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Is speed overrated for wide receivers?

Time and time again, wide receivers have been drafted higher than their original projections just because of a blazing 40 yard dash.

NFL Combine - Day 3 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

There is a common misconception among NFL pundits that “speed kills”. This mantra has often resulted in wide receivers being drafted significantly higher than their original projections, simply because they put up eye-popping numbers while running in a straight line, without pads. I took the liberty of compiling a chart listing the top 15 forty times for wide receivers since 2013, followed by some analysis on how their careers went.

Fastest Receivers (since 2013)

///////////////////////// 40 Yard Dash Touches Yards Yards/Touch Touchdowns GP Round Drafted
///////////////////////// 40 Yard Dash Touches Yards Yards/Touch Touchdowns GP Round Drafted
John Ross 4.22 26 231 8.88 7 16 1st
Marquise Goodwin 4.27 142 2211 15.57 12 66 3rd
J.J Nelson 4.28 93 1559 16.76 11 56 5th
Curtis Samuel 4.31 66 757 11.47 7 22 2nd
Will Fuller 4.32 110 1567 14.25 13 31 1st
Brandin Cooks 4.33 400 5376 13.44 34 74 1st
Phillip Dorsett 4.33 105 1300 12.38 6 57 1st
Tavon Austin 4.34 392 3122 7.96 23 82 1st
John Brown 4.34 226 3270 14.47 22 72 3rd
D.J Chark 4.34 14 174 12.43 0 11 2nd
Chris Conley 4.35 104 1238 11.90 6 53 3rd
Kevin White 4.35 26 294 11.31 0 14 1st
Marquez VS 4.37 40 610 15.25 2 16 5th
Josh Boyce 4.38 9 121 13.44 0 10 4th
Donte Moncrief 4.40 205 2559 12.48 21 69 3rd
Average /16 GP 48.3 601.3 12.80 4.04

Of the 6 speedsters selected in the first round, only Brandin Cooks seemingly has fulfilled his potential, as he is now a top 10 receiver in the NFL. The rest of the list is filled with busts. Will Fuller has developed into a dangerous vertical threat for the Texans, but he is overshadowed by DeAndre Hopkins, and he benefits tremendously from “Nuk” drawing double-teams on every play. Tavon Austin has adapted into a dangerous kick returner, and a receiver/running back hybrid, but he is nowhere near the game changer he was predicted to be. John Ross, Kevin White, and Phillip Dorsett are flat-out busts, as Dorsett and Ross are on the roster bubbles for their respective teams. Kevin White, after struggling with injuries his entire career, has recently signed a 1 year, $1.5 million “prove it” deal with the Cardinals.

Of the other 9 receivers, there are some solid established play makers, like Marquise Goodwin, J.J Nelson, and John Brown, two promising young players in Valdez-Scantling and Samuel, and the rest are busts with no real value. One exception to that, perhaps, is D.J Chark who was a rookie last year, and still has time to build a career.

The reason why teams fall in love with speedy wide receivers might have to do with the proliferation of spread offenses in the NFL in recent years. Teams reach for explosive athletes that fit the physical requirements of the scheme, and thus a receiver whose only top trait is speed ends up being drafted as a #1 receiver, when in reality they might be much better-suited as a third option, or a slot receiver, positions which can be often found in the later rounds.

To contrast my first list, I compiled the NFL’s top 15 receivers’ forty times, and the results serve as further proof that speed does not necessarily make an elite receiver in the league.


Top 15 Receivers 40 yard dash
Top 15 Receivers 40 yard dash
Julio Jones 4.35
DeAndre Hopkins 4.57
Mike Evans 4.53
Tyreek Hill 4.28(*)
Juju Smith-Schuster 4.54
Michael Thomas 4.57
Davante Adams 4.56
Adam Thielen 4.45(*)
Antonio Brown 4.47
T.Y Hilton 4.34
Robert Woods 4.51
Brandin Cooks 4.33
Keenan Allen 4.71
Kenny Golladay 4.50
Odell Beckham Jr. 4.43
* Hill and Thielen’s results taken from the athlete’s Pro Day

Of the 15 top receivers in the NFL, only 4 posted a 40-yard dash below 4.40. This is the reason why D.K Metcalf, or Parris Campbell are not as high on my draft board as they are on others. Some so-called “experts” are calling Metcalf “The next Calvin Johnson”, while in my opinion he is much more likely to be the next Kevin White. Don’t get me wrong, being fast helps, but it’s not the sole predictor of whether a wide receiver will produce in the NFL or not.

The Colts, in my opinion, should stay away from Metcalf (if he slips all the way to #26), and should be wary of guys like Parris Campbell or Terry McLaurin. My personal favorite receiver of the entire class is Stanford’s J.J Arcega-Whiteside, and, in my opinion, he is toe-to-toe with N’Keal Harry. My late-round prospect to watch is Ole Miss’ Damarkus Lodge. Arcega-Whiteside, Harry, and Lodge all have traits that are significantly more important for success at the position than speed alone. Polished route-running, crisp releases and surefire hands are, in my opinion, indicators that these receivers will be much better pros down the line than guys whose primary skill is running quickly in underwear.