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Running the Numbers: Size, Not Speed, Matters Most for Wide Receivers

Posted Mar 29, 2013

When discussing measurables (such as those collected at the 2013 Scouting Combine), I often hear critiques like “it doesn’t matter how fast a player runs 40 yards.” Well, it does matter, often quite a bit, and that’s why the measurements are taken. Regardless of the position being assessed, however, the conversation always seems to find its way back to the 40-yard dash.

When I published an explanation of why the 40-yard dash is predictive of running back success, I noticed a lot of comments similar to “but Jerry Rice ran a slow 40-yard dash and he’s the greatest receiver of all-time.” But we need to be careful about applying results from one position to another if it’s not warranted. With any measurable, we’re looking to see how well it can predict success at a particular position. We’d never expect the 40-yard dash to be predictive for linemen in the same way it is for cornerbacks, so we shouldn’t treat it as such. And while it’s popular to emphasize speed for receivers – and they’re often some of the fastest players drafted – it’s not nearly as important as it is for running backs.

What Matters Most for Wide Receivers

There’s no doubt that you want your receivers to be as fast as possible. Even if the benefit is minimal, it never hurts to have more speed. When we look at the game’s most productive receivers, some, like Calvin Johnson, have blazing speed, while others, like Dez Bryant, do not. But one trait that almost all of the NFL’s elite wideouts have in common is size.

As much as it’s popular to say that speedsters can “take the top off of a defense,” it’s the tall, bulky receivers who are moving the chains and putting the ball into the end zone. Take a look at the top 10 receivers in yards for 2012. The average height and weight is over 6-2 and 218 pounds. Nine out of the 10 players, a list that includes Johnson, Bryant, A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson, are at least 6-0. Amazingly, six of the 10 are at least 6-3. Only two, Reggie Wayne and Wes Welker, weigh in below 200 pounds.

If you want to put the ball in the end zone, the need for a big, physical receiver is even greater. The average height and weight for the league’s top scorers is still 6-2, 217 pounds, but every single one of them is over 6-0, and eight out of the 10 are at least 6-2.

Need more evidence? Since 2008, there have been 29 instances of a wide receiver posting 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in a single season. Only one of those, Greg Jennings in 2010, came from someone who stands shorter than 6-0.

Further, if we break down the NFL success of wide receivers based on their 40-yard dash times, you can see that speed just isn’t as important as it is for running backs.

While the fastest running backs, those who ran in the top 33 percent of their class, have found way more success than even moderately-fast running backs, the fastest wide receivers have been only modestly more productive than slower receivers. Again, it isn’t that speed doesn’t matter for receivers, but rather that they can get away with average speed, as Bryant has, with great size.

The Need for Another Wide Receiver

With Bryant and Miles Austin outside, the need for another wide receiver isn’t monumental. If the Cowboys can find value at the position, though, it’s not out of the question to think that they could select a receiver in the middle rounds of the upcoming draft or add a playmaker in free agency. If they go that route, I think there’s good evidence that they’ll seek another player with elite size, as they’ve astutely done in the past.

And that third receiver position is an important one. Take a look at the Cowboys’ usage of three-plus receiver sets over the past few seasons.

Much of the increase has been out of necessity, but whatever the reason, the No. 3 receiver is basically a starter on many teams at this point, including in Dallas. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the ’Boys need an undersized, shifty slot receiver. He might not be small, but the Cowboys actually already have that player in Austin. Austin ran nearly 70 percent of his routes from the slot in 2012, and only two players in the entire NFL, Welker and Wayne, ran more total routes when lined up inside.

Whether or not you think Austin is capable of effectively manning the slot, there’s no doubt that his versatility benefits the offense. With Austin inside, the Cowboys can use another big receiver as their third option at the position, lining him up outside in three-receiver sets.

Using a big receiver as the No. 3 player at the position, as the ’Boys did successfully with Laurent Robinson a couple years ago, benefits the team in two ways. First, that player can grow to potentially become a starter. More important, it gives the Cowboys a built-in

backup plan should Austin or Bryant get injured. As it stands right now, the Cowboys’ offense could be devastated if either of their starters goes down, as they’d basically be forced into starting a slot receiver on the outside. Not good. With Austin’s flexibility, the Cowboys can grab another physical wide receiver to man the outside in three-receiver sets and stay there, as Robinson did in 2011, in the event of an injury.

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