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Thoughts on Jadeveon Clowney’s 40-yard dash time

The hype on Clowney is almost as wide as his wingspan

The hype on Clowney is almost as wide as his wingspan.

Jadeveon Clowney ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, which only confirmed that the South Carolina star is an incredible athlete. But how freakishly insane is that time? The 40-yard dash, like every other aspect of the combine, is only useful when placed in proper context. The dash is biased in favor of lighter players; one way to control for this drawback is to measure Clowney only against defensive ends and linebackers, although that doesn’t totally solve the weight issue. That’s one reason Football Outsiders has published a Speed Score for running back prospects, calculated as (Weight * 200)/(40 time^4).

The website NFLsavant.com is an excellent source of historical combine data going back to 1999. I looked at all the defensive ends and outside linebackers with 40-yard times over that period, and ran a few regressions to get a sense of the relationship between weight and speed. A simple one worked just as well as the more complicated ones, and that formula produced an R^2 of 0.30. That best-fit formula was 40-yard time = 3.609 + 0.00455*weight. So for Clowney, at a weight of 266 pounds, he would be projected to run the 40 in 4.82 seconds. Since Clowney actually ran it in 4.53 seconds, that means he was 0.29 seconds faster than we would expect.

That is really, really good, although you already knew that. Here’s some more context. NFLSavant.com has 706 defensive ends or outside linebackers since 1999 with 40-yard times. Clowney, by rating 0.29 seconds better than expected, comes in ahead of 700 of those players. The other five?

Lawrence Sidbury, from Richmond, came in with identical numbers (266, 4.53) to Clowney in 2009. But the small school prospect was three inches shorter, and only a 4th round pick of the Falcons that year. He stayed in Atlanta for four years before moving on to the Colts last season.

In 2011, two players produced even better times than Clowney, after adjusting for weight. Texas A&M’s Von Miller (246, 4.42, +.31) had a great combine and then was selected with the second overall pick in the draft; on the other hand, Nevada’s Dontay Moch (248, 4.40, +.34) was an undersized player drafted by Cincinnati in the third round; his career has been marked my injuries and a suspension, not production.

The final two players come from the class of 2002, and both turned in long careers. Dwight Freeney (266, 4.48, +.34) was another undersized prospect from Syracuse who turned into a Hall of Fame caliber pass rusher in Indianapolis. The other name might be surprising, as the man with the single best adjusted 40 time among pass rushers is a player who rarely exhibited great athleticism in the NFL. It’s former Jet and UAB product Bryan Thomas (266, 4.47, +.35, and at the same 6’5 as Clowney), who had an 11-year tenure with New York but totaled just 33.5 sacks. Thomas’ combine production was lauded at the time, of course — he had a faster time in the 40 than 25 of the 29 running backs that year — but that level of freak athleticism disappeared when the pads came on.

The table below shows all first round picks who came to the combine as either a defensive end or outside linebacker from 1999 to 2013. For each player, I’ve listed his draft year, his weight and 40 time according to NFL Savant, his draft pick, his projected 40 based solely on his weight, and the difference between his actual time and projected time. Note that several of the 40 times are from Pro Days, and not the combine. Ideally, we’d be only comparing combine times for every player, but this is the world we live in.

1Bryan Thomas20022664.47224.820.35
2Dwight Freeney20022664.48114.820.34
3Von Miller20112464.4224.730.31
4Manny Lawson20062414.43224.710.28
5Mario Williams20062954.714.950.25
6Keith Bulluck20002444.47304.720.25
7Aaron Curry20092544.5244.760.24
8Bruce Irvin20122454.5154.720.22
9Jevon Kearse19992624.58164.80.22
10Napoleon Harris20022534.55234.760.21
11Charles Grant20022824.69254.890.2
12Nick Perry20122714.64284.840.2
13Lamar King19992994.77224.970.2
14Robert Quinn20112654.62144.810.19
15Brian Urlacher20002584.5994.780.19
16DeMarcus Ware20052514.56114.750.19
17Derrick Johnson20052424.52154.710.19
18Ebenezer Ekuban19992814.7204.890.19
19Justin Smith20012674.6444.820.18
20Kevin Williams20033044.8194.990.18
21Brian Orakpo20092634.63134.810.18
22Cameron Jordan20112874.74244.910.17
23Jason Babin20042604.62274.790.17
24Vernon Gholston20082664.6564.820.17
25Shawne Merriman20052724.68124.850.17
26Shea McClellin20122604.63194.790.16
27Ernie Sims20062314.594.660.16
28Ryan Kerrigan20112674.67164.820.15
29A.J. Hawk20062484.5954.740.15
30Gaines Adams20072584.6444.780.14
31Robert Thomas20022294.51314.650.14
32Jerome McDougle20032644.67154.810.14
33Tyler Brayton20032774.73324.870.14
34Dion Jordan20132484.634.740.14
35Jason Pierre-Paul20102704.71154.840.13
36Kamerion Wimbley20062484.61134.740.13
37Barkevious Mingo20132414.5864.710.13
38Quinton Coples20122844.78164.90.12
39Mathias Kiwanuka20062664.7324.820.12
40Jerry Hughes20102554.65314.770.12
41J.J. Watt20112904.81114.930.12
42Brandon Graham20102684.71134.830.12
43Whitney Mercilus20122614.68264.80.12
44Adrian Clayborn20112814.78204.890.11
45Jamal Reynolds20012674.72104.820.1
46Patrick Kerney19992664.72304.820.1
47Datone Jones20132834.8264.90.1
48Chris Long20082724.7524.850.1
49Anthony Spencer20072614.7264.80.1
50Erik Flowers20002714.75264.840.09
51Tyson Alualu20102954.87104.950.08
52Clay Matthews20092404.62264.70.08
53Robert Ayers20092724.77184.850.08
54Sean Weatherspoon20102394.62194.70.08
55Brian Cushing20092434.64154.710.07
56Aldon Smith20112634.7474.810.07
57David Pollack20052654.75174.810.06
58Adam Carriker20072964.9134.960.06
59Derrick Morgan20102664.77164.820.05
60Jarvis Moss20072504.7174.750.05
61Calvin Pace20032694.79184.830.04
62Cam Heyward20112944.92314.950.03
63Lawrence Jackson20082714.82284.840.02
64Melvin Ingram20122644.79184.810.02
65Michael Haynes20032814.87144.890.02
66Tyson Jackson20092964.9434.960.02
67Lawrence Timmons20072344.66154.670.01
68Nick Barnett20032364.67294.680.01
69Erasmus James20052664.81184.820.01
70Dimitrius Underwood19992814.88294.890.01
71Derrick Harvey20082714.8484.840
72Bjoern Werner20132664.83244.82-0.01
73Marcus Spears20053075.03205.01-0.02
74Jon Beason20072374.72254.69-0.03
75Aaron Maybin20092494.78114.74-0.04
76Chad Greenway20062424.76174.71-0.05
77Chandler Jones20122664.87214.82-0.05
78Larry English20092554.82164.77-0.05
79Andre Carter20012494.8474.74-0.1
80Jarvis Jones20132424.92174.71-0.21

For my money, Mario Williams remains the most freakish pass rushing prospectof this era. After adjusting for weight, his 40 time was nearly as good as Clowney’s, but what sets Williams apart is the other combine tests. The most notable of those was a 40.5″ vertical jump, which is among the most insanely athletic marks in combine history considering he weighed 295 pounds. Clowney, even at 29 pounds lighter, hit only 37.5″ on his vertical jump, and Williams also blew Clowney away in the bench press despite being two inches taller.

  • sn0mm1s

    I think you meant 4.53 instead of 2.53. A 2.53 40 is almost as fast a Bo Jackson running it backwards.

    • sn0mm1s

      In regards to Lawrence Sidbury

    • Chase Stuart


  • Kibbles

    That’s a pretty ridiculous list. 14 of the top 20 players on the list are either one of the best young defenders in the league or have 100+ career starts. The exceptions are Manny Lawson, Aaron Curry, Napoleon Harris, Nick Perry, Lamar King, and Ebenezer Ekuban. Perry’s still just entering his 3rd year and could improve, and Lawson is at 96 starts and should clear 100 this season. Ekuban was a quality journeyman who had occasional injury problems, and while he never lit the world on fire, he still lasted a decade in the league. Napoleon Harris is best known for being a key cog in one of the few truly lose/lose trades in NFL history (Randy Moss to Oakland for Harris and Troy Williamson), but as a true MLB instead of a passrusher, he arguably doesn’t belong on the list (if you exclude MLBs, you lose Harris and Urlacher, but gain Orakpo and Cameron Jordan, which just makes the list that much more impressive). Which leaves us with just Lamar King and Aaron Curry as the only two bonafide, honest-to-goodness busts on the list. I don’t know the story behind King, but this really just makes Curry’s flameout that much more impressive, and really underscores how silly the phrase “can’t-miss” is when applied to the draft process.

    Still, that 75-90% success rate tells me that the true athletic freak pass-rushers might even be undervalued by the draft process. If there aren’t enough misses, that suggests the league hasn’t been taking enough swings. Or, rather, that they weren’t taking enough swings over the time period ranging from 1999-2012. For all I know, NFL teams have figured this out, too, and will value the position more appropriately going forward.

  • Nate

    I wonder why ‘speed score’ has a time^4 component. Starting with kinematics – if the key component is force, it should be mass * time^2, and for power it’s mass*time^3. (And, for a running back, do we care about stuff outside the first 10 yards?)

    • Assuming that my memory is correct, the original speed score article by Bill Barnwell did not mention using any kinematic formulae, oddly enough. (I specifically remember that, because I commented at the time that it seemed strange to me that he didn’t just start with something like force or momentum. Of course, that doesn’t mean that my memory is right, though!) I don’t think he detailed how he arrived at the exact exponent, either.

      • Nate

        Yeah, I ran down what I assume is the original Washington Post article in which he talks about correlation coefficients with ‘carries’ and DYAR, but doesn’t discuss methodology (neither statistics nor physics).

        N.B.: I had it wrong above – it should be mass / (time^x).

        • The original article was titled “Five Seconds Can Be a Lifetime” (or something close to that) and was in the Football Outsiders book for that year. Since I remember Chris Johnson being in the draft class discussed in that article, I believe it is Pro Football Prospectus 2008.

          I have the book, but my books are all packed up and I have no clue where any one is.

  • Nate Forster

    I looked at this data a lot in the course of creating SackSEER, and I definitely agree with the premise that Mario Williams is the freakiest of the freaky. You might be interested to know, though, that the relationship between the forty and weight for these players is a bit stronger than the relationship between the vertical and weight (apparently, it’s more difficult to propel 270 lbs horizontally for forty yards quickly than it is to propel 270 lbs upwards for three feet). So in that respect, it’s not super surprising that Williams could out jump Clowney.

    If I could add one more name to the freaky list, it would be DeLawrence Grant. I did a lot of digging through archived websites to fill in forty times, and his was one I was able to come up with that most outlets don’t list. Grant ran a 4.53 forty at his pro day at a sizeable 280 lbs, which is 0.35 seconds above average per your formula. Also, I have forty times for almost all of the first round defensive ends / outside linebackers going back to 1989 and the highest guy on that list (per your formula) is the 245 lb. John Thierry with a 4.51 forty. That is still a bit off from Clowney, but it is impressive considering that forty times were about a tenth of a second slower back then. Some others of note: Derrick Thomas 4.56 seconds / 225 lbs., Jason Taylor 4.64 seconds / 245 lbs., Hugh Douglas 4.65 seconds /267 pounds, Michael Strahan 4.89 / 272 lbs., Simeon Rice 4.75 / 260 lbs., and Willie McGinest 4.68 / 255 lbs.