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Opinion: 40-yard dash superiority uncorrelated with NFL success for safeties

Being exceptionally fast isn’t net

NFL Combine Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The 40-yard dash is the biggest television event of the NFL Scouting Combine. Every year, it gets the most air time and the most discussion. And for many positions, the 40-yard dash is relevant. There are correlations between draft position and 40-yard dash times for many players coming out in the draft annually, and watching running backs and wide receivers have their public perception altered in real time can make for fascinating entertainment.

But running in the 4.4s isn’t that important for safeties.

Buffalo Bills fans are more tuned into this information than most, having spent the last five years watching safety excellence from Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 and 4.54 seconds respectively. The rest of the league’s fanbases, however, might not be so in touch with the reality of linear speed and safety play.

Here are the top 10 safeties in the NFL in terms of average annual salary with their 40-yard dash time:

  • Quandre Diggs — 4.56 seconds
  • Marcus Williams — 4.56
  • Kevin Byard — 4.46
  • Eddie Jackson — N/A (he didn’t run the 40-yard dash, but it’s worth noting that he transitioned from cornerback to safety and linear speed was marked as a negative on many of his scouting reports)
  • Budda Baker — 4.45
  • Justin Simmons — 4.61
  • Harrison Smith — 4.57
  • Jamal Adams — 4.56
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick — 4.47
  • Derwin James — 4.47

The average of these times? 4.52. Thirteen safeties at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine came in at 4.59 or better in the 40-yard dash. It’s interesting to me that when an aging corner begins to lose a step, a common idea is to move them to safety, but when the safeties are naturally a step slower than the corners, some think they’re not worthy of being drafted as starters. In the 40-yard dash, a tenth of a second over 40 yards is literally one stride for most athletes that size.

There’s a large sample size showing that if your safety runs in the 4.5s, they’re not classified as a speed outlier and can reasonably be expected to perform their job duties without linear speed being a hindrance. Safety is a position that, like linebacker, gains or loses effective play speed through instincts and recognition. As the Bills start to transition from the Hyde/Poyer era to a different tandem beginning with a probable Poyer exit in 2023, the lessons learned from that period of safety excellence will serve us well in the next phase.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!