two who do so and fail in the NFL. Conversely there are guys who have succeeded at speed positions in the NFL who ran poor 40s at the combine. Let's look at the outliers on both sides of the speed equation.

Every team wants more speed. You can't teach speed. A player either has it or they don't. However, should 40-time be THE measure of speed? Does running on an indoor track in shorts really translate to "game speed"? How should speed be treated when evaluating a college player? Some better writers than I have already tackled this on MHR a long time ago (see the sidebars to the right).

The three positions on the field where speed is most important are WR (here), CB (part 2) and RB (part 3). Being fast if you are small is a requisite (Trindon Holliday) to play in the NFL. Being fast if you are big is a huge selling point for any college player. To that end I am going to look at the outliers in terms of speed score (a measurement of 40-time and weight where 100 is average and 120 is amazing). At each of these three positions I am going to look at the guys with great speed scores who failed in the NFL and the guys with really poor speed scores who succeeded. Two caveats:

1. I am going to use NFL combine 40-times and weights (many a player ran much better a their pro-day because of injury or friendly timers). For the slow-pokes, I will mention whether or nor they improved their 40-time on their pro-day.

2. 100ths of seconds don't matter that much in real game situations; 10ths of seconds do. 40 yards is 1440 inches. A player that runs a 4.40s 40 yard dash would beat a player that ran a 4.50s 40 by 32 inches.  A difference of 0.01s means that the "slower" player is 3.2 inches behind the faster player. That is over 40 yards though. Over a span of 10 yards a really fast player covers that distance in 1.50s or better (two guys had 1.46s 10-yd splits this year). The slowest of the slow (massive defensive tackles and offensive lineman) cover that distance in 1.80s or worse (Justin Ellis, the massive NT from LaTech had a 1.88s 10-yd split this year).

With those two caveats out of the way lets look at the WRs on the extreme ends of the spectrum. First the top 10 WRs in the past 16 years in terms of speed score - along with a few others guys of interest who are near the top

The Big and Fast Ones

The Best of the Best in Speed Score

Year Name College Height (in) Weight (lbs) 40Yard Speed
2007 Calvin Johnson Georgia Tech 77 239 4.35 133.5
2009 Darrius Heyward-Bey Maryland 74 210 4.25 128.7
2012 Stephen Hill Georgia Tech 76 215 4.28 128.1
2003 Tyrone Calico Middle Tennessee St 76 223 4.34 125.7
2011 Julio Jones Alabama 75 220 4.34 124.0
2003 Andre Johnson Miami 74 230 4.40 122.7
2006 Chad Jackson Florida 73 213 4.32 122.3
2005 Vincent Jackson Northern Colorado 77 241 4.46 121.8
2009 Demaryius Thomas Georgia Tech 75 224 4.39* 121.2
2012 Tommy Streeter Miami 77 219 4.37 120.1
2001 Chris Chambers Wisconsin 73 210 4.33 119.5
2008 Andre Caldwell Florida 73 204 4.35 113.9
2014 Cody Latimer Indiana 74 215 4.41* 113.7

DT and CL's 40-times are from their pro-days - hence the asterisk (DT's prior to injury). The successes from this chart are fairly easy to pick out (don't overlook Chambers because he no longer plays), so I will highlight the "failures".

Darrius Heyward-Bay, DHB, was drafted in the first round by Al Davis (#7 overall) after running a stunning 40 for his size. Unfortunately for the Raiders, DHB had a hard time running routes, or actually catching the ball. A look at his college stats or game film would have told the Raiders this, but Al Davis was famous for his ability to be blinded by 40-times. DHB had a horrible rookie year (nine catches), but has turned into a serviceable #3 WR with 169 catches and 12 TDs in his 5 year career. Given his level of production it's hard not to count him as a bust for the Raiders who got 140 catches and 11 TDs out of him in 4 seasons. Considering some first round WRs have produced that in one season, DHB is a bust, but because this is the Raiders we are talking about, he is not even in the top top biggest Raider draft busts of all time.

Stephen Hill was supposed to be the next in the line of amazing athletes at WR to come from GT (after CJ and DT) and was taken in the 2nd round by the Jets (43rd). So far he has been a disappointment in the NFL, playing 12 or fewer games in both of his NFL seasons and only making 45 total catches. Going into his 3rd NFL season, Hill is in a make-or-break year. Having Decker on the other side of the field should help (somewhat), but Hill has not had the best group of QBs throwing to him to take advantage of his size/speed combo.

Unfortunately for the Raiders, Darrius Heyward-Bay had a hard time running routes, or actually catching the ball.

Tyrone Calico, like Hill, was taken in the second round, but by the Titans in 2003. Despite a promising rookie season where he caught 18 passes for 4 TDs, he only played 3 NFL seasons and finished his career with 42 total catches. Calico never learned to run routes, and he was also plagued by injuries that shortened his career. Calico is counted as one of the biggest draft busts in Titans history. Part of his reason for busting was a nasty knee injury that he sustained when he was horse-collar tackled by Roy Williams. That hit was one of the main catalysts for the "Roy Williams Rule" making horse collar tackles illegal.

Chad Jackson had one great season at Florida (88 catches, 900 yards, 9 TDs). That coupled with his great combine convinced the Pats to take him in the 2nd round in 2006. Jackson was a complete bust for the Pats and, like Calico, they count him in the top 10 of worst all-time draft busts. Jackson finished his career with the Broncos and retired from NFL after starting 1 game and making 14 total catches. What makes this even worse for the Pats is that they moved up in the draft to select him in the second round.

Streeter was taken in the same draft as Hill, just much later (6th round by BAL). Streeter was really raw coming out of Miami and he has struggled to even make an NFL roster. He's been on three teams in two years, but it is hard to call a 6th rounder a bust. Streeter has yet to appear in an NFL game.

The Slow Ones

Now let's look at the rare slow WRs who have succeeded in the NFL

The Worst of the Worst in terms of Speed Score

Year Name College Height(in) Weight(lbs) 40Yard Speed
1999 Lenzie Jackson Arizona State 73 188 4.84 68.5
2000 Marcus Knight Michigan 73 180 4.72 72.5
2000 Sherrod Gideon Southern Mississippi 71 173 4.66 73.4
2014 Josh Stewart Oklahoma State 70 178 4.69 73.6
2004 Freddie Smith Georgia Tech 70 194 4.79 73.7
2005 Charles Frederick Washington 71 194 4.78 74.3
2001 Nate Poole Marshall 74 198 4.79 75.2
2000 Wendell Montgomery Wyoming 75 203 4.81 75.8
1999 Daniel Jones Utah 71 185 4.69 76.5
1999 David Saunders West Virginia 74 203 4.78 77.8
2011 Vincent Brown San Diego State 71 187 4.68 78.0
1999 Quincy Jackson Alabama 73 187 4.68 78.0
2012 Patrick Edwards Houston 69 172 4.58 78.2
2001 Snoop Minnis Florida State 73 171 4.57 78.4
2013 Ace Sanders South Carolina 67 173 4.58 78.6
1999 Siaha Burley Central Florida 71 166 4.53 78.8
2005 Howard Gilmore Norfolk State (VA) 73 194 4.71 78.8
2006 Jovon Bouknight Wyoming 74 195 4.71 79.2
1999 John Fassel Weber State (UT) 76 189 4.67 79.5
1999 Damon Griffin Oregon 69 186 4.65 79.6
2000 Troy Walters Stanford 67 171 4.55 79.8
2005 Steve Savoy Utah 71 182 4.62 79.9
2013 Darius Johnson Southern Methodist 69 179 4.60 80.0
2005 Chad Owens Hawaii 68 183 4.62 80.3
2003 Brandon Lloyd Illinois 73 184 4.62 80.8
2013 T.J. Moe Missouri 73 204 4.74 80.8
2000 James Williams Marshall 71 180 4.59 81.1
2012 Josh Cooper Oklahoma State 71 190 4.65 81.3
2004 Derek Abney Kentucky 69 179 4.58 81.4
2005 Efrem Hill Samford 73 179 4.58 81.4
1999 Darnell McDonald Kansas State 75 202 4.72 81.4
2012 James Rodgers Oregon State 67 184 4.61 81.5
2008 Mario Manningham Michigan 73 181 4.59 81.6
2010 Dexter McCluster Mississippi 69 172 4.53 81.7

Many of the guys above never even get drafted, so I have highlighted the guys who did get selected in the draft. 10 of 34 from the list above got drafted (I expanded this to 34 to get Mannigham and McCluster on this list). So let's focus on the most successful of these guys and how they were able to succeed as NFL WRs despite having horrible speed scores.

Dexter McCluster was the highest drafted on all the players on the list above going in the 2nd round (#36 overall) to the Chefs. He had a horrible 40 at the combine (if you are that small, you HAVE to run under a 4.50) because he tweaked his hammy. He improved his 40 to a 4.44s at his pro-day. That 40-time would have kept him off of this "worst" list. So maybe we should move on from him, since his poor speed score was a result of injury. Relative to the rest of the guys on this list Dexter has been fairly successful, but his NFL production has been mediocre given his draft position. The Chefs did not feel that his production was worth bringing him back this season, so they let him walk in free agency and drafted his presumed replacement in DeAnthony Thomas.

Manningham did not literally hurt himself at the combine, but he ran a really slow 40 and in doing so cost himself some money because of draft position. He improved his 40 at his pro-day (4.42s) and was then taken in the 3rd round by Giants (95th pick). Manningham's college production probably warranted a higher selection in the draft, but teams were scared off by both his apparent lack of speed and his lack of quickness. If you read my stuff, you know that I use the 3-cone, 20-yd shuttle and weight to give players a quickness score similar to speed score. Mario had one of the lowest quickness scores in the past 16 years for a WR - 74.7. Despite that, he has been a good #2/#3 NFL receiver during his career averaging 36 catches and 3 TD per year over 6 years. Manningham has strong hands and runs good routes. Those two characteristics have allowed him to succeed despite his lack of elite speed and his general lack of quickness.

Brandon Lloyd was a fairly productive receiver at Illinois (155 catches for 2527 yards in 3 years), but he ran a poor 40 at the combine and didn't do any other drill besides the vertical (36", completely average for a WR). Worries about his frame and his speed, caused him to drop to the 4th round (124th pick) where SF took him. Lloyd, during his career, has been one of the best receivers in the league at making a catch even if he is perfectly covered - which he is most of the time because he is slow. Lloyd has always been horrible at YAC, but great at making catches in traffic. Despite only having one great year (2010 here), Lloyd has had a successful NFL career which his poor speed score would not have predicted.

Troy Walters was a very productive college receiver known for good hands and crisp route running while at Stanford. He played with smart accurate QBs in a system designed to maximize receivers like him. At 5-7, 171 lbs he would need to be both fast and quick to make it in the NFL as a slot receiver. He ran a slow 40 (for his size) at the combine and hence teams had a lot of questions about his ability to contribute in the NFL. Despite being a consensus All-American his senior year, he lasted until the 5th round of the draft where the Vikings took him. While Walters did not have great straight-line speed, he was an extremely quick receiver. His quickness score was 107.5 (well above average even for a little guy). His 3-cone at the combine was 6.61s and his 20-yd shuttle was 3.84, both well above average for WRs at the combine. Walters used his quickness, hands and route running ability to spend 8 years in the league as a #3/#4 WR and return man (on four different teams). While he didn't have a great career, he is still an example of a fairly slow WR who was able to use his other talents to have a successful NFL career.

Ace Sanders had a fairly productive college career at USC, although he really didn't break out until his senior year (45 catches and 9 TDs). The son of former NFL CB Tracey Sanders, he has the pedigree to succeed in the NFL. Size-wise he is the prototypical slot guy and his combine showed that he is definitely quicker than he is fast. At 173 lbs, a 4.53s 40 is not impressive. Sanders actually failed to improve his 40-time at his pro-day, running a 4.55s average 40. Similar in stature to Walters, Sanders actually showed that not as quick as Walters, particularly if you compare their 20-yd shuttle times. Despite that, Sanders was taken in the 4th by the Jags (101st pick) last season. Some of the draft gurus liked his other skills and that allowed at least one team to see beyond his lack in straight-line speed. He had a good rookie season (helped by Blackmon's suspension), with 51 catches for 481 yds and a TD. He also threw a TD and was the Jags primary punt returner last season. With two highly drafted WRs in the fold (and Blackmon's year-long suspension), it will be interesting to see what Sanders fits in the Jags receiving corps in 2014.

The final "slow-poke" that I am going to profile is Vincent Brown, the current Charger. Brown had a couple of decent seasons in college and then had a great senior year at SDSU. Brown probably ran one of the worst set of 40s for a WR of his size in combine history - averaging 4.68s. It's ironic that his draft profile - written before the combine said that he was a "burner" with enough speed to stretch the field vertically. He didn't even have an injury excuse. He redeemed himself somewhat at his pro-day by running a 4.57s 40, but that is still abysmally slow for a 187 lbs WR. Brown's quickness and toughness, got the Chargers to take a chance on him in the 3rd round (82nd pick). After two injury plagued and ineffective seasons as the #4 WR in SD, Brown started to emerge in 2013 after the wave of injuries that decimated the SD receiving corps. While 41 catches for 472 yards and 1 TD are not great numbers, they are decent and Brown might continue to contribute to the Chargers offense this year and in the future.

Conclusion

Big fast receivers can fail if they can't catch the ball, or if they never learn to run good routes (or an incapable of running them at high speed). Slow receivers can succeed if they run good routes, have good hands and are generally able to fight well for the ball when it is in the air.

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