While the late owner of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis, was notorious for signing fast players, often prioritizing quickness over football fundamentals, speed is arguably the most lethal weapon in football.
A team’s fastest player will usually be their running back, wide receiver or cornerback, but with the up-tempo game the NFL has become, speed is important at nearly every position. Tight ends are expected to be faster. Linebackers are expected to be faster. Defensive ends have to be quicker to rush the passer and chase down ball-carriers. Speed will be a factor in nearly every player’s assessed value by teams.
The fastest players in college will get the most attention, and the grand audition for players entering the league takes place at the NFL Combine. The NFL Combine gives all players a chance to showcase their athletic abilities so teams may evaluate them on their draft board. The most popular portion of the Combine (and a fan favourite) is the 40-yard dash. Running times make teams think twice about who they want. If you’re a fast player, you’re likely to be productive and explosive. Teams will covet those players, and their wallets will benefit, although it will not always pan out as football is about a lot more than speed.
Here are the 10 fastest 40-yard dashes in NFL history and how those players have been compensated for something that can’t be taught: speed. These are players who have run the 40-yard dash since electronic timing was implemented in 2000.
10. Darrius Heyward-Bey – WR – 4.30 seconds
Darrius Heyward-Bey is by no means a star player in the NFL. He’s never been anywhere near the top of the league in receptions, receiving yards or touchdowns. Yet every football fan knows who he is. Why? Well, his 4.30 second 40-yard dash made quite a scene, and that propelled him to the top of Al Davis’s big board in 2009. He was taken seventh overall by the Raiders in that draft. He was the first wide receiver picked that year and his speed was the reason why.
That speed prompted the Raiders to sign him to a five-year $38 million deal, including $23.5 million guaranteed. Heyward-Bey was released earlier this year by the Raiders, as he never quite became the explosive difference maker Oakland had hoped for. In his four seasons in silver and black, Heyward-Bey accumulated 140 receptions for 2,380 yards and 11 touchdowns. In other words, for the $23.5 million guaranteed, that comes up to about $168,000 per catch!
The Colts signed Heyward-Bey to a one-year, $3 million deal this year. He has 29 catches for the Colts, with 309 yards and one score. Speed pays off!
9. Fabian Washington – CB – 4.29 seconds
Another former Raiders draft pick makes the list. Fabian Washington is no longer an active player in the NFL, having not been signed by a team since 2011 when the Saints released him from their practice squad.
Washington was drafted by the Raiders 23rd overall in 2005, another first-round pick based solely on his speed that didn’t quite pan out for Oakland. Washington lasted just three seasons with the Raiders, recording 112 tackles, five interceptions and 28 passes defended. His 2006 season was his best, as it included 39 tackles, four interceptions and 15 defended passes. The Raiders traded Washington to the Ravens following a disappointing 2007 season. After three unimpressive seasons in Baltimore, Washington was released. He was picked up by New Orleans to be placed on their practice squad and has not played in the NFL since.
It’s not that Washington was a bad player, but he certainly didn’t live up to his billing. Thankfully for the Raiders, rookie contracts were not quite as big at the time of Washington’s signing. His rookie deal was for five years at $7.8 million. Baltimore picked up the last two years on the contract.
8. Trindon Holliday – WR – 4.29 seconds
Trindon Holliday has provided solid value for the position in which he was drafted. Just not for the team that drafted him. Holliday was among the fastest players in the 2010 draft, averaging a 40-yard dash time of 4.29 seconds. The Houston Texans took him in the sixth round, 197th overall. He received a modest rookie deal of four years at $2.7 million.
What he lacks in size, at 5’5″ and 160 pounds, he makes up for in speed. Holliday has had issues holding on to the football, which is partly why the Texans didn’t keep him for long. He started in just six games for Houston, injuring his thumb in his rookie year, then was sent to the practice roster in 2011. In 2012, he played five games for the Texans, averaging 9.1 yards per punt return and 19.4 yards per kickoff return. He was waived by Houston and picked up by Denver. Holliday joined a struggling 2-3 Broncos team and helped propel them to 11 straight wins, as Denver finished with a 13-3 record.
As a Bronco, Holliday returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in 2012, averaging 10.7 yards per punt return. He made himself famous in Denver’s playoff loss to Baltimore, returning a punt 90 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff 104 yards for a score. In 2013, he’s averaging 9.6 yards per punt return and has another pair of special teams touchdowns. He’s in the last year of his rookie deal and is among the most dangerous returners in football.
7. Stanford Routt – CB – 4.29 seconds
Talk about a common denominator. Another Raiders draft pick lands on this list, although Stanford Routt had a more successful tenure in Oakland than some of his former teammates. Drafted in the second round, 38th overall in 2005, Routt played seven seasons for the Raiders.
He seasoned well for Oakland, enjoying his best year in 2011, with 49 tackles, four interceptions and 15 passes defended. He was the fastest player in his draft class. Routt made his biggest money following the 2010 season, re-signing in Oakland for three years at $31.5 million. Due to salary cap problems, he was cut and signed with the rival Kansas City Chiefs entering 2012. He signed a three-year deal worth $19.6 million, but was cut after the Chiefs finished 2-14 in 2012. He had a brief stint in Houston but never played a game for them.
Routt is still a free agent. His career numbers include 225 tackles, 12 interceptions and 55 passes defended. Needless to say, his career has hit a rough patch.
6. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – CB – 4.29 seconds
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has had some problems with consistency, but his talent is undisputed. He’s now playing for his third team in Denver, but in 2008 he was tearing up the Combine, running a 4.29 at the 40-yard dash. The Arizona Cardinals took him 16th overall, signing a five-year deal worth $15.1 million with $9 million guaranteed.
He proved to be a difference maker in Arizona, accumulating 13 interceptions in three seasons, and defending 61 passes. Due to the Cardinals’ need of a quarterback, he was traded to Philadelphia as part of a deal for Kevin Kolb (wrong move). In Philly, Rodgers-Cromartie didn’t dominate the way the Eagles had hoped. He recorded three interceptions in two seasons and defended 23 passes.
He signed with Denver prior to this season as the Eagles revamped their secondary. He has gotten back to solid condition with the Broncos, with two interceptions in 13 games and 14 passes defended. He has never quite returned to the form he was in while with the Cardinals, though. He’s currently on a one-year deal with Denver worth $5 million.
5. DeMarcus Van Dyke – CB – 4.28 seconds
The recurring theme of this article continues. DeMarcus Van Dyke was taken in the third round of the 2011 draft, Al Davis’s last draft class. Van Dyke ran a blazing 4.28 dash time, although he didn’t quite cash in on that performance. He signed his rookie contract following the implementation of the current CBA in the NFL, which limits rookie contracts far more strictly than in the past. Van Dyke made less than seven figures per year in his rookie deal.
Perhaps a victim of the organization’s failure, Van Dyke was released after just one season in Oakland, as the Raiders ranked 29th against the pass in 2011. He signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, but has spent a lot of time on the bench, never cracking the starting lineup. His salary is undisclosed, but as a depth player, he is likely in the neighbourhood of $750,000 a season with no guaranteed money. You could call it a wasted draft pick by the Raiders.
4. Jacoby Ford – WR – 4.28 seconds
Okay, this isn’t even fun anymore. The Oakland Raiders are owning this list and it just goes to show you how infatuated Al Davis was with speed. Jacoby Ford was right up there with Holliday in the 2010 40-yard dashes. Ford posted a 4.28 at the Combine and was also a track star in college. He was a 100 meter and 200 meter dash champion. Ford was taken in the fourth round, 108th overall in 2010.
On November 7th 201o, he seemingly had a breakthrough game, recording six catches for 148 yards, as well as a kickoff return touchdown in a win over first-place Kansas City. That game is still his career best. He totalled 25 catches for 470 yards and two touchdowns that season. He also added three kickoff return touchdowns. Ford has not managed to recapture that magic, totalling 32 receptions for 378 yards and one receiving touchdown since his rookie year. He had one kickoff return in 2011 and missed all of 2012 with a foot injury. He’s on the final year of a rookie deal worth $2.3 million over four years but he likely won’t get much of a raise in free agency.
3. Jerome Mathis – WR – 4.27 seconds
Jerome Mathis will more likely be remembered for his six track-and-field titles in high school than for his NFL career.
He was used primarily on special teams, only scoring one offensive touchdown in three seasons with the Houston Texans. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Texans in 2o05, following a 40-yard dash of 4.27 and setting an NCAA record for career kick-return average, at 26.6 yards per return.
Mathis’ rookie season was by far his best, as he was named a Pro Bowl starter, racking up 1,542 yards in 54 kick return attempts, and two touchdowns. He averaged 28.6 yards per return. Following a foot injury in 2006, Mathis had trouble staying healthy (and staying out of trouble off the field) and was not resigned by the Texans in 2007. Following a brief offseason stint in Washington, Mathis signed for the Toronto Argonauts, but was cut in training camp. He then played for the Pittsburgh Power of the Arena Football League in 2011. He has likely played his last NFL game.
Jerome Mathis’s rookie salary was a mere $566,000 as well as a signing bonus. His career didn’t last long and he is yet another player that reminds us that prospects need to be evaluated on much more than speed.
2. Marquise Goodwin – WR/KR – 4.27 seconds
Marquise Goodwin hasn’t quite torn it up for the Buffalo Bills in his rookie season, but he still has plenty of time to impress us. He was picked in the third round, 78th overall by the Bills this year, a year when the Bills have been revamping their whole offense. He has a rookie quarterback in EJ Manuel, who has been injured much of this season.
Goodwin has produced 16 receptions for for 261 yards and three touchdowns this season and is on a four-year, $2.85 million contract. On top of his 4.27 second dash time, he finished in 10th place in the 2012 Olympics in the long jump.
Goodwin has been a victim of a struggling Bills offense. There’s no book out on him yet, and once EJ Manuel grows as a starter for Buffalo, Goodwin will likely follow suit.
1. Chris Johnson – RB – 4.24 seconds
Chris Johnson not only cashed in on a rookie contract, but on his subsequent deal with the Titans. He ran a record 4.24, 40-yard dash time in the 2008 draft and signed a five-year contract with the Tennessee Titans worth $12 million including $7 million guaranteed.
The Titans took him 24th overall in the first round. In his 2009 season, Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards and set an NFL record for yards-from-scrimmage with 2,509. He also had 14 rushing touchdowns. He was nicknamed CJ2K, and following another solid season in 2010, Johnson felt he was severely underpaid for his performance and held out for a better deal. He got one, as he ended a training camp holdout, agreeing to a four-year, $53.5 million contract extension, including $30 million guaranteed.
Johnson has not quite lived up to that contract, as he only has 15 touchdowns in the last three seasons and has not surpassed 1,500 yards again, let alone 2,000. With the Titans struggling to string victories together, they may cut ties with CJ2K in the offseason. Luckily (for him) he has that $30 million guaranteed.
Teams will likely start being more careful with how they approach the speedsters of the draft class. The same mistakes aren’t being made any more, and with the Raiders being under new direction, it’s unlikely they’ll revert back to their old ways. While speed is important and can’t be coached, there’s so much more to the sport. Teams now realize that.