A player running 40 yards has arguably become the most important stat in evaluating their level of talent on both sides of the ball, with the slight exception of the linemen. The crime is that attributes such as agility, acceleration, catching, and field vision are losing their significance on the offensive side of the ball, while tackling, timing, and awareness fall victim on the defensive side.
For an example of this, look no further than my personal hero, the beloved Wes Welker. Everyone, including Texas Tech, overlooked his abilities. All these teams saw was his diminutive height (5'9") and mediocre speed (4.6). Wes proved everyone completely wrong throughout his career. The Longhorns and Aggies were left wondering how Welker completely torched their defenses year after year, and the Sooners were kicking themselves for letting Wes get out of Oklahoma. However, even after his illustrious collegiate career, Welker went undrafted.
Taurean Henderson has a similar story. Anyone in the Big 12 will tell you that Taurean was a great back, because they all watched him play. His numbers and place in the record books will tell you the same, and he did against some of the nation's best defenses. Henderson plays the game much like Reggie Bush did for USC, except he runs a 4.6 forty. It is for this reason, and this reason only, that a travesty occurred when Taurean went undrafted.
Dwayne Slay proved that this doesn't just apply to offensive players. Slay was one of the rare defenders who had the ability to completely change games. Players actually tackled themselves to avoid his hits. His eight forced fumbles in 2005 tied Derrick Johnson's single season record. However, Johnson was a first-round draft pick, while Slay's 40 time caused him to go undrafted.
However, it's not just Red Raiders who have dealt with the all-important 40 times. Emmitt Smith watched his draft stock drop after running a 4.7, and yet history will continue to remember him as one of the great running backs of all-time. Currently, Pro Bowlers Anquan Boldin and Terrell Suggs look to have fantastic NFL careers ahead of them, and both ran slow 40 times. Conversely, there have been players with great 40 times who were complete busts in the NFL. Blair Thomas was an RB drafted above Emmitt Smith in the 1990 draft due to his speedy 40 time, and Thomas had a poor NFL career. See the recent examples of Marcus Vick and Reggie McNeal for further support.
Furthermore, the variables in the 40-yard-dash times make comparisons between athletes inconsistent at best. Not everyone goes to the combine to run the electronically-timed 40. Some players get considered for the only data that is available, which is many times the college's Pro Day. With this, now the differences in running surface, wind, temperature, etc. come into play. And all of that is in addition to the unreliability of hand-timing. Also, what if the player slips in getting off the line, or has an off day because he has an injury, or slept on his leg wrong and has a tight muscle? This little number starts to mean less and less the more you look into it.
How often is a straight-line 40-yard-dash actually run in a football game anyway? Outside of an unhindered fly route or a running back sprinting straight through a gap in the middle for 40 yards, it simply doesn't happen. The defense is there to get in the way, so agility, body control, and acceleration become more important in escaping tackles. As for the defense, if you're running 40 yards, odds are you screwed up.
The point is, a player's 40 time is far from wholly indicative of their abilities. Sure, it's easy to look at a number and make a decision. However, the great evaluators of talent are the people who take the time to look at what a player provided to their team instead of becoming enamored with a number on a piece of paper. The only way to see what players are capable of is by watching what they did on the field.
- Trent Wycoff
(Questions, comments, praise, and constructive criticism can be directed to Trent within the forums or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org)