Much attention is paid to the NFL combine’s 40-yard dash every year, but do good times lead to NFL success? A look at the players with the fastest-ever 40s and how their careers played out.
Since electronic timing was instituted at the NFL combine in 1999, eight players have cracked the 4.3-second mark and landed a spot near the top of the record books at the most hyped scouting event of the year. Though those extraordinary athletes turned heads at the combine, not all of them developed into capable NFL players. In fact, one of them never played a regular season down in the league.
PointAfter tracked the careers of the combine’s eight fastest runners to help ground you before this weekend’s 40-yard dash results inevitably set the NFL world atwitter. Remember: The quickest straight-line runners rarely make the best football players, even in the ruthlessly speedy environment of the NFL.
T-5. Champ Bailey, CB
Draft pick (year): First round, No. 7 (1999)
Champ Bailey is easily the most accomplished NFL player in this group, though that’d likely be true even if you dropped him in a pool of randomly selected No. 1 picks. Before Bailey was a 12-time Pro Bowler—a record for defensive backs—he was a dangerous triple threat at the University of Georgia, totaling 1,138 all-purpose yards as a cornerback, wide receiver and occasional kick/punt returner during his final season.
Bailey showcased his elite speed at the 1999 combine with a 4.28 40-yard dash, prompting Washington to make him the highest-selected defensive back in that year’s draft. It was a sound decision, though the same cannot be said of trading him away in 2004 for Clinton Portis and a second-round pick. Bailey went on to be a first-team All-Pro three consecutive years with the Broncos and was eventually named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team.
Though Bailey clearly possessed remarkable speed out of college, it was his outstanding defensive instincts and first-rate hands (52 career interceptions) that helped him maintain a sterling reputation well into his 30s.
T-5. J.J. Nelson, WR
Draft pick (year): Fifth round, No. 159 (2015)
It’s probably too soon to write the book on J.J. Nelson’s professional career after just one season. But it’s off to a rather pedestrian start, which can be partially attributed to the loaded Cardinals receiving corps he was drafted into.
To be fair, Nelson’s average of 27.2 yards per reception in 2015 was spectacular. But he only had 11 receptions, 299 yards and two touchdowns while being blocked by fellow speedster John Brown (who ran a 4.34 40 at the 2014 combine), Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd in Arizona’s wideout pecking order.
The 5' 10" UAB product could still distinguish himself in Arizona’s pass-heavy offense next season. He could also be overshadowed by Brown, who had a breakout 1,000-yard campaign as Carson Palmer’s favorite long-ball target.
T-5. DeMarcus Van Dyke, CB
Draft pick (year): Third round, No. 81 (2011)
It should come as no surprise that Van Dyke was drafted by the Raiders out of Miami. Former Raiders owner Al Davis had a famous penchant for speed, and the 2011 NFL draft was Davis’s final go-round in the war room before his death in October 2011.
Unfortunately, like so many Oakland speedsters before him, Van Dyke didn’t live up to his impressive measurables. He recorded one interception and 10 tackles during his rookie season before being cut by a new front office regime led by GM Reggie McKenzie late in the following preseason. Van Dyke hasn’t made the cut for another regular season roster since, most recently appearing at Vikings training camp in 2015.
T-5. Jacoby Ford, WR
Draft pick (year): Fourth round, No. 108 (2010)
Ford was a decorated track star coming out of Clemson, compiling numerous honors in both indoor and outdoor seasons, including several All-America nods and the ACC indoor record in the 60-meter dash (6.52 seconds). He added to his résumé by logging the fastest 40 time at the 2010 NFL combine, and was then drafted by—guess who—the Raiders.
Ford looked primed to buck the trend of underachieving track-star Raiders during his rookie year. He finished with 470 receiving yards and two touchdowns to go along with three kickoff return scores, a franchise record.
Unfortunately, Ford wouldn’t total those marks over the rest of his NFL career. He recently signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.
4. Marquise Goodwin, WR/KR
Draft pick (year): Third round, No. 78 (2013)
Goodwin enjoyed a promising rookie campaign amid Buffalo’s nightmarish quarterback situation in 2013. But he’s recorded just three receptions over the last two seasons while battling a laundry list of injuries and losing his job as Buffalo’s kick returner.
Another distinguished track and field athlete, Goodwin represented the United States in the 2012 Olympics and 2015 Pan Am Games in the long jump. In fact, he’s good enough in the event to contend for a spot in the Rio Olympics, which could jeopardize his NFL career.
At this point, that might be the best career path for Goodwin. He never consistently produced as a wideout at Texas, collecting 1,364 receiving yards and seven touchdowns over four years.
3. Dri Archer, RB/KR
Draft pick (year): Third round, No. 97 (2014)
Kent State was the only FBS program to offer Archer a football scholarship, and he rewarded the school’s faith by averaging a gaudy 7.2 yards per carry over his collegiate career.
The diminutive tailback (5' 8", 173 pounds) has yet to find a foothold in the NFL since he wowed scouts at the combine, however. He netted just 63 all-purpose yards on 17 offensive touches as a rookie with the Steelers in 2014, then was purely a return specialist last season. His average of 25.3 yards per kick return was actually good for third best in the league, but Pittsburgh released him in November to sign another return man, Jacoby Jones.
The Jets, who could very well lose Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell in free agency, signed Archer to a futures contract earlier this month. Perhaps the 24-year-old will help to fill the void in 2016.
T-1. Chris Johnson, RB
Draft pick (year): First round, No. 24 (2008)
Johnson is the ultimate success story for 40-yard dash specialists among offensive players. He parlayed one good season at East Carolina and a record-setting performance in the 40 into a first-round draft selection in 2008.
Johnson went on to set a record for the most yards from scrimmage (2,509) in a season in 2009, including an output of 2,006 yards on the ground that earned him the nickname “CJ2K.” Johnson’s otherworldly speed is evident in the numerous other NFL records he owns. He’s had six touchdown runs of 80-plus yards (no other player has three) and he’s the only player in league history to score on plays of 50, 60 and 90 yards in a single game.
Though Johnson’s impressive bounce-back campaign in Arizona last year was cut short by a fractured tibia, he still earned the fourth Pro Bowl nod of his career. His professional future is unclear as a pending free agent coming off a major injury, but he’s long proven since that legendary combine performance eight years ago that he’s more than just your average workout warrior.
T-1. Rondel Menendez, WR/PR
Draft pick (year): Seventh round, No. 247 (1999)
Most NFL fans recognize Johnson as the unquestioned 40-yard dash champion, but that’s doing a disservice to Rondel Menendez. A product of FCS school Eastern Kentucky, Menendez participated in the combine during its first year using electronic timing. He capitalized on that with a 4.24 40-yard dash, which was credited with newfound legitimacy.
The Falcons gambled a seventh-round pick on the 5' 9" Menendez, who showcased his promise during the preseason with a dizzying punt return touchdown against the Lions.
Alas, an NFL career simply wasn’t in the cards. Menendez suffered a torn meniscus during Atlanta’s final preseason game and was cut thereafter. He had several short stints with various teams over the next couple years and sat out a season to care for his mother after she required two brain surgeries. When Menendez finally returned to the field, however, he found the injury had sapped some of his game-breaking lateral quickness.
The former No. 247 pick retired soon after, and has reportedly owned a rental car business in Georgia for more than a decade. Though entering the rental car industry isn’t quite as flashy as carrying on a professional football career, at least Menendez can claim a spot in NFL history.
That is, until someone runs a 4.23.