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The numbers back up the eye test: Tyreek Hill is the NFL’s fastest player

Kansas City's Tyreek Hill used his speed to devastating effect in a playoff game against Buffalo. (Colin E. Braley/AP)
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Among the many improbable events that unfolded toward the end of Sunday’s incredible playoff win by the Kansas City Chiefs over the Buffalo Bills — when the teams combined for a whopping 25 points in the final two minutes of regulation — was Tyreek Hill’s catch-and-run for a 64-yard touchdown.

Watching the Kansas City wide receiver fly past defenders had more than a few observers wondering: Who is the fastest NFL player?

Plenty of evidence suggests Hill should hold that unofficial title.

Most of the evidence comes from the NFL’s Next Gen Stats (NGS), which for several years has mined data from tracking devices installed in every league venue and from radio-frequency identification tags installed in players’ shoulder pads and game balls. Among the fun stats produced by the NGS number-crunchers are quarterbacks’ aggressiveness percentage (how often they throw into tight coverage), running backs’ average time behind the line of scrimmage and receivers’ average separation from their nearest defenders at the time of a pass target.

In the NFL, speed has always mattered. Now it’s everything.

Since 2016, NGS has also provided data to the public on the fastest ballcarriers in a given season, as measured by their maximum speed on certain plays. For the 2021 season, the highest mark was recorded by Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, who hit 22.13 mph on a 67-yard touchdown run against the New England Patriots in Week 15. Given that he also posted the fourth- and fifth-highest speeds this season, Taylor should be considered the NFL’s fastest player, right?

Not so fast.

If consistency of accomplishment counts for anything, Hill still stands above the pack. That 64-yard touchdown gave him 14 plays this season on which he hit 20 mph or more while carrying the ball, at least six more than any other NFL player, per NGS. Hill’s 12 such plays last season were also the most in the league, and the 24 times he topped 20 mph during the 2018 and 2019 seasons were 10 more than the total of the next player, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, on NGS’s list for that span.

In the 2016 season, Hill notched the fastest speed NGS has recorded for a ballcarrier when he hit 23.24 mph on a kickoff return. San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 this season, posted the second-best speed of 23.09 in 2020, and Hill also holds the third spot with a time of 22.77 mph in another 2016 game.

Then there are the speeds Hill has reached when he didn’t have the ball, most notably on a pair of long touchdowns in 2019 by then-Kansas City running back Damien Williams. On both occasions, Williams broke free and sprinted away from defenders, only for Hill to chase him down with top speeds of 22.81 and 22.64 mph. On one of those plays, Williams cracked the NGS top 20 for that season by hitting 21.33 while going 84 yards. The other play, a 91-yard scoring run against the Minnesota Vikings, caused some amusement when Hill easily beat Williams to the end zone despite being approximately five yards behind his teammate with 60 yards to go.

The measurements of speed with which most football fans are familiar are players’ times in the 40-yard dash. This is where things become slightly murky for Hill, who wasn’t invited to the NFL draft combine after finishing his college career at West Alabama in 2015. Hill, who was dismissed from Oklahoma State’s program in 2014 after he was arrested on charges of domestic abuse, did run a reported time of 4.29 seconds at his West Alabama pro day, but the draft combine is widely considered the most reliable source of 40 times.

Nevertheless, if Hill’s time of 4.29 is accurate, it stacks up fairly well against the best marks recorded at the combine since it went to electronic timing in 1999. The best combine 40 time, 4.22, was posted in 2017 by wide receiver John Ross, who has not come anywhere close to matching Hill’s volume of highlight plays or overall statistics.

As many fans have noted, the 40-yard dash doesn’t necessarily correlate to “game speed” — i.e., how fast a player can go in a game when in full pads and uniform. Reports vary on just how slow Jerry Rice was in the 40, and he clearly was not a burner. But that never stopped him from running away from defenders en route to becoming the greatest wide receiver of all time.

Fastest NFL ballcarriers on plays run since 2016 (per Next Gen Stats)

Speed
Player
When
23.24 mph
Tyreek Hill, WR, KC
2016, Week 2
23.09
Raheem Mostert, RB, SF
2020, Week 2
22.77
Hill
2016, Week 12
22.73
Mostert
2020, Week 1
22.60
DeSean Jackson, WR, WAS
2016, Week 13

In addition, it is often more important how fast a player can go in short, well-timed bursts. By some of those metrics, Hill has no peer in the NFL.

According to more data from NGS, Hill led all players last season in speed off the line of scrimmage when running corner, post, go and crossing routes. On corner routes, he got up to 11.34 mph within one second of the snap of the ball.

To Chiefs Coach Andy Reid, the most exceptional aspect of his star wide receiver’s speed is its relentlessness.

“The thing that amazes me the most is that he’s fast and quick, but it’s his endurance while being fast and quick,” Reid said of Hill in November. “Normally, you don’t see that. I tell him that he has this ‘Cheetah’ nickname but he is really not a cheetah because they’re normally a burst and then they go rest for about eight hours. That’s not this guy.

“He can keep going, over and over again. It’s pretty amazing.”

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