The Truth About Athlete Speed in the NFL

By Cameron Josse

If we really want to know how fast our football players are, it’s time for us to think bigger than the 40-yard dash.

In American football, the 40-yard dash has always been the traditional test of speed. Anyone who has worked with NFL draft prospects knows how important this test is. It can literally determine whether an athlete has a career as a professional football player. Scouts representing all 32 teams sit in rooms with coaches and front office personnel, sharing the results of their stopwatches and labeling players based on their 40 time. The players are described as the “4.3 guy” or something similar.

The time that appears on the stopwatch seems to be the most important number for these scouts, despite several other tests that are also performed at the Combine. However, the 40-yard dash is king, and seems to be the only test that matters.

You will never hear a scout say, “Well, he’s a wide receiver and ran a 5.02 on his 40. He’s definitely slow, but his shuttle was impressive!” It just doesn’t happen this way. In fact, you’re more likely to hear a scout say, “He only jumped 28 inches in his vertical but that 4.45 he posted for his 40 shows that he’s got some nice burst. I think he’s worth considering!”

There’s no question that the fastest players on the field are typically (but not always) the best performers in the 40-yard dash. It makes sense that coaches and scouts have put the 40-yard dash on such a pedestal. Reason and logic can indicate that if you draft players with raw speed ability, there’s a great chance that they will play fast for you on game day.

Read the original article by Cameron Josse in Simplifaster.com

Again, we know this isn’t always the case, as some players struggle to show great game speed despite having very impressive raw speed ability. But no one can argue that most of the players in the NFL that play with great speed are the same players that posted impressive 40 times at the NFL Combine. But is the 40-yard dash the best test for coaches to use to determine raw speed ability for their football players?

Velocity: A True Indicator of Speed

Even though sprint times can give us a reflection of an athlete’s speed ability, the truth is that these times won’t always tell us how fast an athlete can move. In physics, the kinematic quality of velocity, specifically when observed as a scalar quantity, is the truest measure of speed as it relates to a body in motion.

The magnitude of velocity is a scalar quantity and is expressed as distance over time. Technically speaking, any unit of distance over any unit of time can be used (e.g., miles per hour, feet per second, kilometers per minute, etc.), but the unit that is used in the metric system (and most commonly found in sport science) is meters per second (m/s).

Magnitude of Velocity = Distance/Time

In most sports, the distances measured on the track or playing field are recorded in meters, so we easily understand the unit of m/s. American football, however, measures the game in yards. Football sport performance coaches will almost always prescribe sprint training distances by measuring yards, not meters. Thus, if we calculate velocity for these efforts using distance over time, the units are in yards per second (yd/s) rather than in m/s.

It is important that we convert the velocity into m/s so that we may gain a better perspective of how fast these players are relative to the fastest human beings in the world: elite-level 100-meter sprinters. It can certainly be argued that nobody expects football players to run as fast as 100-meter sprinters (and they very likely never will), but it’s still important to gain an understanding of what “fast” really means.

The conversion from yd/s to m/s is: 1.00 yd/s = 0.9144 m/s

You might logically assume that you figure out velocity by simply dividing the distance (40 yards) by the time taken to achieve it (4.40 seconds) to yield a velocity of 9.09 yd/s, which can then convert to 8.31 m/s. However, the problem with this approach is that the velocity of 8.31 m/s is reflective of the average velocity over a very broad distance.

A conversation with James “The Thinker” Smith allowed me to better understand the misguided effort of measuring average velocity over very broad distances. James provided me with the example of Usain Bolt’s world-record 9.58-second 100-meter sprint. If we remove Bolt’s reaction time of 0.146 seconds, then he covered 100 meters in 9.43 seconds. If we divide the distance (100) over time (9.43) then we would yield an average velocity of 10.60 m/s.

But, Bolt’s fastest 10-meter split occurred between 60 and 70 meters, when he covered 10 meters in 0.81 seconds. If we calculate velocity here by dividing the distance (10) over time (0.81), then we would now yield an average velocity of 12.35 m/s!

Clearly, it is more advantageous for us to know that he can sprint 12.35 m/s rather than assume he can only attain 10.60 m/s.

Velocity A: 100 meters / 9.43 seconds = 10.60 m/s
Velocity B: 10 meters / 0.81 seconds = 12.35 m/s

Both values are from the exact same sprint. So, which value is a better indication of Bolt’s highest attainable velocity?

NFL Splits
Figure 1. The breakdown of Usain Bolt’s world record 100-meter performance of 9.58 seconds (retrieved from SpeedEndurance.com). His time included a wind aid of +0.9 and a reaction time of 0.146 seconds.

I know what you may be thinking: “Great, so 100 meters is obviously a very broad distance. But 40 yards is just a fraction of 100 meters… so wouldn’t it be accurate to calculate average velocity using the 40-yard dash time?” Well, my conversation with James investigated this issue as well.

Considering that 40 yards is equivalent to 36.6 meters, we can use the Usain Bolt data above and go ahead and round up to 40 meters for the sake of example. Bolt crossed the 40-meter line at 4.64 seconds, but if we remove reaction time again (0.146 seconds) then he really reached 40 meters in 4.49 seconds. So, if we calculate velocity by dividing distance (40) over time (4.49), we yield an average velocity of 8.91 m/s.

Now, if we take the fastest 10-meter split from 0-40 meters, we can see that the fastest split time occurred at 30-40 meters with a time of 0.86 seconds. Again, dividing the distance (10) by the time of the segment (0.86) now yields an average velocity of 11.63 m/s! There is an obvious difference in favor of calculating velocity based on the smaller segment since it will be a better depiction of instantaneous velocity.

Thus, it’s safe to say that the 40-yard dash time by itself is NOT enough information to truly understand how fast a football player is.

The Flying 10-Yard Sprint: A Better Speed Test Than the 40-Yard Dash

Track and field coaches have used flying sprints for quite some time. Flying sprints have served as a potent stimulating exercise for the development of maximum velocity. The premise is like a build-up sprint, where top speed is reached in a relaxed fashion rather than maximal acceleration from a static start. The idea is to hit a full speed sprint “on the fly,” where a 30-50-meter run-up is performed and acceleration is gradually increased leading into a full-speed burst for a subsequent distance of 10-30 meters.

One of the most popular methods is the flying 10-meter sprint. Rather than sprinting at maximal intensity for 40 meters, which can be a very taxing endeavor, a sprinter can perform a 30-meter run-up and apply maximal intensity only to the final 10 meters. The final 10 meters would be the only timed segment, thus only requiring timing gates for this section. It’s imperative that flying sprints use fully automatic timing gates to get an accurate depiction of the split time.

The Freelap system is a perfect example of a fully automatic timing system. Using a hand timer may be very difficult due to the speed of motion, and it would likely display a split time that is largely invalid. If you do not have access to a fully automatic timing system, you can use smart phone apps like the My Sprint App to time this segment using slow-motion video.

You can adopt flying sprints and utilize them with football players simply by changing meters into yards. Use the flying 10-yard sprint to accurately calculate a football player’s maximum velocity by dividing 10 yards over the time of the flying sprint and then converting it into meters per second. For example, an athlete who performs a flying 10-yard sprint in 1.01 seconds would yield a velocity of 9.90 yd/s, which converts to 9.05 m/s. We now have a more accurate representation of how fast this athlete is.


Video 1. Flying sprints are both workouts and tests. Simply timing the 10-meter or 10-yard sprint allows you to see where your training is and how your athletes compare to the normative data.

How Does Velocity Affect Acceleration?

Many coaches (including myself, in the past) find themselves assuming that, since American football is a game based primarily on acceleration ability, its training should focus solely on acceleration. It is commonly believed that maximum velocity sprinting is a risky quality to train and isn’t very reflective of how the athletes operate when on the field. As a result, coaches put a huge emphasis on shorter sprints (e.g., less than 30 yards per repetition), with most of the volume performed around 10 yards per sprint.

However, Ken Clark’s research expressed the importance of maximum velocity for field athletes. Small improvements in maximum velocity can result in large changes across the entire acceleration profile. Figure 2 provides an example from Ken Clark:

Maximum Velocity Acceleration Profile
Figure 2. Ken Clark’s research expresses the importance of maximum velocity for field athletes. Small improvements in maximum velocity can result in large changes across the entire acceleration profile. (Photo from Clark’s presentation for ALTIS, “Speed Science: The Mechanics Underlying Linear Sprinting Performance.”2)

In the paper by Clark et al. (2017) 1, there is a similar example where the Combine participants with the fastest velocities showed the fastest times at every split. The images below compare velocity profiles across a range of athletes at the 2016 NFL Combine, including participants representing the 1st, 33rd, 66th, and 99th percentiles.

NFL Player Velocity Comparisons
Figure 3. Graph A compares the acceleration profile of the various participants at the 2016 NFL Combine as a measure of velocity attained at each segment. Graph B depicts the acceleration profile of the participants in relation to percentage of maximum velocity achieved at each segment. (Graphs modified from Clark et al. (2017), “The NFL Combine 40-Yard Dash: How Important is Maximum Velocity?”1)

In the image above, Graph A compares the acceleration profile of the various participants at the 2016 NFL Combine as a measure of velocity attained at each segment. The fastest athlete achieved higher velocities at every 10-yard segment after the sprint start, while the slowest athlete achieved the lowest velocities. So, we can see that having very high raw speed will improve an athlete’s ability to hit better times at any given distance.

However, Graph B contains the most eye-opening piece of information, depicting the acceleration profile of the participants in relation to percentage of maximum velocity achieved at each segment. The lines are almost fully overlapping each other! This indicates that these participants portrayed a similar acceleration pattern in the 40-yard dash. Furthermore, the paper by Clark et al. classified all 260 athletes into “Fast” and “Slow” groups based on maximum velocity, and found that both groups achieved similar percentages of their relative maximum velocity at the same segments over 40 yards.

A receiver and an offensive lineman might both reach around 93-96% of their maximum velocity at 20 yards, but the receiver has higher velocity overall, thus hitting a much better split time at 20 yards and onward thereafter. Think of it similarly to having a higher one-repetition maximum (1RM) in lifting weights. If you bench 400 lbs., your 90% will look much different than that of a 200-lb. bencher. The same goes for speed. If you are faster than the other guy, your velocity will be higher at every submaximal percentage of your maximum velocity even if the relative percentages are the same.

So, wait. Let me get this straight. Should I just ditch my acceleration work and focus only on top speed now?

NO.

As with most things in life, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. It all comes down to CONTEXT, or WHY we perform a certain training exercise. Athletes must explore the skill component of starting a sprint, accelerating in the early and late stages of the sprint, and finding comfort at very high speeds when they reach maximum velocity. So, don’t ditch the acceleration work—just don’t forget to include the maximum velocity work!

Training to Increase Maximum Velocity for Football

Ultimately—as we all tend to understand—speed kills. But how many of us are really doing what’s necessary to improve our football players’ speed?

When I used to bury myself in all the writings and videos of the late sprint coach, Charlie Francis, he always seemed to mention a common theme when it came to maximizing speed performance: Aim for 95% intensity or higher. The intensity in this case was not reflective of effort, but rather based upon an objective speed measure like the split time over a given distance. If you can at least achieve 95% of your best time, then you are on the right track to getting faster.

We may also use this “95% rule” when trying to push the maximum velocity ceiling higher. To achieve at least 95% of maximum velocity, the sprint distance must be long enough to allow for the display of high velocities. Running as fast as possible over 10 yards will never allow the athlete to achieve high percentages of relative maximum velocity. The distance is just not long enough for the necessary acceleration.

Ken Clark makes a helpful point. Due to the acceleration pattern of football players, 20 yards seems to constitute around 93-96% of maximum velocity, regardless of position. It may be safe to say that sprinting over distances equal to or greater than 20 yards, performed with maximal intensity, are reflective of “top speed training” for football players. Even at 15 yards, Clark et al. reveal that all players operated near or above 90% of their maximum velocity.

Consider how many programs only focus on sprint starts that may be 10 yards or less. I am guilty of this myself. My athletes used to live around 10 yards per sprint. But now we see with the analysis by Clark et al. that if we can just push the distance to 15-20 yards, there may be tremendous implications for improving maximum velocity in our football players.

The way I view it, there are three ways to go about developing maximum velocity with football players:

  1. Develop Technique for High-Speed Sprinting
  2. Train at, Around, or Above Maximum Velocity
  3. Test and Record Changes to Maximum Velocity

Develop Technique for High-Speed Sprinting

Technique can be crucial to not only enhancing speed, but also keeping the players safe when conducting maximum velocity training. This is where a lot of coaches get it wrong. While the techniques of acceleration and max velocity sprinting are similar, the displays should be different simply because of the direction of force application. Where acceleration is more dependent upon horizontal force application, max velocity sprinting requires high levels of vertical force at ground contact: upwards of four to five times body weight for elite level sprinters! You should therefore understand the efficient technique of sprinting at maximum velocity if you expect outputs to be high and risk to be low.

Common mistakes for a team sport athlete performing maximum velocity sprints include2:

  • Pelvis is collapsed and rotated too much anteriorly: A common way to look for this is if you notice a “duck butt” or the athletes over-arching and/or leaning forward when sprinting.
  • Too much backside swing: Kicking out towards the backside of the body or excessive butt-kicking behind the body.
  • Not enough frontside lift: Knee does not approach parallel with the hip as the leg swings through on the front side of the body.
  • Over-striding by casting the foot out in front of the hips: Does not drive the foot down and back, and often strikes with the heel first rather than the ball of the foot.
  • Ankle collapses on ground contact: The ankle deforms once it makes contact and force dissipates as a result. This is often due to the above-mentioned factors and/or insufficient ankle strength and power.

The sequence below is an example of an NFL linebacker showing inefficient mechanics when running around maximum velocity (segment of 30-40 yards). Notice the above-mentioned factors that are present, such as too much backside swing and not enough front side lift.

40 Yard Dash Butt Kick
Figure 4. This NFL linebacker shows inefficient mechanics when running around maximum velocity (segment of 30-40 yards). Notice the common mistakes that team sport athletes performing maximum velocity sprints make, such as too much backside swing and not enough front side lift.

What we want to see when athletes are sprinting at maximum velocity2:

  • Posture is upright and neutral: Pelvis is in a position to allow for efficient backside swing and knee lift during frontside mechanics.
  • Less backside swing: Leg should extend backwards just enough to allow for force application and then should begin forward movement again.
  • More frontside lift: Knee should approach the area where it is level with the hip and the thigh is near parallel to the ground.
  • Attacking the ground from above: Foot should drive down and back into the ground under the hips rather than cast out too far in front of the hips. Contact should be on the ball of foot.
  • Stiff ankle contact: Ankle should not deform excessively, ensuring that the force developed at the hip can transmit into the ground and be used for higher force application in each step.

The sequence below is the same exact NFL linebacker as before, now showing efficient mechanics at maximum velocity (during a flying 10-yard sprint) after we took the time to develop technique. You will notice improvements, including more neutral posture, less backside swing, and more frontside lift.

40 Yard Dash Butt Kick Fix
Figure 5. The same NFL linebacker as before, now showing efficient mechanics at maximum velocity (during a flying 10-yard sprint) after we took the time to develop technique. Notice the improvements, including more neutral posture, less backside swing, and more frontside lift.

Some drills you can use to help improve technique in high-velocity running include:

  • A-Skips for Distance (e.g., 30-40 yards)
  • A-Run or High Knees for Distance (e.g., 30-40 yards)
  • Intensive Tempo Runs – Aiming to achieve around 80-85% maximum speed.
  • Build-Up Runs – Gradually increasing speed every 10 yards for up to 50-60 yards total.
  • Vertical Plyometrics – Ankle-dominant plyometrics can serve an important role in helping enhance force transmission from the hip through the ankle into the ground. Pogo hops, tuck jumps, hurdle hops, low box jumps up and down, etc., are all good options.
  • Med Ball Knee Punch Runs (see Video 2 below) – This is a drill I started using based on the need to figure out how to get the athletes to maintain an upright posture and improve the frontside lift while minimizing backside swing. Have the athlete hold a light medicine ball (≤6 lbs) at their belly button and tell them to run while attempting to drive their thigh up towards the med ball. Even if they don’t make contact with the med ball, it’s OK—the goal is to encourage more frontside lift.


Video 2. This is the knee punch drill that athletes can use to improve frontside mechanics. Track athletes can also use this drill for improvement in technique, especially reducing butt-kicking recovery errors.

Train Around Maximum Velocity

You can logically assume that to BE fast, you must TRAIN fast. Plenty of coaches and scientists have stressed this concept for years. We know from experience that training with heavy weights close to 100% 1RM will usually result in improvements in strength. In other words, to be very strong, you must use high resistance in the training of strength.

We have seen the acceptance of this in the field, as strength and conditioning has made its way into almost every high school, university, and professional athletic realm. But true speed training appears to remain mostly absent; an ironic observation, nonetheless, considering how many coaches seem to recruit players for their speed, not their strength.

Acceleration Sprints

Even if athletes perform sprints at maximal intensity, if the sprints are not long enough to put the athletes at speeds that are conducive to their highest relative velocities, we can’t expect that their maximum velocity will improve. Figure 6 displays findings modified from the Clark et al. (2017) paper of percentages of relative maximum velocity for every position at the 2016 NFL Combine. If we accept the notion that training drills to enhance velocity should be 95% or higher of maximum velocity, then we can use this table to see that football players should try and sprint for at least 15 yards, and ideally at least 20 yards, to push the velocity ceiling higher. Of course, space can become an issue in some facilities, but this is the reality of training for velocity improvement.

Time Segments
Figure 6. 2016 NFL Combine percentage of maximum velocity for all participants, modified from Clark et al. (2017).

Flying 10-Yard Sprints

We can, of course, also use flying 10-yard sprints as a training modality. Here an athlete can operate very close to or above 100% maximum velocity.

A primary concern for the flying 10-yard sprint is determining how much of a run-up to use. Track and field sprinters typically reach maximum velocity between 50 and 60 meters1 and, as previously shown, Usain Bolt didn’t reach his highest velocity until 60-70 meters in his world-record sprint. However, as shown above, it is likely that all the participants at the 2016 NFL Combine were around their maximum velocity by the time they crossed the 40-yard line.

Of course, it’s possible that players with slower maximum velocities (offensive and defensive linemen, for example) may hit their maximum velocity before the finish line, whereas faster players may be able to continue accelerating beyond 40 yards. But given the acceleration profile presented in the paper by Ken Clark, it is likely best to use a 20-30-yard run-up leading into a flying 10-yard sprint—perhaps a 20-yard run-up for players with larger body mass (i.e., over 275 lbs.), and a 30-yard run-up for all other players may be acceptable.

It’s important to keep the volume of flying sprints very minimal; likely only one to three total repetitions in a workout. This is because it’s an intelligent risk management strategy to consider ALL the yards covered in one flying sprint. For example, we can count a flying 10-yard sprint with a 30-yard run-up as 40 yards of volume for that repetition. If we perform three repetitions, we consider the total volume from flying sprints as 120 yards.

Overspeed and Assisted Sprinting

Admittedly, this is not my area of expertise and something that I still need to research and practice before I can speak comfortably about it. However, the information is out there and overspeed training may have a strong place in the training process for pushing the ceiling of maximum velocity. Overspeed training allows for supramaximal speed outputs. In other words, it allows the athlete to consistently achieve higher than 100% maximum velocity. Though many forms of overspeed training are certainly very risky, technology devices like the 1080 Sprint have now made it possible to train overspeed in a very controlled setting.

Sprint Volume

In my experience, if you keep quality high, linear sprint workouts for football players usually don’t need to exceed 300 yards in one workout. My upper volume range for wide receivers, defensive backs, and speed running backs might be 250-300 yards in a workout. Linebackers, tight ends, power running backs, speed defensive ends, and dual-threat quarterbacks might have an upper volume range of 200-250 yards. Linemen and pro-style quarterbacks might have an upper volume range of 100-200 yards.

Less is often more, and a sample workout for a speed running back might be as follows:

SAMPLE SPRINT WORKOUT WITH NFL RUNNING BACK

  1. 2-Point Stance Sprints
    • Submaximal Starts – Around 90% Effort
      • 2×10 yards
      • 20 yards total
    • Full Speed
      • 1×10 yards
      • 1×20 yards
      • 2×30 yards
      • 90 yards total
  2. Flying 10-Yard Sprint w/30-Yard Run-Up
    • Submaximal Sprint Around 90% to find rhythm
      • 1×40 yards
      • 40 yards total
    • Full Speed
      • 2×40 yards
      • 80 yards total

TOTAL SESSION VOLUME = 230 YARDS

Based on the distances used, this sample workout would feature a total sprint volume of 230 yards, with 200 of them around 93% of maximum velocity or higher.

Test and Record Changes to Maximum Velocity

As discussed throughout the entirety of this article, the best way to test speed is to test maximum velocity. Although split times correlate well with velocity, they do not always give an accurate representation of speed. I can use calculations from the Clark et al. paper to model the velocity of the 2016 NFL Combine participants and compare the two fastest participants from that year: running back, Keith Marshall, and wide receiver, Will Fuller.

Ken Clark provided me with the results of these calculations and I have put them side by side below:

Modeling 40 Yard Dash
Figure 7. The split time vs. modeled maximum velocity of the two fastest athletes at the 2016 NFL Combine. (*The equations used to determine model velocities are presented in the paper by Clark et al. (2017))

Basically, the math shows that even though Will Fuller ran a slower 40-yard dash time by 0.01 seconds, due to the linear regression relationship of his modeled velocities attained over the 40-yard distance, it’s likely that with more distance (e.g., 50-yard dash) he would have eventually surpassed Keith Marshall if they were sprinting side by side. It is also possible that if Will Fuller had performed a better start in comparison to Keith Marshall, he would have achieved a faster 40-yard time, as Fuller was measured at 1.51 seconds at the 10-yard mark and Marshall was measured at 1.49 seconds. If we base our speed assessment on velocity rather than 40-yard dash time, we can conclude that Will Fuller is the faster athlete of the two, minimal though the margin may be.

This is an example of why tracking maximum velocity is a better indication of an athlete’s raw speed ability when compared to split times over long distances like 40 yards. Tests like the flying 10-yard sprint and technology for calculating maximum velocity are both very useful here and can involve a more relaxed environment for testing speed more often than relying on periodically testing 40-yard dash times.

Are Your Football Players Fast Enough?

I asked Ken Clark if he would be able to use the equations from his paper to design flying 10-yard sprint and maximum velocity goals based on specific positions played in American football. Luckily for all of us, he provided me with exactly that.

He sent me modeled data for the fastest, middle, and slowest players at each position from the 2016 NFL Combine and I used it to construct goals based on position groups. Since the NFL Combine is considered an invite-only event of the top players in college football, you can use these goals to determine if your football player has enough velocity to keep up with the top players in their position group.

Position Group Speed
Figure 8. Flying 10-yard sprint time and maximum velocity goals for college and pro American football players.

If they can achieve (or surpass) these velocities, congratulations! You can consider them among the faster players at their position and they should continue to maintain or improve upon their maximum velocity as their career unfolds. Of course, we should also account for the fact that just because a player has raw speed ability, it does not necessarily mean that they will play fast within the technical and tactical demands of football. But that is a topic for another article.

As far as physical limitations go, if a college or pro football player can’t achieve the velocities listed above, then it may be safe to say that they will have to compensate greatly and hope that they can have outstanding perception, technique, and understanding of the game principles to make up for their lack of raw speed. While our goal as coaches is to help remove limiting factors to a player’s performance, if we are responsible for their physical development and see that they are not fast enough (based on velocity) then we owe it to them to help them get faster.

“But what if I coach high school athletes?”

While some highly recruited prospects can achieve similar sprinting speeds as college and NFL football players, they are very rare and certainly do not show a physical limitation as it relates to speed. For the greater percentage of high school football players, it is necessary to list some more attainable goals. Again, since the NFL Combine is an event that invites most of the highest-performing players in college football, it may be fair to use the slowest calculated velocities at each position group as a baseline for high school athletes. While they may not become fast enough to play in the NFL, we can at least hold them to a standard for being fast enough to play in college.

Based on Ken Clark’s data, I determined the following velocity goals for high school athletes:

Position NFL Speed
Figure 9. Using Ken Clark’s data, I determined the flying 10-yard sprint time and maximum velocity goals for high school football players.

A Balanced Perspective

John Ross, a wide receiver out of the University of Washington, recently broke the NFL Combine record for the 40-yard dash and, subsequently, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him. Ross broke Chris Johnson’s long-standing record of 4.24 seconds when he crossed the finish line with a time of 4.22 seconds.

Interested in trying to beat the new record? Look at the table below based on more data from Ken Clark that compares correlations of 4.20-4.40-second 40-yard dash times to maximum velocity and flying 10-yard sprint times:

NFL 40 Relationships
Figure 10. Correlational data between 40-yard dash times, flying 10-yard sprint times, and maximum velocity. (*Has not yet been done at the NFL Combine.)

Running a 4.20-second 40-yard dash would break the current record set by John Ross. According to the correlations above, an athlete would likely need a maximum velocity of around 10.40 m/s, which would correspond to a 0.88-second flying 10-yard sprint!

For additional perspective, here are the top five fastest velocities achieved during 2016 NFL regular season games, according to NFL Next Gen Stats3:

  • Tyreek Hill 105-yard kickoff return for touchdown (penalized for holding) – 10.39 m/s
  • Tyreek Hill 86-yard kickoff return for touchdown – 10.18 m/s
  • Desean Jackson 59-yard pass reception for touchdown – 10.10 m/s
  • Xavier Rhodes 100-yard interception return for touchdown – 10.01 m/s
  • Brandin Cooks 45-yard pass reception for touchdown – 10.01 m/s

Keeping in mind that these numbers were achieved during live game action, while wearing full equipment, we instantly notice how dominant and unique the speed of Tyreek Hill is in comparison to his peers.

Moving on from Conventional Testing

The 40-yard dash is a test that requires the athletes to set up in a three-point stance, hold for a moment, and then take off into a sprint while timing starts on first motion. In football, only the linemen start in low positions and three-point stances. Most positions start from a more upright position.

Psychologically, the 40-yard dash can be a very stressful test and often results in athletes trying too hard and displaying inefficient technique, often becoming a huge detriment to their recorded times. If we choose to use the 40-yard dash as our primary test of speed, we must ensure that athletes can learn to deal with the pressure of performing the test so that they stay relaxed while running at maximum intensity.

In contrast, the flying 10-yard sprint is an option for a more relaxed test, performed more frequently, in a position from which ALL players will find themselves (upright running). From this test, we can easily calculate maximum velocity, which is the true indicator of a player’s speed.

Let’s be clear: I am NOT saying that we should ditch split times. Absolutely not. If you can beat your recorded split times, then chances are that you are getting faster. I am simply advocating that the flying 10-yard sprint provides a direct measure to calculate maximum velocity. We can use flying 10-yard sprints to calculate maximum velocity and use split times as feedback to fuel intensity while training for acceleration and top speed.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves what we want to measure. Do we care more about the 40-yard dash time itself, or the fact that our players are getting faster? Most coaches would agree that they just want fast players. While the 40-yard dash is certainly one way to decipher the fast from the slow, there are other potential options like the flying 10-yard sprint that can paint a clearer picture.

Special thanks to Dr. Kenneth Clark for helping contribute the data, graphs, and accuracy of the information provided in this article. If you are interested in learning more about total speed performance, be sure to read his research and follow him on Twitter: @KenClarkSpeed.

References

  1. Clark, K. P., Rieger, R. H., Bruno, R. F., & Stearne, D. J. (2017). “The NFL Combine 40-Yard Dash: How Important is Maximum Velocity?” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.
  2. Clark K.P. Speed Science: “The Mechanics Underlying Linear Sprinting Performance.” PowerPoint Presentation.
  3. NFL Next Gen Stats Web site [Internet]. NFL Next Gen Stats; [cited 2017 Sep 9]. Available from: Fastest Ball Carriers

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Cameron Josse

Cameron Josse

Director of Sports Performance at Defranco’s Training Systems
Cameron Josse is the Director of Sports Performance for DeFranco’s Training Systems in East Rutherford, NJ. Cameron has been working with DeFranco’s Training Systems since 2013 and has quickly built up a resume working with a multitude of athletes in high school and collegiate sports, as well as professional athletes in the NFL, NHL, UFC, and WWE superstars. Cameron earned his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology while playing football at the University of Rhode Island and holds a master’s degree in exercise science from William Paterson University.
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