“What’s the 40 time?” is a common refrain when discussing NFL hopefuls. The 40, referring to the 40-yard dash, is the shorthand metric for comparative speeds between NFL prospects. It’s a curious conceit because the measurement almost never comes up after the draft. However, it remains arguably the most important result of any of the combine or pro day tests. At least, this is true for any non-quarterback position (the QB still has to demonstrate arm strength and accuracy).
For everyone else, though, the 40-yard dash is the do-or-die result. Why? Because of the Dallas Cowboys. Gil Brandt, a longtime Dallas personnel chief, was there when the team adopted the 40-yard dash as a standard test, and he explained the reasoning to The Commercial Appeal:
[Head Coach Paul Brown] did it as a way of deciding which players to keep, but we decided, “Why not get them to run a 40 before we have them in camp?” Some of it also had to do then with deciding who you switched over to defense, which is always where you wanted your fastest players.
And there you have it. Without further adieu, here are the fastest standardized 40 times in the NFL. (The league switched to electronic timing in 2000.)
7. Justin King, CB (2008); Johnathan Joseph, CB (2006); Tyvon Branch, CB (2008); Keith Marshall, TB (2016) – 4.31 seconds [tie]
Shout out to the Minutemen, we have a three-way tie for last. And all three of them are cornerbacks (fancy that). Like Brant mentioned, the fastest NFL players tend to wind up on defense. It makes sense, if you figure that the guys trying to keep the other team from scoring should probably be able to get to the guy with the ball as quickly as possible.
So who were these players? The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Johnathan Joseph with the 24th pick in 2006. A two-time Pro Bowler, Joseph went to the Houston Texans in free agency. He signed a five-year deal with the club, which began in 2011. The St. Louis Rams, meanwhile, took Justin King in the fourth round of the 2008 NFL Draft. He played for the Rams, Colts, and Steelers, his last club, which waived him in 2013 after placing him on the IR list.
The Oakland Raiders selected Tyvon Branch in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, and he played strong safety before joining the Kansas City Chiefs. KC franchised Branch in 2012; he only appeared in two games during the 2013 season before he suffered a fractured fibia. Unsurprisingly, the Raiders safety was also a track star.
The 2016 NFL Combine saw one participant make this list; Georgia’s Keith Marshall clocked a blazing 4.31 in his 40-yard dash time (it was unofficially marked as 4.28, which would have tied him with the notables below.) Either way, a strong showing means the future is bright for this senior running back, who was somewhat overlooked prior to this mark.
6. Tye Hill, CB (2006); Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR (2009); Yamon Figurs, WR (2007) – 4.30 seconds [tie]
Let’s get one thing clear about now-deceased Hall of Fame Raiders owner/general manager/icon Al Davis: He loved speed; he loved fast players; he loved drafting fast players. So when Darrius Heyward-Bey (pictured) ran a 4.30 at the 2009 NFL Draft Combine, Davis responded by taking the receiver, a track star in high school (sound familiar?), with the seventh overall pick. That was, by most people’s estimations, way too high. Oh well. Now with the Pittsburg Steelers, Heyward-Bey starred in a great MMQB article a couple seasons ago.
The St. Louis Rams chose Tye Hill, who played from 2006–10, in the first round of the draft. He would later go on to play for the Tennessee Titans, Detroit Lions, and Atlanta Falcons, only catching on for more than one year in St. Louis. His was the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2006 draft combine.
Yamon Figurs also played his last game in the NFL during the 2010 season, after tearing his ACL during his rookie campaign with the Baltimore Ravens. He ended up with the Detroit Lions, the Tampa Bay Bucs, the Oakland Raiders, the Cleveland Browns, and the Tennessee Titans before entering the Canadian Football league, where he remained for one season with the Edmonton Eskimos.
5. DeMarcus Van Dyke, CB (2011); Jacoby Ford, WR (2010) – 4.28 seconds [tie]
DeMarcus Van Dyke was also drafted by the Oakland Raiders, in the third round of the 2011 draft. That draft was owner/GM Davis’s last, as he passed away that October (the draft traditionally takes place in late April). Van Dyke did not see much playing time with Oakland and was released in 2012, when he caught on with the Pittsburg Steelers, who waived him after he suffered a hamstring injury.
Jacoby Ford, a super-speedy wide receiver, ran a 4.28 40-yard dash and was drafted by — stop me if this is getting familiar — the Oakland Raiders with a more reasonable 101st pick. Ford was even faster than Heyward-Bey (the unofficial gold standard for “Al Davis will draft anyone who was faster than anyone else”), posting his 40-yard dash time in 2010. He played with the team for four seasons, until the franchise did not offer him a new contract in 2014. Ford is currently playing with the Titans, and you can see footage of his 40-yard dash above.
4. Marquise Goodwin, WR (2013) – 4.27 seconds
That’s correct: The third-fastest NFL 40-yard dash came as recently as 2013. Marquise Goodwin, a multi-sport athlete at Texas, put down a scorching 4.27 time at the 2013 NFL combine. The wide receiver, who played in 12 games last year, including one start, tallied a grand total of 17 receptions. He was able to make them count, though, as Goodwin averaged 16.6 yards per catch on his way to three touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Goodwin’s rookie season didn’t do much to help the Bills, as they finished 6-10 and missed the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season. The next year was better, though, and Goodwin and the rest of the roster will look to grow together with Buffalo in the future.
3. Dri Archer, RB (2014) — 4.26 seconds
That’s also correct: History was almost made at the 2014 NFL Draft Combine, as Dri Archer came very, very close to breaking the combine record, which we’ll get to shortly. A running back out of Kent State, Archer wasn’t a highly touted prospect before his combine showing, which definitely opened some eyes.
After all, a 4.26 40-yard dash is fast. Real fast. Archer was eventually drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft and was a relative nonentity during his rookie season, reflecting on his mixed-bag scouting reports before the draft.
“Outstanding burst, acceleration and top-end speed to take the corner and create big plays,” said NFL.com’s scouting report. ”Extremely strong pound-for-pound.” So far, so good. Sounds like a good prospect. But then: “Very short and rail thin with no strength or running power. Not a tackle-breaker and goes down easy on contact,” the report continues. “Limited inside runner. Can be knocked off routes easily and struggles catching on contact.”
2. Chris Johnson, RB (2008) – 4.24 seconds
The (second) fastest electronically clocked player in NFL combine history, Chris Johnson, nicknamed CJ2K after his 2,000-yard rushing campaign in 2009 — and later, after his return to earth, sarcastically referred to as CJ2YPC at two yards per carry — may have been the fastest player in the NFL.
After struggling to live up to his incredible 2009 season, Johnson, who has struggled behind a sometimes porous offensive line, managed to rack up 1,077 yards in 2013. CJ2K, who had never run for fewer than 1,000 yards until his seventh year in the league, was drafted in the first round by the Tennessee Titans (higher than he was projected to go before the combine).
Johnson has run the season-highest single gain in two NFL seasons, running for 91 yards in 2009 and 94 yards in 2012, and until 2015 he had never missed more than one game in his NFL career. You can check out his record-setting 40-yard dash above.
1. John Ross, WR (2017) – 4.22 Seconds
Chris Johnson held the 40-yard dash record, for almost a decade, but during the 2017 NFL Combine, University of Washington receiver John Ross blew everyone out of the water and set a new record of 4.22 seconds. Check out the video above, and realize that Ross was unofficially clocked at 4.18 — which would put him within a respectable distance of Bo Jackson’s legendary (and unofficial) 4.13.
Beyond his blazing speed: (Walter Football has him listed as “extremely fast” in their scouting report because,yeah, he’s very very fast) Ross grades out about as well as any average-sized wideout could hope for, and he could potentially be the wide receiver to be picked in the 2017 NFL Draft.