Combine Focus: A Deeper Dive into the Bears Need for Speed

| February 27th, 2020

The NFL gathers this week in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine (or Underwear Olympics, as Jeff prefers to call them), when fans throw out years of game film and focus instead on numbers from a few tests done without pads on watch eagerly to see how well their favorite players perform in a number of drills testing athleticism.

No drill is more popular than the 40 yard dash, the purest measure of straight line speed that we have. While results of these few seconds often get over-weighted, speed is lethal in the NFL, and one of the (many) problems with Chicago’s offense is that they don’t have enough of it among their skill position players – RBs, TEs, and WRs. To better illustrate that, let’s dig into the numbers.

What Counts as Fast?

To start with, let’s figure out what average speed looks like in the NFL.

Defining this is more difficult than you might imagine, because getting an average first requires defining a sample.

I was able to find two different studies that did this, with different samples and thus different results.

  • The first is MockDraftable, which provides the average for all Combine times at every position since 1999. However, not all players at the Combine end up playing in the NFL, and some not at the Combine do.
  • The 2nd study by Topher Doll looked at all players who appeared in at least 5 NFL games since 2000 and found, unsurprisingly, faster averages nearly across the board than just plain Combine averages.

The table below shows the average 40 time for running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends for each study.

As we can see, those are quite a bit different. Since the Doll study is based on players who actually made it to the NFL, I think that’s probably a better reference value to use as average speed for a position.

Chicago’s Speed

Now let’s look at the 40 times for every player who recorded a carry or target for Chicago in 2019.

A few thoughts:

  • If you just take an average of the times for each position, you get 4.54 s for RBs, 4.51 s for WRs, and 4.71 s for TEs. All three are slower than the NFL average based on the Doll study.¬†Of course, a weighted average would be a more accurate representation of team speed. It makes no sense for Ryan Nall to count just as much as David Montgomery since Montgomery had 277 carries + targets and Nall had 2. If you use a weighted average for carries + targets, the RB average shifts to 4.55 seconds, WR to 4.53, and TE to 4.69. Using this metric, we can see TEs as a whole had around average speed, while WRs and RBs are both slow.
  • Looking at individual players, only Tarik Cohen, Taylor Gabriel, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Trey Burton are appreciably faster than average for their position. Those 4 combined for 277 carries + targets in 2019, or roughly 31% of the targets + carries that this entire group received. The Bears just cut Gabriel, and that number drops to 27% if you remove his 51 plays from the sample.

Think about that: the ball went to a player with above-average speed on less than 1 in 3 plays last year, and the player responsible for roughly 1/5 of that already limited sample size has been cut. A hopefully healthy Trey Burton playing more snaps and getting more targets can help that, and Cordarrelle Patterson could see his plays bump up a little bit as well, but honestly Tarik Cohen probably needs to see the ball less than he did in 2019. More importantly, the Bears need more than 3 players who are fast.

Cross-Team Comparison

To better understand how Chicago’s speed (or lack thereof) lines up to the rest of the NFL, I looked at the Chiefs and Eagles, two teams that run a similar offense to the Bears. The table below shows their results compared to Chicago’s for many of the metrics above. Once again I used weighted 40 times to factor in heavy-volume players more heavily.

Here we can see that none of the teams have particularly fast running backs (which actually matches previous work I’ve done looking at the typical physical profile of running backs in this offense), though none were as slow as Chicago. Philadelphia had roughly average speed at both WR and TE,¬†though it’s worth noting they dealt with serious injury issues at wide receiver in particular in 2019. Nelson Agholor and DeSean Jackson were intended to be their speed targets, but due to injuries they combined for only 79 targets in 14 games after earning 171 in 28 games the year before. Because of those injuries, Philadelphia didn’t have any more plays going to fast players than the Bears did in 2019, but they did avoid as many going to players who are significantly slower than NFL average (hello, David Montgomery and Allen Robinson!), which accounts for their faster averages.

Kansas City, of course, is the model of how dangerous speed can be. Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Sammy Watkins all had a 40 yard dash time at least 0.1 seconds faster than the NFL average, and they combined for 371 carries + targets in 2019. As a result, the Chiefs’ offense was one of the most explosive and dangerous units in the NFL.

Locked In

Of course, one of the issues for the Bears is that they’re somewhat locked in with personnel. David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen are the top 2 running backs. Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller are the top 2 WRs. Those 4 combined for 686 carries + targets in 2019, and it’s hard to see that number dropping significantly in 2020 barring injuries. The only fast player in that group is Tarik Cohen, meaning that their speed will have to come from role players.

It’s worth noting that there’s more to athleticism than just speed. When you look at more all-encompassing metrics like Relative Athletic Scores (RAS) and SPARQ, the Bears fare better. Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller are both in the top 15% of WRs in terms of overall athleticism in both metrics, which means they’re excellent athletes if not particularly speedy ones. David Montgomery is around average in RAS and in the 36th percentile in SPARQ, which is not great but still a bit better than his 40 time would suggest.

So the Bears need to add more speed to their roster, but it won’t likely come in their main weapons. That means Bears fans should be on the lookout for fast WRs and RBs who are likely day 3 picks and can contribute on offense as reserves while also being key special teams performers (think Kerrith Whyte-type players). It also wouldn’t be completely shocking if they look for a fast WR in round 2, since this is a loaded draft at that position and Javon Wims, who is currently slated to be the 3rd starter, didn’t exactly impress last year.

So go ahead and watch the 40 yard dash this weekend. It’s not a reason to ignore a players’ film, but it’s certainly something the Bears need to pay attention to when scouting skill position players this year.

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