In football, they say that speed kills. Well, technically they say that in just about every sport. However, it seems to be especially emphasized in football, especially since scouts and fans alike seem to obsess over 40-yard dash times every year at the NFL Combine. But is speed really the most important thing in football? Can it help players overcome deficiencies in other areas? We thought it’d be interesting to take a look at some of the players who posted the fastest 40-yard dash times in the history of the NFL Combine to see if that speed was enough to give them a successful NFL career.
Deion Sanders, 4.27 (1989)
There are plenty of stories out there about Sanders running the 40 at the NFL Combine, so it’s hard to know what’s true. Let’s face it, there are a lot of great stories about Sanders in general. As the story goes, he ran a 4.3 in the 40 in front of scouts at the combine, only to get go back to the starting line and run it again, officially registering 4.27 seconds while some had him as low as 4.25 seconds.
Regardless of the exact time at the Combine, Sanders is one of the fastest players in NFL history, one of the best pure athletes in any pro sport, and one of the most electric entertainers in any sport. He was a First-Team All-Pro as a cornerback nine times and as a kick returner twice. Sanders also appeared on the NFL’s All-Decade Team in the 90s as both a cornerback and kick returner. Even at the NFL level, his speed and athleticism made opponents look like amateurs.
Stanford Routt, 4.27 (2005)
Routt helped to play a role in the way NFL teams viewed speed. His 4.27 40-time was the fastest at the Combine since the switch to electronic timing. Not surprisingly, he was an All-American in track while at Houston, finishing third nationally in the 200 meters in 2003.
The Raiders took him 38th overall in the 2005 NFL Draft, although he never quite lived up to expectations for a second-round pick. Routt started sparingly over his first five seasons before finally becoming a regular in Oakland’s secondary for a couple of seasons. Ultimately, he spent eight mostly unspectacular seasons in the NFL, never taking full advantage of his blazing speed.
Marquise Goodwin, 4.27 (2013)
Goodwin isn’t just football fast, he’s Olympics fast and has competed in high-level track & field events while also being an NFL player. In addition to being a sprinter, Goodwin also participates in the long jump, which has been his best event. He even qualified for the 2012 Olympics as a long jumper and won a silver medal at the Pan American Games in 2015.
His speed was enough to get him drafted by the Bills in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft despite a rather modest 11.7 yards per catch and seven touchdowns during his four seasons at Texas. At times, his speed as made him an asset on the field, although injuries hindered Goodwin early in his career. He’s never been an automatic starter and recorded a career-high 962 receiving yards in 2017. However, the sub-4.30 speed in the 40 has allowed Goodwin to hang around the league for more than half a dozen years.
Devin Hester, 4.26 (2006)
Speed definitely played a key role in Hester’s career. With it, he became the first player in Miami Hurricanes history to play in all three phases of the game, which is no small feat considering the lineage of players at that school. While at Miami, Hester also participated in track & field at the collegiate level, running and participating in the long jump.
After running a 4.26 40-yard dash at the combine, the Bears took him 57th overall in 2006, a pick that received much criticism. However, Hester silenced the critics quickly, returning a punt for his touchdown in his NFL debut and scoring five more touchdowns on returns in his first 13 games. By his second year in the NFL, the Bears moved him from defensive back to wide receiver to increase his touches. Hester had modest success at receiver but continued to be the most feared kick returner in the league. When all was said and done, he returned five kickoffs, 14 punts, and one missed field goal for a touchdown, setting an NFL record for special teams touchdowns while also going to the Pro Bowl four times.
Dri Archer, 4.26 (2014)
Archer was another high school track star who happened to play football. In fact, he had more scholarship offers for track than he did for football. That’s why he ended up at Kent State, which was the only school that wanted him for football despite his blazing speed. As a junior, he had over 1,400 yards rushing, over 500 receiving, and three kickoff returns for a touchdown, earning him All-American honors as a kick returner and all-purpose back.
His 40-time at the Combine was enough for the Steelers to draft him in the third round. But he never quite caught on in the NFL. He had a few promising returns, but never took one to the house. Archer ended up appearing in just 20 games, catching seven passes and getting 10 rushing attempts for a total of 63 yards.
Randy Moss (4.25) (1998)
Everybody knows that Moss was a physical specimen, and that includes his speed as well. In high school, he won West Virginia state titles in the 100 meters and 200 meters, and that was as a sophomore. Moss also ran a little track in college and was one of the best in the country in the 200 meters despite not running track since his sophomore year of high school.
Of course, his unofficial 4.25 time in the 40-yard dash at Marshall’s pro day was just one aspect of his game that had NFL scouts drooling. His off-field problems caused him to drop to 21st overall in the 1998 Draft, but they didn’t stop him from becoming one of the best wide receivers in NFL history. If he’s not the best receiver of all-time, there’s a strong argument that Moss had the most pure talent of any receiver to play the game, in part because of his incredible speed.
Michael Vick, 4.25 (2001)
Not surprisingly, Vick is the fastest quarterback the NFL combine has ever seen. Even with a new generation of speedy quarterbacks, it’ll be hard to beat Vick, especially with guys like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray declining to run the 40 at the Combine. In any event, Vick was as fast running in a straight line at the Combine as he looked on film running away from linemen and linebackers at Virginia Tech.
In the NFL, Vick continued to use his speed to his advantage, which was a necessity for him with his passing accuracy somewhat modest. He even cracked the 1,000-yard rushing barrier in 2006 right before his two-year hiatus from the league. Even later in his career, Vick still had enough speed to run away from defenders and pick up large chunks of yards using his legs.
Chris Johnson, 4.24 (2008)
Johnson broke the official Combine record in 2008 when he posted his 4.24-second time in the 40. That was after a standout career at East Carolina in which he had over 1,400 rushing yards, over 500 receiving yards, and over 1,000 kickoff return yards during his senior season. Not surprisingly, Johnson was also one of the fastest track stars in the state of Florida while in high school. Before the Combine, he was projected to be a second- or third-round pick, but ended up going 24th overall to the Titans after his speed was on full display.
Running alongside the more powerful Lendale White, Johnson was part of a great backfield tandem that helped him finish second in Rookie of the Year voting. He then led the NFL in rushing during his second season, eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark and seeing the NFL record for most yards from scrimmage in a season with 2,509. Johnson put together five impressive campaigns before he started to slow down, although he continued to be a suitable complementary back for the last few seasons of his 10-year NFL career.
John Ross, 4.22 (2017)
By the smallest of margins, Ross broke Johnson’s official Combine record when he registered a 4.22 40-yard time. Keep in mind that was less than two years after tearing his ACL and while he was waiting to undergo shoulder surgery. It’s also worth noting that he strained his calves while running the 40, which may have had an impact on some of the other drills. Nevertheless, the Bengals thought he warranted selection with the 9th overall pick.
Unfortunately for Ross, his NFL career got off to a slow start, in part because of injuries. He produced little during his first two seasons, finally breaking out during the early part of his third season in 2019. Alas, Ross hurt his shoulder a month into the season, halting all of the progress he made. However, when healthy, Ross has been a capable playmaker, in large part because of his record-setting speed.
Bo Jackson, 4.13 (1987)
For what it’s worth, Jackson never ran at the NFL Combine. His supposed 40-time of 4.12 seconds was erroneously recorded and has become mythologized. Nevertheless, Jackson does claim that NFL scouts watched him run a 4.13 in the 40-yard dash while he was running track in college. That makes him unofficially the fastest player in NFL history
Of course, Jackson’s NFL career remains incomplete. For starters, he was playing baseball with the Kansas City Royals while also playing for the Raiders. He also suffered a career-ending hip injury at the end of his fourth NFL season. Up to that point, Jackson had produced some impressive moments, especially for a player who wasn’t 100% dedicated to playing football. Sadly, we’ll never know just how good he could have been in the NFL had it not been for the injury.