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As the NFL leans into big data, the 40-yard dash still has a place

Wide receiver DK Metcalf runs the 40-yard dash during last year's NFL combine. (Darron Cummings/AP)
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The 40-yard dash, an ancient, invented speed test of arbitrary distance, has become an event unto itself on the NFL’s calendar. For years it has been the public benchmark for the fastest men in football, a few seconds that may cause draft stocks to soar or crater, a measurement that can stick with a player his whole career. It is instantly known by shorthand vernacular: the 40. This year, for the first time, the league moved this week’s NFL combine drills to the evenings so NFL Network can broadcast the 40 live in prime time.

But what influence does the 40 hold in NFL front offices and draft rooms? As spread offenses permeate the league, speed has become the top priority for teams. “It’s the name of the game,” Kansas City Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach said days before his team, the fastest in the NFL as measured by miles per hour, won the Super Bowl. The race to find not only the fastest players but those who can wield their speed in games has never been more important.

NFL teams collect and analyze sophisticated data and advanced metrics, and front offices rely on bulked-up analytics departments to synthesize the information. Pro Football Focus meticulously gathers and sorts information from college games. Some college teams provide player-tracking data gleaned from GPS measurements. In a modern climate of big data, what place in draft evaluation does a player sprinting a little less than half a field in a straight line hold?

“The 40 doesn’t mean anything,” San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said before the Super Bowl. “The ability to run straight-line without anybody chasing you, without running against anybody, without twisting, without cutting, without thinking, it means nothing. It’s almost a false sense of security for these GMs.

“It’s the ability to play fast — what is your game speed? I think people are starting to recognize that more, but I guess the 40 still is the show. It’s still something to do in February when no football is going on. I think they’ll find another way to measure it soon.”

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Sherman’s assessment is both on point and a little off. It’s not correct to say the 40 is meaningless. While it may be a basic measure in a time of advanced metrics, teams still find value in it, for a variety of reasons. But it’s true that game speed is more important than tested speed and that there will be a time when evaluators can point to empirical evidence, rather than only scouted observations, about how fast a prospect plays.

That time is closer than the average fan may realize. John Pollard is the vice president of Zebra Sports, which provides player-tracking data for the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, measurements such as a player’s top speed in miles per hour and the distance a receiver separates from a defender. Last week, he was asked about Sherman’s prediction that NFL teams will have a way to measure game speed for college prospects. While there may not be one catchall metric, Pollard was quick with his answer.

“It’s here,” Pollard said.

‘Where the value is’

The 40 has become a stalwart, and much of its value to teams owes to its durability — it has been a part of the combine since it began in 1985 and was used by scouts for decades before that. The historical log of 40 times allows teams to compare prospects to an enormous database. Some teams have custom algorithms, beyond the popularized SPARQ score, based on historical data that blends combine results to project a prospect’s success rate.

The combine also allows for a static basis for comparison — every prospect runs the same distance on the same surface under the same conditions at roughly the same time. At a simpler level, evaluators feel comfortable with the 40 because they always have understood what it means.

“That’s where the value is,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “And I think that’s where the hesitation is to change.”

New methods of harvesting and sorting data can be used not to make the 40 outdated but to cull more information from it. This year, National Football Scouting, the firm that runs the combine, will include in the package it sends to teams a second camera angle of every player’s 40 — a head-on view from the finish line to complement the standard overhead shot. Teams had requested the angle so they could give it to their sports performance staff to study a player’s stride. Was he moving side-to-side? Is there a correctable flaw that suggests he is or could be faster than his time?

“Even with all the advanced analytics and the things teams are doing now to evaluate players, I actually think the data becomes even more important from a speed standpoint,” National Football Scouting President Jeff Foster said.

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Even Pollard, whose system the NFL employs to collect and sort advanced measurements, sees the 40 as an important ingredient in player evaluation. A dozen years ago, he said, he would have assumed the 40 would one day become obsolete. Now, though, he recognizes that any information can provide value as long as it is used properly.

“There’s room on the shelf for more information and credible empirical evidence,” Pollard said. “I don’t really see a day when some of the [combine] tests we’re seeing just go away. Perhaps the equation of evaluation gets longer, adding more variables like tracking data and game-situation information as tracking data becomes more proliferated at the college level. … I still think those standardized tests have a lot of comfort level.”

Pollard added that he does see a growing interest from NFL teams in measuring players’ explosiveness and speed in game scenarios. He could not say which college teams or even how many are using Zebra’s player-tracking products, but he envisions a future in which many college programs share troves of player-tracking data with NFL teams in the same way they share game video.

Traveling to college campuses this fall, Jeremiah frequently talked with NFL scouts who received player-tracking data from college teams who use the Catapult system, which uses GPS to measure player movement.

“They’re starting to get top speed [in miles per hour], acceleration, deceleration,” Jeremiah said. “They’re starting to collect the data on that with these guys. They’re eventually going to get enough of a sample size [that] they’re going to be able to find out what really matters there.”

For the past three seasons, the NFL has used Zebra’s player-tracking system at the Senior Bowl scouting showcase in Mobile, Ala. This year, teams asked Zebra staffers not only for daily practice reports of data mined from player-tracking technology but also for reports from the past two years, so they could run analyses comparing prospects with players who were already in the league.

“It’s still an early stage of adoption and interest,” Pollard said. “But we’re seeing an accelerated level of interest and enthusiasm around using it for scouting.”

‘How do we implement it?’

Last year, Pollard said, pass rusher Montez Sweat and wide receivers Terry McLaurin and Deebo Samuel were standouts based on player-tracking during Senior Bowl practices. Sweat, who like McLaurin was drafted by the Washington Redskins, recorded one of the fastest top speeds of any player during a pass-rush drill. All three also ran blazing 40 times at the combine, but teams could validate that time with how they performed in the gamelike environment at the Senior Bowl.

The Zebra report also includes data on how quickly players accelerate and decelerate, giving tangible measurement to scouting lingo such as “closing speed” and “good hips.” Those measurements will grow more valuable as teams build databases and are able to compare draft prospects to current and former NFL players who tested similarly.

NFL teams are in a race to figure out how to process the new information at their disposal. Foster said every NFL team receives the same bundle of information from the combine at the same time — meaning the competitive edge lies in how teams use it.

“We’ve kind of harvested” the information, Green Bay Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst said last summer. “Now it’s cleaning it. And then … [with] what we’ve found, how do we implement it? I think guys are still searching rabbit holes to see what else is out there. We’re challenging our guys to keep coming at us and finding out what sticks and what doesn’t.”

For the public, the allure of the 40 remains. A time in the 4.4-second range provides a jolt, and even casual NFL fans know a time under 4.3 is an all-time performance. In time, though, different numbers may take on more meaning. The 40 will still be the show, but how we talk about it will be different.

“I hope I’m still up there with Rich Eisen in the [broadcast] booth and we’re talking about a guy that just ripped off a 24-mile-per-hour instead of saying he ran a 4.32 or whatever it was,” Jeremiah said. “I think that’s where it’s headed. We can talk about the explosiveness they had or the ability to decelerate. That’s going to end up being more valuable information.”

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