Does recent history suggest that an elite 40-yard dash time raises a prospect’s draft stock?

The hype surrounding John Ross’ blazing 4.22 40-yard dash in Indianapolis last week is ongoing.

Ross, who could be best described as a DeSean Jackson prototype, is a player that a number of Cowboys fans have coveted with the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. But does his speedy showing at the combine mean he’s worked himself out of Dallas’ range?

Following Ross’ performance, I started to wonder about the recent history of elite combine sprinters and how their 40-yard dash might have effected their draft stock.

I wanted to know how many sub-4.4 40-yard dash prospects went in the first round over the last five drafts, and where were they projected by analysts to be selected in January, the month prior to the combine. I then follow up with a sampling of mock drafts a week or so before that particular year’s draft to confirm whether consensus had changed after the combine, or whether the player still wasn’t a consensus first rounder by the time they were picked.

Before we dive in, let’s clarify a few things.

  • Obviously an analyst’s projection of where a player will be selected does not mean the selecting team didn’t always think highly of the prospect. But a large, consensus sampling of typically well-connected analysts does lend credence to the thought that the prospect probably wasn’t as prominently on the radar of those teams before showing out at the combine.
  • Some of these players had terrific all-around combines, and to boil it down to only the 40-yard dash neglects other contributing factors behind their rise. This is not perfect research by any means. It could only tacitly be referred to as research in the first place. I’m fully aware that it willfully neglects other factors between February-April that may have contributed to their rise. But we’re trying to figure out how much, if at all, that draft stock increases with an elite 40-yard dash performance.
  • These will only include first round picks, because they are the prospects most likely to see a stock change based on their 40 time. A projected seventh rounder who runs a 4.3 40 is not going to see a significant increase in draft stock, because there are clearly other things limiting their stock. But a second or third rounder who runs one of the faster 40 times in their positional group would logically begin to close those smaller gaps between the first and second round as opposed to the first and seventh.

So with that out of the way, let’s take a look at the past five NFL Drafts and what kind of stock increase speedy first rounders saw after the combine.

2012

In 2012 there were four players taken in the first round who ran a 40-yard dash that was faster than 4.4. One of those players was Robert Griffin, who we’re going to eliminate from this discussion since a 40 time alone likely wouldn’t have any significant bearing on a quarterback’s draft position.

We’re left with these three players:

Name/School: Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina
Position: Cornerback
40 time: 4.38
Selected: 10th overall by Buffalo

Name/School: AJ Jenkins, Illinois
Position: Wide Receiver
40 time: 4.37
Selected: 30th overall by San Francisco

Name/School: David Wilson, Virginia Tech
Position: Running Back
40 time: 4.38
Selected: 32nd overall by New York Giants

Pre-Combine Mock Drafts

Zach Kruse, Bleacher Report, 1/30/12

Ryan Van Bibber, SB Nation, 1/17/12

Peter Schrager, Fox Sports, 1/16/12

Mel Kiper, ESPN, 1/18/12

Russ Lande, Sporting News, 1/20/12

Of the five mock drafts used to create some sort of consensus value on Gilmore, Jenkins, and Wilson, two of the players appeared in one mock each. Gilmore was projected as the last pick of the first round in Ryan Van Bibber’s SB Nation mock, and Wilson was projected 22nd in Russ Lande’s Sporting News mock. AJ Jenkins didn’t appear in any of the five.

Jenkins and Gilmore were clearly not viewed as first round prospects the month before burning up the turf at the combine. Wilson was projected high enough in one mock that he was likely viewed by many as a borderline first rounder at the time, but more frequently considered a second rounder.

Final Stretch Mock Drafts

Chad Reuter, NFL.com, 4/24/12

Peter King, SI, 4/20/12

Charlie Campbell, Walter Football, 4/26/12

Mel Kiper, ESPN, 4/18/12

Russ Lande, Sporting News, 4/18/12

Jenkins and Wilson were getting no attention as first rounders in these mock drafts. Wilson was consistently being mocked in the second round the week before the draft, and Jenkins was consistently being placed in the third.

Stephon Gilmore experienced a strong jump from January to April projections, however. Gilmore was featured in the first round of all five mock drafts sampled, as high as 7th and as low as 27th. The mean average of the five mocks placed Gilmore at 15th overall and he ultimately went 10th. There was a consensus among analysts and evidently teams that Gilmore magically became worthy of a first round selection sometime after the combine.

2013

Just as with our 2012 sample, 2013 supplied us with three combine burners who ended out being selected in the first round.

Name/School: Tavon Austin, West Virginia
Position: Wide Receiver
40 time: 4.34
Selected: 8th overall by St. Louis

Name/School: Dee Milliner, Alabama
Position: Cornerback
40 time: 4.37
Selected: 9th overall by New York Jets

Name/School: Desmond Trufant, Washington
Position: Cornerback
40 time: 4.38
Selected: 22nd overall by Atlanta

Pre-Combine Mock Drafts

Mel Kiper, ESPN, 1/16/13

Josh Norris, Rotoworld, 1/2/13

Tony Pauline, USA Today, 2/4/13

Ethan Grant, Bleacher Report, 2/6/13

Andrew O’Brien, Philly.com, 1/15/13

All three prospects appeared in at least two of these mock drafts, with Dee Milliner appearing in all five. Milliner was not only widely mocked in the first round, but was most frequently placed in the top 10.

Before the combine, Austin was mocked in a million different rounds, and Trufant was more reliably mocked in the second with occasional appearances at the end of the first.

Final Stretch Mock Drafts

Josh Norris, NFL.com, 4/22/13

Charlie Campbell, Walter Football, 4/25/13

Mel Kiper, ESPN, 4/25/13

Todd McShay, ESPN, 4/25/13

Clark Judge, CBS, 4/25/13

Before the combine Milliner was the only one of the three considered a consensus first round pick. By mid-April, all three players were included as first rounders in almost every mock.

Dee Milliner was still pretty consistently being projected to go in the top 10, Tavon Austin was universally projected to go to the Jets at 13 (although he went to the Rams at 8) and Desmond Trufant was pretty consistently being slotted between 20-30, ultimately being picked by the Falcons at 22.

Milliner’s stock remained largely the same before and after the combine. However, Austin and Trufant both saw significant buzz increase following their 40-yard dash performances at the combine, which was ultimately realized when St. Louis and Atlanta selected them.

2014

2014 was a year for speed in the first round. The 2014 NFL Draft featured five sub-4.4 prospects going in the first round; three corners and two receivers.

Name/School: Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Position: Cornerback
40 time: 4.37
Selected: 8th overall by Cleveland

Name/School: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
Position: Wide Receiver
40 time: 4.38
Selected: 12th overall by New York Giants

Name/School: Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Position: Wide Receiver
40 time: 4.33
Selected: 20th overall by New Orleans

Name/School: Jason Verrett, TCU
Position: Cornerback
40 time: 4.38
Selected: 25th overall by San Diego

Name/School: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
Position: Cornerback
40 time: 4.39
Selected: 31st overall by Denver

Pre-Combine Mock Drafts

Matthew Fairburn, SB Nation, 1/27/14

Mel Kiper, ESPN, 1/16/14

Chris Burke, Sports Illustrated, 1/8/14

Brent Sobleski, USA Today, 1/28/14

Dan Hope, Bleacher Report, 1/19/14

The only player appearing in all five pre-combine mocks was Justin Gilbert, who ultimately went the highest of these five players when he was selected eighth overall. Gilbert’s placement in the pre-combine mocks was somewhat all over the place, going top 12 in three of the mocks and bottom third of the first round in two others.

Odell Beckham was widely considered a late first round pick, with a few slipping him into the early second.

Cooks, Verrett, and Roby received mixed projections. All three made appearances in the bottom of the first round, but all three were also completely excluded from the first in other mocks.

Final Stretch Mock Drafts

Matt Miller, Bleacher Report, 5/5/14

Bucky Brooks, NFL.com, 5/1/14

Charlie Campbell, Walter Football, 5/8/14

Mel Kiper, ESPN, 5/8/14

Peter King, SI, 5/6/14

Justin Gilbert went top 15 in all five of these mocks, and most mock drafts placed him correctly in the top 10. His stock was definitively that of a first rounder in January, but settled into the top half after the combine.

Odell Beckham also found himself going top 20 in all mock drafts after being viewed as a late first, early second before the combine. Beckham’s stock rose 10-15 picks from pre to post combine projections.

Brandin Cooks and Jason Verrett also stabilized themselves from January’s pre-combine projections. Cooks’ averaged projection was 22 (he went 20th) and Verrett’s was 30th (he went 25th).

The only one whose stock remained volatile was Bradley Roby, who was mocked as high as 13th in final projections and as low as the third round in others.

2015

2015 saw a return to normalcy from the spike to five speedster prospects going in the first. Three players ran combine 40s under 4.4 seconds.

Name/School: Kevin White, West Virginia
Position: Wide Receiver
40 time: 4.35
Selected: 7th overall by Chicago

Name/School: Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Position: Cornerback
40 time: 4.31
Selected: 11th overall by Minnesota

Name/School: Phillip Dorsett, Miami
Position: Wide Receiver
40 time: 4.33
Selected: 29th overall by Indianapolis

Pre-Combine Mock Drafts

Bucky Brooks, NFL.com, 1/26/15

Matt Miller, Bleacher Report, 1/15/15

Mel Kiper, ESPN, 1/15/15

Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com, 1/15/15

Dan Kadar, SB Nation, 1/12/15

There was a lot of consensus regarding these three players in January before the combine. The majority had Kevin White between 12-15, some had Trae Waynes going between 15-20, and absolutely no one had Phillip Dorsett in the first round. Most had Dorsett in the third, actually.

The one exception to White and Waynes’ consensus was NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah, who projected Kevin White to go fourth (ultimately went seventh) and had Trae Waynes going 10th (ultimately went 11th).

Final Stretch Mock Drafts

Matt Miller, Bleacher Report, 4/30/15

Lance Zierlein and Chad Reuter, NFL.com, 4/24/15

Mel Kiper, ESPN, 4/30/15

Todd McShay, ESPN, 4/29/15

Peter Schrager, Fox Sports, 4/29/15

In the end, the aggregate average got relatively close to their actual draft positions. White’s average was eighth overall (went seventh) Waynes was 13th (went 11th) and Dorsett, who was most frequently projected as a third round pick before the combine, finished with an average projection of 33rd overall, just four spots from his selection at 29.

Dorsett is a clear example of someone who shot up the draft board with his combine speed. Dorsett gained 30-40 spots from his January projection to his actual draft slot. White and Waynes both moved up 5-8 spots from their January average.

2016

2016 saw the speed market crater. Only two players were selected in the first round with 4.3 speed.

Name/School: Will Fuller, Notre Dame
Position: Wide Receiver
40 time: 4.32
Selected: 21st overall by Houston

Name/School: William Jackson III, Houston
Position: Cornerback
40 time: 4.37
Selected: 24th overall by Cincinnati

Pre-Combine Mock Drafts

Matt Miller, Bleacher Report, 1/4/16

Chad Reuter, NFL.com, 1/29/16

Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com, 1/18/16

Dan Kadar, SB Nation, 1/25/16

Mel Kiper, ESPN, 1/14/16

Both Fuller and Jackson were struggling to get on the radars of draft analysts before the combine. Will Fuller was largely considered to be a mid-second round pick, although Mel Kiper and Matt Miller initially mocked him in the bottom third of the first round.

William Jackson was not mocked in the first round by anyone before the combine. Those that did multi-round mocks often slotted him in the third round, like Chad Reuter from NFL.com did.

Final Stretch Mock Drafts

Chad Reuter, NFL.com, 4/21/16

Matt Miller, Bleacher Report, 4/28/16

Peter Schrager, Fox Sports, 4/28/16

Mel Kiper, ESPN, 4/28/16

Todd McShay, ESPN, 4/28/16

Fast-forward to April and William Jackson III was a consensus first round pick. Almost every mock draft had him going 25th to Pittsburgh, but Jackson would ultimately get scooped up by Cincinnati one pick earlier at 24.

There was still some disagreement on Fuller’s stock. Some had him in the early second, but consensus seemed to be that Fuller could certainly go sometime after 20, which he did to Houston at 22.

What did we learn about the 40-yard dash and its impact on draft stock?

As I mentioned earlier in this piece, we can’t guarantee that elite performance in the 40-yard dash improves the stock of prospects. But what anecdotal evidence we have seems to be a tie-breaker for closely grouped first and second round prospects, particularly when it pertains to receivers and corners.

The trend appears to be that players projected in the top half of the first round pre-combine are ultimately drafted in roughly the same position, or perhaps 4-8 spots higher. See Dee Milliner, Justin Gilbert, and Kevin White for examples of this holding pattern and marginal movement.

Players projected in the bottom half of the first round, or early part of the second, seem to pick up 10-15 spots from January projections to realized Draft Day selections. Examples we’ve seen here include Odell Beckham Jr, Stephon Gilmore, and Desmond Trufant.

OK, but what sort of implications would that trend have on this draft class?

This year’s combine produced seven sub-4.4 40 yard dashes: Washington’s speedy receiver John Ross, Ohio State wide receiver Curtis Samuel, North Carolina running back TJ Logan, Central Florida cornerback Shaquill Griffin, Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore, Minnesota cornerback Jalen Myrick, and UCLA cornerback Fabian Moreau. A cursory glance at analyst projections from January shows that only four of these players are slated to go within the first two days of the draft; Ross, Samuel, Lattimore, and Moreau.

Following the five-year trend, recognizing that it very well may not be a good indicator, let’s take a look at how much these four potentially increased their stock.

John Ross’ January projections were a bit bipolar. Some mock drafts had him as high as 18, and others dropped him to the top end of the second round. Following the five-year sample data of similarly projected players, Odell Beckham in 2014 and Will Fuller in 2016, Ross has at the very least solidified his draft position near the higher end of those projections, while potentially increasing his stock enough to have him selected within the first 15 picks.

Curtis Samuel has almost universally been projected as an early-mid second round pick. Similar to a player like Brandin Cooks in 2014, Samuel has potentially worked himself into the 20-30 range of the first round.

Moreau, who was widely projected in the third round over the last few months, has potentially done to his stock what William Jackson III did last year. Moreau’s projection based off of the five-year precedent would now likely place him in the bottom half of the first round. The buzz coming out of Indianapolis appears to be accelerating that direction already.

Finally, for an idea of what Marshon Lattimore’s 40-yard dash did for his stock, you can simply look at Justin Gilbert and Dee Milliner. Lattimore has similarly been mocked within the first 10 overall picks, and those 40 times have previously locked Gilbert and Milliner into their January projections. Lattimore should also find his top-10 projection secured.

Is elite combine performance in the 40-yard dash the only ingredient contributing to these four-month stock elevations and stabilization’s? Of course not. But the five-year trend certainly seems consistent in its impact on a top-50 prospect’s New Year analyst projection to their ultimate selection spot in April.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s