How important is speed for an NFL wide receiver?

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We hear all the time about a prospective NFL players 40 yard dash at the combine.  Did he run a sub 4.5? Wide receivers who don’t run a sub 4.6 almost never end up starting in the NFL. I think that’s a shame.

Obviously there is a point where slow is too slow for the game of pro football. But why is speed important? It’s not only important for break away long plays, it’s also critical because getting open is a fundamental aspect of playing receiver and speed can help a player to get open.  My own experience in football tells me that a player’s straight-line speed is not that critical.  More important is his quickness. I would define quickness as the measurement of a player’s ability to accelerate,  stop suddenly and change direction., in a say, a 10×10 yard box. Actually, there are several skills that are more important to a receiver than his 40 yard dash time, and yet it is his 40 time that always receives the most attention.  A player can have fantastic hands and great quickness but it is a invariably a blazing 40 time that will get the most talk.

In my own experience in sandlot ball, the fastest player was almost never the best receiver.  As QB for my Army office team, I’ve noticed the attributes that make a good receiver and can quickly identify the player that I was to throw the ball.

1) Good receivers are aggressive.  They want the ball, run to it, and fight to get it.  They do not let defensive backs make the first move to the ball, either vertically, or down the field.  With a good receiver, the QB must throw the ball to an area; with a poor receiver, the QB must throw the ball much more accurately. Poor receivers drift.  They may look up at the ball then back at the defensive back while the ball is in the air.  They cede the initiative of playing the ball to the defender.

2) Good receivers know how to get open and when they are open. They quickly identify weaknesses in the defenses’ setup and make small adjustments in their routes to maximize the distance between themselves and the defender.  Tactics employed include, head and body fakes and changes in acceleration and angles. They are quick in and out of their cuts Moreover, good receivers know when they have achieved a sufficient level of separation and they look back for the ball quickly. Bad pass catchers stare at defensive backs as they make their cuts and are late looking for the ball.  Bad receivers do not possess a large bag of tricks to fool defensive backs and often fail to properly analyze what the defense is doing to shut them down and they round their patters, providing time to defensive backs to break on the ball.

3) Good receivers catch the ball. Nothing will break a QB’s confidence more than a receiver who drops passes. A receiver’s job is first to catch the ball, then to run. Good receivers make receptions on balls thrown that should have been incomplete passes.  Poor receivers stop drives by dropping balls that should have been easy completions.

One reason for the stress placed on 40 time is because it is easily measurable. Just as in the world of military intelligence analysis, it is easier to present data than it is to interpret what that data means in the bigger picture.  It is easy and safe in the current football culture for a scout or general manager to wow owners and coaches with a number. And speed is difficult to improve; people are mostly born with it or without it, and many of the other football skills, it is thought, can be taught. And of course, speed can result in scores in quick, spectacular scores.

Receivers that do not possess incredible speed but produce good numbers in the NFL, are often referred to as “over-achievers” or “hard workers”. But it’s time to consider the vast range of skills great receivers possess, and realize that speed is only one of them–and probably not the most import one at that.

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One thought on “How important is speed for an NFL wide receiver?

    Bill said:
    October 30, 2012 at 1:23 am

    I would agree that speed alone isn’t the decisive factor, but it’s the nfl where you’re dealing with the top of the food chain. It’d be interesting to study is catches are made when people are in full stride, I guess that would pretty much determine it. I can only think back to HS where being a lot faster (and taller) made a world of difference b/c you could get out in front of people, but it was quickness as opposed to pure speed. We had a guy who was a track star but he was fast as opposed to quick, and didn’t have great hands. I think having the hands and wanting the ball are part of any equation. I never really thought about it, but yah, I guess it’s very possible it’s overrated, but it’s definitely important – seems that the regression toward the mean puts everyone pretty much top ending at around the 4.3-4.5 range, no one is getting much quicker, so with that many people able to run that fast, the other factors you mention are a bigger deal.

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