How much will Xavier Worthy’s 40-yard dash record influence NFL Draft? Why talent evaluators might care more than you think

Xavier Worthy fired off the tweet from his Indianapolis hotel room at the NFL scouting combine.

“Turn on the film[,] the routes there,” Worthy tweeted at 7:18 a.m. on March 3. “Don’t let that lil 40 mess your head up.”

The “lil 40” that the Texas Longhorns wide receiver was referencing wasn’t, actually, so little.

Worthy had run a record-breaking 4.21-second 40-yard dash just 13 hours before he unleashed his tweet.

His time wasn’t only the fastest of the 30 receivers at the combine, or even of the 220 total NFL Draft prospects who ran this year. Rather, Worthy clocked the fastest time in NFL combine history, a sample size that includes 5,390 prospects since the league's database began in 2003 and likely thousands more in the decades prior.

The 5-foot-11, 165-pound Worthy had eyed this record before he set it. No matter that flu-like symptoms and a high ankle sprain truncated his training, or that he’d hovered in the 4.3s during the weeks prior. Worthy still voiced his hope boldly to clubs and media alike during combine interviews.

“Some teams asked me, ‘What do you think you’ll run?’ and I was like, ‘I’m gonna run a 4.2,’” Worthy told Yahoo Sports by phone this week. “They’re like, ‘Oh that’s fast … you know that, right?’ And I was like, ‘I know. I’m gonna be all right. I’m gonna run a 4.2.’”

But after Worthy became the first to come within a hundredth-second of his lofty goal, a funny thing happened. He encountered a chorus that viewed his superhuman speed as … a bad thing? Worthy knew straight-line speed alone doesn’t make an NFL player. But he wondered: Does my tape no longer count?

Cue the 7:18 a.m. tweet.

“I feel like before the combine, if I would have run something like a 4.3, they would have been like, ‘Oh, he’s a route runner’ — but now that I run a 4.2, it’s like, ‘He’s just fast,’” Worthy said. “My film’s there. I ran every route in the route tree. I got open on every route, was successful at every route.

“The film doesn’t lie.”

NFL general manager, scout and executive sources agreed in interviews with Yahoo Sports: A hyper-fast 40 is not a bad thing. Teams considered Worthy fast on film before his blazing dash, and they were impressed with his decision to chase the record after an already-fiery 4.25 on his first attempt.

But the clamor Worthy heard reflects a broader conversation canvassing NFL hallways.

Ahead of next week’s NFL Draft, teams are debating: How much does the 40-yard dash actually translate to today’s game, and how much should they thus let it influence their draft boards?

Are disappointing careers from previous 40-yard dash record-breakers, including 2017 first-round pick John Ross whose record Worthy broke, a trend to behold warily? Or does drawing a parallel based on 40 speed alone oversimplify what Worthy can offer?

One AFC scout said in a phone conversation that teams should show skepticism toward a 40 when its data diverges from a prospect’s film. That’s not the case with Worthy.

“It lined up with his game speed and what I felt about how he plays the game,” the AFC scout told Yahoo Sports. “He’s not gonna be John Ross. This guy is like a f***ing good player.

“He just so happens to be fast as s***.”

Are reports of the 40’s death greatly exaggerated?

It’s easy and in vogue to ride the tide of 40-yard dash naysayers. Rarely in an NFL game does a player eye 40 yards of open field and thus a chance to actually translate the track-like principles. Rarely do receivers not named Tyreek Hill shake defenders often enough for straight-line speed to regularly dictate production.

So a talent evaluator or fan who hopes the 40-yard dash will single-handedly predict NFL success will leave disappointed. Some scouts go so far as to dread the event.

“Because it just clouds our decision-making on how good a player is,” one AFC scout told Yahoo Sports. “It’s an insurance policy to make [a head coach or GM] feel better about pulling the card off the board, if I’m being 100% frank and honest.”

And yet, evaluators do not disregard the 40-yard dash, six said in interviews with Yahoo Sports. They instead draw from the event the context clues it annually provides.

An NFC scout said Worthy’s record mattered to their team because speed is “Line 1” with Worthy, “your vertical juice player” who was “able to put a tangible number to that.” An AFC scout lauded the competitive mindset that drove Worthy to re-run an event at which he’d already set the year’s best mark.

“My mind is just kind of built different for this stuff,” Worthy said of determining he could push out the gate harder than he had on his first attempt.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01: Texas Longhorns wide receiver Xavier Worthy (1) finishes a catch as Washington Huskies cornerback Elijah Jackson (25) gives chase during the Semifinal All State Sugar Bowl football game between the Texas Longhorns and Washington Huskies at the Caesars Superdome on January 1, 2024 in New Orleans Louisiana. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Xavier Worthy's skills at wideout helped lead Texas to a berth in the College Football Playoff this past season. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Zooming out, executives said they value how the 40 can allow them to evaluate small-school prospects with more objective metrics than small-school game tape provides. That chance for objectivity extends to Power Five players in a way GPS metrics do not yet.

Because while scouts and executives confirmed that their teams use GPS trackers to evaluate player speed, there’s risk in relying on data with limited historical precedent and lack of standardization. Chip trackers are not yet consistent across college football schools and stadiums the way they are in the NFL; evaluators using optical tracking — machine learning to gauge speed from film — may be introducing still another variable that creates noise in the data. Even if the optical tracking is nearly as accurate as a reliable chip, the NFL is a league where the .35 seconds between the Los Angeles Rams’ Puka Nacua and Worthy’s 40-yard dashes creates a gaping hole. Precision matters.

So while the 40 does not factor in the stressors of a game, it arguably remains the cleanest data set off which to assess pure speed.

“The 40 was an imperfect way to measure game speed for a really long time, but it was all that we did have,” NFL Next Gen Stats analyst Keegan Abdoo said in a recent phone interview with Yahoo Sports. “It's not an end-all-be-all. But it's a piece of information that we have a lot of historical data to compare to and there's something to be said for that.”

GMs use that historical data to consider both on-field context and draft strategy.

“A slower-than-normal 40 can often put a thought of doubt into decision makers,” Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead told Yahoo Sports. “The players who run faster at the 40 usually get drafted earlier. There can be many variables off that correlation, so it does help you navigate the draft.”

When doesn’t the 40 translate?

The applicability of the 40-yard dash ranges across positions. Even under the umbrella of receiver, arguably the position most likely to translate the race’s intent to game day, there is variability.

It’s not enough to ask whether a receiver is fast. Receivers leverage speed, strength and size in infinite ways; offensive minds adapt to employ them accordingly.

Worthy has become the subject of comparisons that don’t make sense.

When the Rams selected Nacua in the fifth round last year, Nacua’s draft slot reflected his 4.56 40, a mark slower than 27 of 30 receivers who ran the 40 at this year’s combine.

And then … Nacua caught an NFL rookie-record 105 passes for 1,486 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season. He added 181 yards and a score in the Rams’ 24-23 wild-card playoff loss to the Detroit Lions.

Does Nacua’s success indicate speed is less important in the NFL than it once was, and thus Worthy’s record matters less? An AFC scout disputed that.

“Even though we're saying they're both wide receivers, [they] get open completely differently,” the scout said. “Both very valuable to the offensive scheme, but they’re all scheme-driven on what they are asked to do.”

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 04: Puka Nacua of Brigham Young participates in a drill during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 04, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Puka Nacua's work in the gauntlet drill at the NFL scouting combine caught the attention of the Rams, who made him a Day 3 draft steal in 2023. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) (Stacy Revere via Getty Images)

Nacua threatened defenses less by taking the top off a secondary and more by transitioning in and out of breaks with controlled speed, especially on in-breaking routes. The 40-yard dash doesn’t capture how well a player can control his speed to accelerate and decelerate; but a combine drill may actually have predicted Nacua’s ability to level up while processing an incoming pass.

The Next Gen Stats team discovered that in the gauntlet drill, which sets up players to run straight while catching oncoming balls from either direction, Nacua hit a top speed of 20.06 miles per hour during the first 40 yards. No receiver accelerated to a quicker speed last year; this year, Florida State’s Keon Coleman hit 20.36 miles per hour after clocking the second-slowest receiver 40 at 4.61 seconds. (Worthy, recovering from his high-ankle sprain, did not participate.)

“I would be hesitant to say that any of these numbers are proven to be important because we only have two years worth of data,” Abdoo said. “A better approximation of game speed is what we might be kind of stumbling into here with tracking these during the combine. But we don't have enough of a sample size to say definitively that that's actually what we are measuring.”

That limitation sends talent evaluators back to the tape with hopes that drills support rather than dispute what players showed in games. Many evaluators aspire eventually to pair accurate and standardized tracking technology with game and drill speeds that resemble the NFL ecosystem more closely than the 40. Reliable GPS data would leave less to guess than a track event which one AFC scout said “takes away our ability to evaluate their instincts, which is a huge, huge indicator of success in the NFL.”

Snead agreed.

“There’s a lot that goes on to be able to play fast at receiver,” Snead told Yahoo Sports. “You have a play call. There’s a defense. There’s your central nervous system. How are you processing what you’re being asked to do? How is the defense defending you?

“When it gets to gray, how fast can you ad-lib, still get open and avoid targets?”

The case for Worthy’s rising draft stock

Worthy believes that his film will answer those questions from Snead and counterparts.

A player whose speed is useful only to spread the field and free teammates would not have amassed 2,755 receiving yards (fourth in Longhorns history) nor caught 26 touchdowns (third).

A player who can only accelerate and only separate downfield does not get open on 78.1% of their curl routes, as Worthy did this season, per data from Reception Perception, which has charted and analyzed NFL receiver routes consistently since 2014. (Reception Perception creator Matt Harmon, who charted this data, is also a Yahoo Fantasy analyst.)

And while Worthy knows he’ll need to be disciplined to use his speed effectively, he cut his 13.4% drop rate in 2022 to 5.4% last year, per Sports Info Solutions. That's below the 6.9% drop rate that Marvin Harrison Jr. hit this year, and Rashee Rice, who starred in 2023 as a second-round rookie, hit in his final college season. Worthy played 2022 with a broken hand.

“I was willing to do whatever for the team to win,” Worthy said of playing injured.

Worthy’s 165-pound frame is slighter than many of his counterparts, Miami’s Hill the only sub-200 pound receiver to rank in the top 10 in receiving yards last season. But again, Worthy will fill a different role than the Philadelphia Eagles ask of the 226-pound A.J. Brown or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 231-pound Mike Evans.

The Minnesota Vikings’ 2023 first-round receiver Jordan Addison tallied 10 touchdowns (fifth most in the league) and 911 yards as a 5-foot-11, 175-pound rookie. The Houston Texans’ third-round rookie Tank Dell added his own 709 yards and seven touchdowns at 5-10 and 165 pounds.

The NFL has gotten lighter at every position except offensive line and defensive tackle the past two decades, per Next Gen Stats. Worthy joins the second-lightest receiver class since 2003, each of the four lightest classes coming in the past four years.

He won’t be the only one leaning on pre-snap motion, creative alignments and varied speed usage to free himself from sturdier defenders. He sought to communicate in combine interviews how thoroughly his understanding of football complements his top-five marks in the 40, vertical jump and broad jump.

“I would tell them the full play, where the ball is supposed to go, what [assignment] everybody had on the field,” Worthy said.

Nov 11, 2023; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian hugs Texas Longhorns wide receiver Xavier Worthy (1) as they walk back into the locker room after beating TCU Horned Frogs 29-26 in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, November. 11, 2023, at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell-USA TODAY Sports
Xavier Worthy shares a moment with Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian after a narrow victory against TCU on Nov. 11, 2023. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect / Reuters)

He took pride in his ability to detail offensive line protections and running back assignments alike; to tell teams how many steps his quarterback was dropping and which reads followed in the progression.

That level of detail will help Worthy in any offense, and especially if he lands with a coach from the Shanahan tree that has been revolutionizing the application of speed at the NFL level.

It’s no coincidence that Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel traveled to Austin for Worthy’s pro day even as it overlapped with Alabama and USC’s showcases.

“Ten years ago, I would have probably said that I thought speed was overrated because [it] can be almost a detriment because these guys can overrun their routes,” Harmon said. “Now, with the way that we're seeing offenses use these short motions and [what] Kyle Shanahan called ‘cheat’ motions, offenses are so much more wide open.

“Speed is like that hipster band that used to be cool and is now having its comeback moment.”

Worthy has a chance to be that band’s lead singer. He has a chance to parlay speed in the model of his childhood idol DeSean Jackson, whose wheels propelled him to 11,263 receiving yards and 58 touchdowns across 15 pro seasons. Add in modern concepts, and the ceiling is high.

Worthy is eager to put his cleats back on and chase it, just as he laced them back up after his 4.25.

He’s eager to rewrite the narrative on 40 record-holders, to buck the trends of speedy prospects just as he separated his 40 time from the 5,389 other prospects who have run it the past 21 years.

Selection in the first round of the NFL Draft is a lifelong goal. When the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts each allocated one of their 30 pre-draft visit invites to Worthy this month, evidence mounted that he can achieve it.

“You can’t teach speed,” Worthy said. “So I feel like that’s what makes me the most dangerous.”