Is the 40-yard dash becoming obsolete at the NFL combine?

ByMarcel Louis-Jacques ESPN logo
Sunday, March 3, 2024

FLORIDA STATE DEFENSIVE tackle Braden Fiske couldn't hide his excitement.

The 6-foot-4, 290-pounder had just recorded the fastest 40 time for his position group at this year's NFL combine -- a blazing 4.78 second run that left Fiske so impressed, he couldn't help but belt out an audible "Oh yeah!" upon crossing the finish line for everyone watching at home to hear.

Fiske's satisfaction with his 40 time is nothing new to veteran combine watchers who have witnessed a generation of players celebrating great performances in one of the event's legacy drills, which now includes Texas wideout Xavier Worthy's record-breaking run on Saturday.

For the past 20 years, the 40-yard dash has become synonymous with the combine.

If combine drills were a musical group, the 40 would be Mick Jagger, Beyoncé or Harry Styles. Its popularity has expanded beyond the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where the combine is held annually. It's featured in video games, created viral memes and even inspired a 46-year-old Tom Brady to turn back the clock and try it again after his infamous first attempt 24 years prior.

As the combine has grown into one of the NFL's most marketed offseason events over the past two decades, the 40-yard dash has provided a stage to showcase athletic evolution, with each crop of the league's newcomers coming in bigger and faster than ever.

All of this is remarkable, considering the drill has all but lost its utility to front office personnel and data analysts around the league in the modern era.

The 40 is no longer the most effective way to determine a player's speed. The value it once had to teams has diminished in its 80-year existence, as clubs turn toward other means -- such as GPS tracking and analytical data -- to fully understand how fast a player can move in football specific situations.

The 40's waning relevance to evaluators comes at a time when combine specific training for NFL hopefuls is as popular as ever. That could finally be changing, however, as some prospects -- like Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. -- have chosen to forgo the 40 and the rest of the combine skills tests altogether in favor of more football specific training. Always seeking to gain information, some teams have managed to find other uses untethered to speed, but a consensus has formed.

"It's archaic, outdated and doesn't translate for all positions," an NFL agent with multiple clients participating in this year's combine told ESPN.

THE MAN REGARDEDas the father of the 40-yard dash is Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown. According to, Brown, who co-founded and coached the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, began recording how quickly players could run 40 yards in the late 1940s.

Over time, it became the standard for measuring players' speed and was implemented in the NFL's first official combine in 1985. The following year, Auburn running back Bo Jackson blew scouts away with a 4.13-second 40-yard dash, although it was hand-timed and technically was not at the combine.

In 2004, the first year the combine was televised, 11 players ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.4 seconds -- which is considered exceptionally fast. By 2022, 31 players accomplished the feat, including three who did so in under 4.3 seconds.

"Complete night and day, even versus seven, eight years ago," athletic trainer Matt Gates said. "It's just a completely different ballgame now. It's such a huge focal point. ... A decade ago, we came here and everybody ran the 40, but you also did short shuttle, you did the L drill -- you did everything. Guys are doing less and less of that and just focusing on the 40-yard dash now because that's a big money event."

Gates is co-owner of XPE Sports, a Fort Lauderdale-based company in Florida that specializes in NFL combine training. Its clients have produced eight of the 12 fastest times recorded heading into the 2024 combine, includingBengalscornerbackDJ Turner II, who ran a combine-best 4.26-second 40-yard dash in 2023.

Gates has trained NFL prospects since 2003 and hasn't been surprised by the improvement in athletic performance in that time span.

"What you're seeing is kids are coming in faster because collegiate strength and conditioning has gotten significantly better," he said. "So they're coming to us in better shape the last six, seven, eight, 10 years than they were before ... and these kids are taking it way more seriously. They come in to us and they're at a level that we didn't see 12, 15 years ago."

It also helps that combine training has exploded into a multimillion-dollar industry.

Prospects train for months after the college football season ends, specifically to achieve the best test results possible.

Gates and trainers like him have narrowed combine prep down to a science, and NFL hopefuls are lining up to improve their draft stock.

Some are having trouble even getting in the door.

"Basically, it's first come, first serve," Gates said "We have agents we deal with and word of mouth referrals that we deal with from players, past players. But whoever comes to us, we train 'em and we hit a certain number, we turn 'em away.

"We're turning away 75 guys and some of our other competitors are doing something very similar. There's a lot of players that think they need this type of training when only, what, 250 players get drafted and then another what, 10 undrafted free agents per team? I think the economy of combine training is probably a little bigger than what it needs to be, quite honestly."

There are some drawbacks to hyperfocusing on combine performance, mainly that it takes away from actual football training.

Gates and XPE have more than 30 clients at this year's combine, plus another 30 or so professional clients in South Florida. The two groups are on completely different training regimens.

"Our combine guys are seeing the way we're training our NFL veterans versus how they're training, and it's a complete 180," he said. "Like, night and day and not even in the same universe as far as the training philosophy -- totally different energy system, totally different focus.

"I struggle with this. ... I feel the combine is necessary, but it's not a completely football specific event."

ULTIMATELY, TEAMS VALUE football specific information more than a breakneck 40 time.

"It's play speed, more for us. What am I watching when I'm at a game live?" Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane said. "Do you feel that guy's speed jump off when you're on the field? You can see it on tape, the guys that have it. I've seen guys that are 4.4, but they don't play 4.4, they play 4.5 because they're thinking too much or they just don't have a good feel for the game.

"And then I've seen guys play much faster than they run [in the drill]. They didn't train for it very well, but they play fast, they process and they're really good players. So again, I'm looking more at what do they look like in their pads playing the game, understanding all the concepts more than just, what is that true 40-yard time."

You don't have to search far to find a prominent example of game speed surpassing drill speed.

Last year, the receiver who ran the 35th-fastest 40-yard dash of his position group also registered the top speed during the gauntlet drill -- a drill in which players are asked to catch passes while running at full speed across the width of the football field.

The Los Angeles Rams decided a player's performance in a more football specific drill was more important than what he ran in the 40-yard dash and spent a fifth-round pick on him.

With 1,486 yards and 105 catches in his rookie season, Puka Nacua proved them right. The NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash but hit a top speed of 20.06 miles per hour over the first 40 yards of the gauntlet drill, according to Next Gen Stats. No other prospect registered a speed faster than 19.65.

Miami Dolphins general manager Chris Grier made a similar decision in 2014, when he was the team's director of college scouting.

"At the end of the day, nothing replaces field speed or play speed," Grier said. "Because as you guys all said when we drafted Jarvis Landry here years ago, everyone was like how can you draft a 4.75 receiver? And then he ends up with 1,000 yards and is a good player. So I think nothing replaces that football speed and competitiveness.

"Everyone uses the GPS times now and all that stuff and we have programs that measure it, but at the end of the day, those things will help guide you."

And therein lies the coup de grce for the 40-yard dash -- the introduction of in-game GPS tracking.

All 32 NFL teams use tracking data at practice and on game day to gain a deeper understanding of how their players are performing. Sports data companies such as StatsBomb also track and analyze data in ways that on-field drills can't.

"Using the 40 as a proxy for game speed can be problematic," sports data analyst Matt Edwards said. "There are people who are just fast -- Tyreek Hill is fast, he will always be fast. But then there are people, I know there's the really common example of the LA Rams who had looked at Cooper Kupp's in-game speed versus his 40 time. And there's a big difference there."

Edwards is the head of American football analysis at StatsBomb. Before that, he worked as the director of football analytics at the University of Virginia.

He remembers seeing former Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton's draft stock fall after he ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash in 2022 -- the same player Edwards had seen intercept a pass against Virginia after tracking the ball from the middle of the field to the sideline.

The concern about Hamilton's speed was surprising to Edwards then and is comical now, after Hamilton, who was taken 14th overall by the Baltimore Ravens that year, made the All-Rookie team in 2022 and was named All-Pro in 2023.

"I was like, 'How are people not saying that this guy is going to be incredible?'" Edwards said. "I have seen that on tape. And that's where you get the big debate about scouts and what they see on film versus analytics ... Like, man, I've seen this kid, he's really good. If you're looking at his 40 time at the combine, it may not be great, but being able to talk about his change of direction, his closing speed. For defensive linemen, how quickly they get off the ball -- that's all stuff that people are trying to build proxies off of with the combine data.

"But being able to actually have it in-game, where it's not just like everything coming down to how well they run this race twice. You have hundreds of plays of, well this is how they're actually playing. And I think that's where teams have gotten an edge for the past couple of years, but now everyone's really caught on and they're like, 'oh, well that makes a ton of sense.'"

THERE'S A HIGH-RISK, low-reward nature to running the 40-yard dash.

Two of the top wide receivers in the 2024 draft class -- Harrison Jr. and LSU's Malik Nabers -- opted not to participate in any drills at the combine this year, including the 40-yard dash.

Neither player has much to prove by running the 40, but a subpar performance could be a deciding factor in one falling behind the other.

"You're always going to have a handful of the really top guys that choose not to do it," Gates said. "[Harrison] has got tape to justify his theory in this process, and he can do whatever the hell he wants to do that he thinks is going to maximize his draft stock. Again, for me, I see it as a competitive event.

"If I'm a GM or I'm a front office guy and I come in [to the combine], I want to see these kids compete, man ... that might be a little bit old-school, but that's part of the process too."

So what's the value of the 40-yard dash in 2024? Is there even a point to still run it if teams have hundreds of hours of tape on each player and pages of analytical data to match?

As it turns out, Gates is on to something with his line of thinking.

"I mean, I come old-school with Coach [Bill] Parcells. It's like the underwear Olympics," Grier said. "For me, getting the medicals on the guys is very important. Then spending time digging in with the players. ... But I will say, doing the workouts, you also see who's competitive. So for me, the guys that do all the drills, I always like that because that shows this guy is here to compete.

"This guy is basically saying 'F it.' This is football and I'm just going to compete. So for me, I appreciate those players, especially in this day and age, where people are telling guys not to do so."

While some players choose to skip the drill, many more opt in -- like Worthy whose4.21-second 40 was the fastest in combine history. The 40-yard dash might not be the most effective way to determine a player's speed, but it's still the combine's marquee event for skill position players.

Its value to teams since Brown popularized it has declined, but with the 40-yard dash and the rest of the NFL combine's drills there is still a method to the madness.

Someone is always watching the NFL, even during a series of drills that have been rendered inefficient by the analytics wave. Prospects can still prove a few things to teams by running drills like the 40 -- just not necessarily their game speed.

"There's an aspect of how well a player can prepare and their discipline while preparing for a big event," Edwards said. "Is this someone who can perform under pressure? That's something that you might be able to get from the combine. [Teams] may not do all of the testing, but they'll always have position specific drills and the chance to interview the players.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the combine changes but, I mean, it's not going away."

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