Hey everyone! Guess who’s desperately trying to drum up interest in his math video series with cool tie-in articles? I mean, uhh...
Yeah, so this ties in to my latest Bills Mathia on standard deviation, which you should check out here. That’s purely coincidental though. Probably. Here’s the premise. At some point, physical traits become so rare that they warrant a look at a player based on that alone. With the Buffalo Bills perhaps aiming for a new wide receiver in the 2023 NFL Draft, I wanted to take a look at who might be fast enough to warrant consideration based on speed for speed’s sake.
I know, I know. A “methodology” section is kind of a “blah” way to start this. I’ll try to keep it brief. If you watched my video, you’ll see that in a given population about 68% of people are within one standard deviation from the arithmetic mean (aka “the average”). A standard deviation then is basically the “average” distance away from the “average” if that makes sense.
Between one and two standard deviations away from the mean you have about 26% of the population (around 13% on each side). Between two and three standard deviations you’ll find about 2.1% of the population on each side, and only 0.1% of a given population is three or more (that’s about one in 1,000). Here’s the real short version: At two standard deviations away, you’re in rare territory — what I call a “remarkable” result.
- I used 40 times because the 10-yard splits aren’t as widely available
- I only used the WR group and only combine results (sorry Breshad Perriman and his 4.25 pro day result)
- Because of the above, I use standard deviation of a sample for those of you who care about that sort of thing
- I used the last decade of results to reflect that the game may be changing
Now on to the fun stuff!
The Fun Stuff
What’s the dang point of all this?
What’s the old saying? “You can’t teach speed.” Take a quick glance back at the percentages I gave up above. Specifically, that you’d expect about 68% of the wide receivers running the 40 at the Combine in the last decade to be within one standard deviation of the mean. What this means is that a huge chunk of players should be really close in overall speed using this measure. In order to remove players from the board (slower side of the chart) or move them up (faster side) on speed alone, you really should look for those rarer performances. Here’s a crappy drawing of what’s called the bell curve to start to illustrate.
Note: The percentages in the drawing are the usual distribution in a population. The actual numbers are refined a bit below. If you’re looking at the above, in football terms the grouping between -1 and +1 are “replacement level” running the 40. Most players will be in this range. Here’s the blunt version: Skill, culture fit, and other factors are far more important to differentiate players in that group, in my opinion. You can find so many guys with similar straight-line speed that it’s better to look at something else to make a decision.
Between one and two standard deviations you have about 13% of players on either side. Those that are this much slower than the mean (between +1 and +2) might start coming off the board unless there’s something you really love about them elsewhere. It’s not quite a red flag, but it’s a solid yellow one.
On the other side, you might start forgiving small flaws between -1 and -2. On this trait alone you might not take a gamble on a player here in this range. There’s not a huge amount of players available with this speed, but enough to choose from where speed alone doesn’t make the choice.
It’s at two standard deviations away in either direction where the real magic should happen. At +2 or greater, there better be something else they’re really great at. From a statistical perspective, what this means is that over 97% of players are faster.
Turning to the flip side, that means at -2 less than 3% of players are this fast. Here’s where the gamble makes sense. This is speed you can’t teach.
Gimme the actual numbers
Here’s another crappy drawing, this time with the mean time for WRs running the 40 in the last decade as well as the cutoffs at -2, -1, +1, and +2.
The average 40 time for a wide receiver is 4.51 seconds. The standard deviation comes in at just over a tenth of a second. Now that we have some numbers defined, here’s a few fun facts:
- In the last decade, Pro Football Reference has 436 wide receivers with 40 times at the combine
- Only seven have run it in less than 4.31 seconds (1.6%)
- All seven were drafted, only one later than round three (Anthony Schwartz in 2021). Two each were drafted in Rounds 1 through 3
- John Ross recorded the fastest time ever at 4.22 seconds in 2017 (first-round pick). That performance was not three standard deviations away from the mean (4.205 seconds). If anyone ever does that, draft them immediately
- A total of 40 wide receivers fell in the range between -1 and -2 standard deviations (9.2%)
So what about this year?
That’s the real point of this article. I know it’s a lot of groundwork for this, but it’s no coincidence this is being written right after the 40 results for this year are in. Buffalo could use a wide receiver and a fast one sure isn’t going to hurt anyone’s feelings. So then, is there anyone with “remarkable” speed in this year’s draft?
Not a single player this year hit the -2 threshold where statistically I’d say give them a shot based on pure speed (4.31 seconds). Trey Palmer (Nebraska) came tantalizingly close at 4.33 and the second-best performance was a 4.36 from Derius Davis (TCU).
That pair and six other receivers were between -1 and -2, which as noted above is where you might forgive a flaw or two. If you’re interested, the other six are:
- Matt Landers (4.37)
- Marvin Mims (4.38)
- Bryce Ford-Wheaton (4.38)
- Tre Tucker (4.4)
- Jalin Hyatt (4.4)
- Jalen Moreno-Cropper (4.4)
Don’t see a player you love? Remember, I’m not saying don’t draft them. I’m saying don’t draft them solely because of speed. Zay Flowers falls just shy of the 4.41 cutoff to meet that range (4.42) and is expected to be a coveted draft pick.
The lines aren’t intended to be exact cutoffs, and other traits still matter. If Flowers’ route running is far superior to say, Marvin Mims, the stats aren’t saying draft Mims anyway.
At some point, speed is so remarkable that you might draft a guy solely for that gamble. Statistically speaking, no one in the 2023 NFL Draft Class is that gamble (unless someone’s pro day goes exceedingly well). There are about eight guys where their speed is enough where it starts to become a true strength compared to their peers, but it’s still not enough to draft solely for speed.
Because there’s no raw speed gamble player so far, this trait is a bit of a secondary characteristic in 2023. On the other hand, there’s usually about four players each year where speed becomes a larger factor (between -1 and -2) and there’s eight so far in this draft. Put differently: the top speed might not be elite, but the decent speedsters are deep. If the Bills nab a receiver this year, fingers crossed they’ll land a good combination of speed and talent.