Tyquan Thornton Mar 3, 2022; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Baylor wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (WO32) runs the 40-yard dash during the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 40-yard dash is easily the premier event in the annual NFL Scouting Combine. While some other skills tests have limited interest, the 40-yard dash is must-see TV.

Every year, the same question arises: Will someone break the combine record for the fastest 40 time? Fans can actually wager money on that question for this year’s event. DraftKings Sportsbook’s line (“Anyone to Break 40-Yard Dash Combine Record of 4.22 seconds”) recently had +425 odds someone will break the mark, and -650 odds that the record will stand.

NFL coaches and executives face a higher-stakes gamble: If they draft a 40-yard dash superstar, will they get a successful NFL player? Every year, players run a 40 much faster than anyone expected, and they race up the NFL Draft board. Yet many of the very fastest players in the combine’s 42-year history have fizzled in the NFL. Instead of catching bombs, many just bombed.

Here’s a look back at some of the NFL Scouting Combine’s 40-yard dash legends who never lived up to their dash hype in the NFL, along with some of the things that went wrong.

Fast times

First, here are the top 10 40-yard-dash times in NFL Scouting Combine history. All times are from 2000 to present, as hand-timed performances from 1982-1999 are viewed as unreliable.

8 (Tie). Anthony Schwartz, WR (4.27 seconds, 2021)

8 (Tie). Stanford Routt, CB (4.27 seconds, 2005)

8 (Tie). Henry Ruggs III, WR (4.27 seconds, 2020)

8 (Tie). Marquise Goodwin, WR (4.27 seconds, 2013)

5 (Tie). D.J. Turner, CB (4.26 seconds, 2023)

5 (Tie). Tariq Woolen, CB (4.26 seconds, 2022)

5 (Tie). Dri Archer, RB (4.26 seconds, 2014)

4. Chris Johnson, RB (4.24 seconds, 2008)

3. Kalon Barnes, CB (4.23 seconds, 2022)

1 (Tie). Donte’ Stallworth, WR (4.22 seconds, 2002)

1 (Tie). John Ross, WR (4.22 seconds, 2017)

Honorable mention

The following players were all timed at 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash: Tyquan Thornton, WR (2022); Rondale Moore, WR (2021); Jalen Myrick, CB (2017); J.J. Nelson, WR (2015); Demarcus Van Dyke, CB (2011); Jacoby Ford, WR (2010); Jerome Mathis, WR (4.28, 2005).

Source: Pro Football Reference

Take a look at the names on that list. One of them, Chris Johnson, stands out as a superstar. A few others have had good NFL careers or are just starting out. The rest are unfamiliar to most fans.

John Ross: From 4.22 seconds to the doghouse

Former Washington star John Ross’ blistering 4.22-second run in 2017 tied the record set by Donte’ Stallworth in 2002.

As the video shows, Ross came up lame at the end of the run, straining his calves. That was a foreshadowing of his injury-plagued career. In five NFL seasons, Ross started only 21 games, catching 62 passes for 957 yards and 11 touchdowns. He retired before the 2023 season.

Yet Ross also had issues when healthy. He fumbled on his first touch as a rookie with the Cincinnati Bengals and didn’t touch the ball again that year. That fumble isn’t why he landed in the doghouse. After Ross stopped running on a pass route in a game, head coach Marvin Lewis publicly humiliated him, saying he let quarterback Andy Dalton and everyone else down.

“He let his teammates down. He let me down. He let Andy down,” Lewis told reporters during a midweek media session (via SBNation.com).

After the Bengals fired Lewis, Ross showed some flashes of that combine promise. In the 2019 season opener, he caught seven passes for 158 yards and two scores, and followed that up the next game with 112 yards and a score. Then he went on to miss more than two months with an injury.

Ross will always have that sizzling combine run, which he parlayed into being the No. 9 overall draft pick that year — one spot ahead of Patrick Mahomes.

Memo to NFL teams: Don’t let speed overshadow red flags

Many combine speedsters have faded into obscurity, known only for their fast 40 time and/or being NFL Draft busts. Dri Archer fits both categories. The former Kent State running back’s fast run in the 2014 Combine turned heads for a couple of reasons.

The Pittsburgh Steelers used a third-round pick on Archer. He had 10 total carries in two NFL seasons. SteelersDepot.com analyst Alex Kozora posted an excellent video in 2023 breaking down Archer’s problems:

“Pittsburgh had no plan or use for him, and Archer’s speed is all he brought to the table. … While Archer had blazing speed, there was one key thing he lacked — a fit. He was not big or strong enough to run between the tackles as an NFL running back, and he lacked the route running and nuance to function like a true wide receiver. … It was his pure speed that enticed teams, and the Steelers got burned for taking that chance.”

Speed burns: But coaches have to light the match

The New England Patriots invested a second-round pick in wide receiver Tyquan Thornton in 2022, but he has only 35 receptions in two seasons. One might think the Pats would use him to stretch the field, but he has averaged just 9.7 yards per catch. We’re not about to second guess legendary former Pats coach Bill Belichick and his staff for wasting Thornton’s speed on short routes, but fans and analysts have done just that, as in this post by WBZ Boston reporter Michael Hurley.

Chemistry lesson: Speedy players can get stuck in bad situations

Sometimes, fast players just end up in bad scenarios. Take wide receiver Jacoby Ford (4.28-second 40 in 2010), drafted in the fourth round by the Raiders. Ford had great success as a kickoff returner in 2010-2011, with four touchdowns, but he posted only 57 career catches in three seasons for the Raiders. There was plenty of blame to go around for that, as the Raiders were in decline; in 2012, Ford’s final NFL season, the team finished 4-12 and had one of the league’s worst offenses.

Reality check: Sometimes fast guys just aren’t good players

Wide receiver J.J. Nelson, who clocked a 4.28 run at the 2015 combine, went to the Arizona Cardinals in the fifth round. Despite hopes he would blossom into a deep threat, Nelson had 85 career catches in five seasons.

When the team cut ties with Nelson after four years, Cardinals fan site RaisingZona.com remarked, “Hey Oakland Raiders, he’s your problem now. … He did stay out of trouble and for the most part was healthy. However, he had a huge issue hanging on to the football over the past couple of seasons. … Last season a lot of fans had seen enough and week after week were asking why the Cardinals continue to go to him.”

Cornerback Kalon Barnes, proud owner of the third-fastest combine speed (4.23 seconds), might also fit in this category. The Carolina Panthers drafted the former Baylor star in the seventh round in 2022. He’s played in only two NFL games and has been mostly a practice squad player with the Panthers, Dolphins, Vikings, Steelers, Jets, and Browns. He’s now on his second stint with the Steelers.

Given that many failed opportunities, it’s not unreasonable to think Barnes keeps getting chances based largely on that 40 time.

Gaming the system: More players train for event, making it about technique

It’s worth noting that five of the top 11 40-yard times since 2000 have come in the last four scouting combines. That could be a coincidence. Also, players have been getting bigger, stronger, and faster through the years. However, that glut of fast times is more likely the result of more players training with experts for the 40-yard sprint.

Players have seen the huge buzz surrounding this event, and know they can boost their draft status — and land a more lucrative NFL contract — with a fast time. You don’t need to be an Einstein to figure that out, although a couple of scholars at the University of Houston-Victoria published a ridiculously detailed study to prove just that. The study, “Predictive Validity of the Physical Skills Test of the 40-yard Dash and Draft Placement in the NFL Draft,” featured complex equations such as “WR rs = .436, n = 147, p = .001.” It concluded “faster times in the 40-yard dash for various offensive and defensive positions correlated to better draft position in the NFL Draft.”

Players have been doing specific speed training with coaches for years, but the practice is reportedly more prevalent than ever. An online search reveals dozens of companies offering their training services to help players prepare for the combine, and specifically the 40, which has understandably been nicknamed the “Dash for Cash.”

But players are simply learning techniques to run fast and excel in a test lasting just a few seconds. In no way does that make them better football players. Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in NFL history, clocked a slow time in the 40 before the 1985 NFL Draft (it was reportedly in the high 4.5s, not 4.71 seconds as is commonly cited).

Whatever his time, Rice always seemed to be running away from fast players in big NFL games. Several years ago, Rice told The Mercury News the increased emphasis on the combine’s 40-yard event is a mistake.

“The 40 doesn’t equate to football speed,” Rice said. “A guy could run a great 40 and then you put pads on him and he doesn’t have lateral movement or can’t come out of his cuts. He just doesn’t have it.”

Stallworth, who set the combine’s 4.22 record in 2002, said he trained hard for that event, as if preparing for the Olympics. He was stunned when told he’d run a 4.22, but looking back on that moment, he put everything in perspective.

“A lot of that doesn’t carry over to actually playing on the field,” Stallworth told NFL.com in 2014. “It’s still pretty cool to watch.”

Unrealistic expectations: Chris Johnson set high bar for other speedsters

Chris Johnson, whose 4.24 sprint in 2008 still ranks fourth all-time, went on to become one of the most exciting players in NFL history, thanks to that blazing speed. The former East Carolina star played 10 seasons and racked up almost 12,000 yards from scrimmage, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.

Johnson’s great NFL career set an unrealistically high bar for other NFL Combine speedsters in recent years. Longtime fans remember Dallas Cowboys legend Bob Hayes, a former U.S. Olympic Gold Medal sprinter. Hayes’ speed literally changed the NFL, forcing defenses to invent the zone defense and bump-and-run coverage to contain him. He also raised expectations for fast players. For the next 15-20 years, fast playmakers were debated in “Is he the next Bob Hayes?” terms (sorry, there was only one Bob Hayes).

Johnson’s success has raised that question for this generation. Every time a wide receiver or running back rips off a blazing 40 at the combine, fans wonder if he might be the next Chris Johnson.

And that’s the big question NFL coaches and executives at the NFL Scouting Combine must decide before they fall in love with a player’s speed and move him way up their draft board. Are they getting the next Chris Johnson? Or the next John Ross?

About Arthur Weinstein

Arthur spends his free time traveling around the U.S. to sporting events, state and national parks, and in search of great restaurants off the beaten path.