Speed kills, right? That's what we've always been told. Being fast has its advantages in the NFL, especially for wide receivers. Catching the ball and immediately darting upfield is a quality skill. Gaining separation from defenders on routes can make a quarterback's job easier. Running away from your opponent in the open field can lead to scores or scoring opportunities. It's obvious, speed is an ability that greatly increases a player's value in the NFL. Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III III ran a 4.27 40-yard dash in the 2020 NFL Combine, but is that a good indicator of success? History says the fastest receivers at the NFL Combine aren't always successful. Will Henry Ruggs III break that trend?
Why aren't the fastest wide receivers successful?
In the history of the NFL Combine, only 9 wide receivers ran the 40-yard dash in 4.30 seconds or less. Keep in mind, some wide receiver prospects elect not to run at the Combine because they feel it can only hurt their draft stock if they performed poorer than expected. If their stock is already high why risk it?
Wide receivers with a 4.30 time or less at the NFL Combine
- John Ross, 4.22 (2017)
- Rondel Menendez, 4.24 (1999)
- Jerome Mathis, 4.26 (2005)
- Henry Ruggs III, 4.27 (2020)
- Marquise Goodwin, 4.27 (2013)
- Jacoby Ford, 4.28 (2010)
- J.J. Nelson, 4.28 (2015)
- Yamon Figures, 4.30 (2007)
- Darrius Heyward-Bey, 4.30 (2009)
The highest season-ending fantasy ranking from any of the above mentioned wide receivers is 28th shared by Marquise Goodwin in 2017 and Darrius Heyward-Bey in 2011. Both had no other seasons higher than a rank of 50.
If you're wondering about John Ross, in 2018 he had 7 touchdowns, but only 21 receptions for 210 yards (10 yards per catch). He finished 77th. In 2019 he increased his yards per catch to a staggering 18.1, but only mustered 28 catches in 8 games. He finished 67th. Ross is showing signs of moderate success with an upward trend for increased production but what about everyone else? Why aren't the league's fastest wide receivers successful at the next level?
NFL Combine 40 times aren't the best indicator
As mentioned earlier, not all rookie wide receivers run at the NFL Combine. Those who feel they don't need to risk losing any draft stock generally won't run at the Combine, but they do often run at their college Pro Day, and there are several who ran under 4.30 seconds.
Wide receivers who ran a 4.30 or less at their college Pro Day
- Joey Galloway, 4.18
- Don Beebe, 4.21
- Breshad Perriman, 4.22
- Donte Stallworth, 4.22
- Taylor Mays, 4.24
- Phillip Dorsett, 4.25
- Tavon Austin, 4.25
- Randy Moss, 4.25
- James Jett, 4.26
- Trindon Holliday, 4.26
- Raghib Ismael, 4.28
- Laveranues Coles, 4.29
- Tyreek Hill, 4.29
While not every name stands out, there are several notable wide receivers on this list who have had an impact in the NFL. The percentage of success of sub-4.30 wide receivers increases when we add other settings outside of the NFL Combine to the equation.
If speed is so vital to success in the NFL why aren't there more successful FAST wide receivers? Let's break this down.
- Mechanics - it's one thing to run fast in a straight line while being timed, it's another to gain separation, make yourself get open, and evade tacklers. There are several characteristics that can be honed - handling press coverage, improved footwork, hip movement, fluidity, lowering below pad level after the catch, having a sense of urgency to snatch the ball and run upfield, properly catching the ball on the run, or while being contested.
- Quarterback play - Just because a wide receiver can create separation and get open doesn't necessarily equate to success if the quarterback can't get him the ball, accurately and consistently. Some quarterbacks are definitely better than others when throwing to a spot, rather than at a player.
- Coaching - If the coaching staff does not utilize a player's strengths properly, there is a chance we won't see the full potential of that player. Fast receivers tend to run more 9-routes (fly patterns) than other receivers. As a result, they are often utilized in this role and see less time on other routes. Developing a full route-tree isn't necessarily needed for receivers in this role. The Saints come to mind as a coaching staff that gets the most out of their players. Brandin Cooks, Donte Stallworth and tight end Jimmy Graham are three examples of players who thrived with New Orleans and struggled to reach that same level on other teams.
- Player preference - We often see fast receivers slotted into the 9-route role (fly pattern), and not so much developed to run the full route-tree. That may be coaching, but it could also be the receivers own level of comfortability. Fast receivers are generally smaller and shorter. Going over the middle or making contested catches may not be their preference, so they are anchored to what they do best, and the 9-route accentuates this.
What do the experts think about Henry Ruggs III?
Maurile Tremblay, Footballguys
Speed is obviously helpful to wide receivers. If you took, say, Reggie Wayne and gave him 4.27 speed, you'd make him a much better wide receiver than he already was.
There's a lot more to being a competent NFL wide receiver than just speed, though. It's no surprise that there haven't been many sub-4.3 guys who've mastered all the required skills ... because there haven't been many sub-4.3 guys, full stop. Without putting any effort into estimating the real numbers, I'm guessing that at any given time, there are many thousands of aspiring wide receivers who run in the 4.5 range while there may be a dozen, at most, who run under a 4.3.
Even if speed is very important, we should expect more guys from a pool of thousands to meet a given threshold than guys from a pool of a dozen.
The fact that there have been so few sub-4.3 guys to succeed in the NFL doesn't mean that speed is a handicap in football ... just like the fact that there have been so few successful NBA players over 7'4" means that height is a handicap in basketball. Ruggs has skills beyond pure speed. He's an excellent NFL prospect, in my opinion. That said, CeeDee Lamb is my top wide receiver prospect in this draft.
A notable contributor to the optimism surrounding Ruggs is @angelo_fantasy who has a lot to say about the outlook of the rookie speedster. He created an entire thread of his thoughts and opinions. Below is a view of the first post in his thread. Please take the time to read through his thoughts. He provides some excellent nuggets of information that can be helpful to learning more about Ruggs' fantasy outlook.
— AngeloFF (@angelo_fantasy) March 8, 2020
Matt Waldman, Footballguys, The Rookie Scouting Portfolio
All of Matt's thoughts on this year's rookie crop can be viewed in his 2020 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Here's a sneak peak, with his approval, on his thoughts on Ruggs.
First of all, I'm with Maurile on CeeDee Lamb but this is about Henry Ruggs III and his outlook. I have him 6th on my rookie board but one of five players in a second tier that has grades high enough to start immediately with the right fit and addressing minor flaws early while continuing to work on the major ones.
Ruggs, at best, reminds me a lot of former Miami Hurricane and NFL receiver Santana Moss, who earned over 10,000 receiving yards and 66 touchdowns during a 14-year career that included a few seasons with at least 1,100 yards receiving. Moss was a rugged receiver for his size who could win the ball in tight coverage on deep targets because he possessed excellent concentration, body control, and timing to attack the football.
A 4.27-second, speedster in the 40-Yard Dash, Ruggs lined up at split end for the Crimson Tide and thanks to a supporting cast over the years that included teammates like Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, Irv Smith last year, and the always compelling ground attack, he found himself breaking into open space where he could catch the ball in stride and re-enact the “Run, Forrest…Run!” scenes from Forrest Gump.
Side note - Ruggs had a combined 100 receptions and rushes in his three years at Alabama. He finished with 25 touchdowns on 100 touches, which is an astonishing ratio of 1 touchdown every four touches.
Trust and believe that Ruggs’s presence also made life easier for his teammates and not only due to his blazing speed. While it’s absolutely the receiver’s calling card, Ruggs’s game has enough components beyond the game-breaking swiftness to earn first-day consideration in this deep class of receivers.
If Ruggs’s used better technique to attack the ball in ways that would project better to the NFL, he could have vaulted his teammate Jerry Jeudy for the third spot in my rankings. Of course, he’s in the same tier as Jeudy so if a game-breaking vertical threat with potential to develop possession-level hands is more valuable to a team or a fantasy player, Ruggs and Denzel Mims are atop the list.
The college game had a tremendous amount of respect for Ruggs’ speed but he still faced tight, man-to-man coverage often enough to see how he handles it. Ruggs favors the use of single- and double-hesitation moves that he’ll pair with a dip of the shoulder, a swat of the arm, or an arm-over.
He also has a three-step release pattern and arm-over that works effectively. I’ve even seen Ruggs incorporate three moves: a single-hesitation move, an arm-over, and a shoulder reduction against tight coverage to beat the cornerback up the sideline.
I only saw Kristian Fulton, LSU’s corner who will likely earn a first-round pick, attempt to jam Ruggs. When he tried, Ruggs anticipated the attempt, leaned away from the contact, and swatted past. Against off coverage, Ruggs will incorporate a rip when the defender is playing too high and initiates contact.
With his moves and speed, the report on Ruggs sounds dominant but if there’s an area to watch, it’s when he faces patient cornerbacks who aren’t afraid to be physical—in other words, good NFL cornerbacks. When Ruggs faced patient corners that didn’t bite on his early moves, they could cut him off and effectively end his route.
Most of Ruggs’s competition wasn’t playing him tight, physical, and patient so how he’ll transition to this style of play remains a bigger projection. Even so, his speed will command respect and a lot that respect will be in the form of off-coverage.
One of those reasons is Ruggs’s acceleration. When he gets a clean release against tight coverage, his burst into his stem is enough get cornerbacks to panic and they get grabby—even within the first five yards of the play.
When paired with his speed, Ruggs’s technical expertise is enough for him contribute right away but there’s additional upside to mine that could make him a nightmare for opposing defenders. He has good hip-sink to drop his weight into hard breaks with the three-step break format but his speed breaks aren’t flat enough despite the fact that he has the quickness to execute the tightest of turns.
When it comes to the perimeter routes where a team will feature Ruggs, all is well. He works back to the ball well on curl routes and in situations where he has 2-3 yards of separation on the trailing defender he break around and underneath him on curl to the sideline if the quarterback doesn’t initially make the throw.
Ruggs’s greatest opportunity for improvement is the way he frames his hands to targets arriving at his stomach and chest. Currently he uses an underhand framing towards the ball that doesn’t allow him to extend his arms to the earliest window for the catch.
This framing issue is also part of an overall theme where his game can improve—reaction time. He must get his head around faster on in-breaking routes and his hands up to address the ball. Being quick of foot is not the advantage it could be if the rest of Ruggs’ game is a step slow.
Even when Ruggs catches the ball with his feet on the ground and uses the most efficient framing with his hands, he has a tendency to stop and square the defender over top rather than turn immediately up-field, drop the pads, and accelerate. Improving his approach with downhill transitions will make him a more reliable and dangerous runner after the catch.
Despite these issues, Ruggs is a massive threat as a perimeter runner. Ruggs will take short passes or runs to the perimeter and beat defensive backs with his speed. At worst, he challenges them for short gains that equate to a decent run play up the middle.
Although a smaller receiver, Ruggs is an effective blocker in many phases of the game. He transitions well from route runner to blocker and exhibits hustle to square and maintain his position when shielding pursuit from the path to ball.
Route runner, receiver, ballcarrier, and blocker, Ruggs has the baseline skills to develop into a primary contributor in the NFL. If he decides to work at the flaws with his game the way Tony Gonzalez did early in his career, Ruggs can become a top producer for his team. If he thinks he’s arrived because his speed gives him early success, there’s a danger that he never elevates his game beyond a situational deep threat.
Based on what I’ve observed, he’s already a more promising receiver than Ginn, but there’s another level that he can attain and Moss’s skills represent that aspirational level. And if improves beyond expectation, Tyreek Hill could be that aspirational comparison.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: Some corners of this draft analysis world have Ruggs as the top receiver on their board, including NFL teams. Ruggs’s speed alone will justify an early selection in the eyes of most teams that value him there.
The hope for teams and dynasty players is that they’re drafting another incarnation of Tyreek Hill who was also a projection pick because he played running back at Oklahoma State and his tenure at wide receiver was at West Alabama—not a hotbed for professional development at the position.
The difference between Ruggs and Hill for fantasy players is that Hill was a fifth-round selection in the NFL Draft and didn’t require a first-round dynasty pick for his services. If you have multiple first-round picks, taking a chance on Ruggs is worthwhile. This is also true if you have depth at wide receiver and running back and Ruggs falls to you in the early-to-middle spots of the first round.
However, Ruggs’s matching Hill’s success will require an imaginative coach and staff, a veteran quarterback, and complementary talent that prevents the opposition from devoting extra resources on a consistent basis to stop Ruggs. Without these components, Ruggs has the upside to deliver production among the top 36-48 receivers and develop into a top-24 fantasy option at his position if he addresses his flaws.
His floor is lower than the players I have ranked above him because his skills and flaws translate better to the perimeter than a hybrid-slot role in the mold of Cooper Kupp, JuJu Smith-Schuster, or Michael Thomas.
Putting it all together
As we've seen in the past, speed isn't always a tell-tale sign of success in the NFL. Speedsters tend to be true to specific routes that accentuate their abilities, plus most sub-4.30 wide receivers are not 6'3 and 215+ pounds. They generally don't have the body weight and size to withstand consistent, contested catches - although Steve Smith might have an argument with that statement. Smith was smallish in height (5'9, 185 pounds), but he made up for it with toughness and grit. Also, Smith was fast (4.39) but he wasn't sub 4.30 fast.
Can Henry Ruggs III buck the trend that suggests elite speed doesn't always guarantee success in the NFL? Ruggs definitely has elite speed which can elevate his game to another level with that skill alone, but can he be a complete receiver? If he lands on a team with pieces in place that will allow him to be a complementary weapon, he can thrive. As Matt Waldman pointed out, he has some flaws that can be coached. If these flaws can be fixed early on, he can develop his game and ultimately be a consistent, effective weapon resulting in a dominating fantasy outlook for years to come.
Questions, suggestions and, comments are always welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org