As the NFL becomes more and more of a passing league, speed at the wide receiver position has never been more coveted. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, especially when you have players like Tyreek Hill burning defenses week in and week out.
But is speed the supreme trait when it comes to evaluating wide receivers?
Is every elite wide receiver blazing fast?
Is there a specific number a player must hit during his 40-yard dash to be a success in the NFL?
The answer to all those questions is no.
There are many different ways of evaluating wide receivers; not all NFL players are burners and combine performances can often be overrated. Stating a player is either good or bad based on a single trait would be asinine, and yet, every year college wide receivers plummet in the draft for running a below-average 40-yard dash.
A prime example of this is Chargers Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen.
Leading up to his pro day, Allen was considered a lock to be picked in the first round and then he ran a 4.75 40-time.
A lot of opinions changed on Allen after that day which eventually led to his draft day fall to the third round at 76th overall.
Looking back at that draft, there were seven wide receivers drafted ahead of Allen, including Cordarrelle Patterson (a kick returner), DeAndre Hopkins and Robert Woods. The other four are no longer in the NFL.
I think it’s safe to say outside of Hopkins, Allen is clearly the best receiver from that class, and yet, he was the eighth receiver off the board.
What do all seven of the guys taken before Allen have in common? They all ran faster 40 times than him. Fast forward seven years and do you still think anyone cares about those 120 feet in Indianapolis?
Speed can be a magnificent tool for any player, but speed alone isn’t going to make you a three-time Pro Bowler like Allen.
If you look at some of the fastest wide receivers drafted in the first round since Allen entered the league, you’ll see that many of them were never able to turn their elite speed into something useful at the NFL level.
Whether it’s Tavon Austin (4.34), Kevin White (4.35), Corey Davis (4.40) or even the fastest man to ever run the 40-yard dash, John Ross (4.22), all of them failed to meet their respective NFL expectations.
Teams become enamored with straight-line speed when there are so many other important qualities to consider, most notably, route running.
When it comes to route running there may be no one better than Keenan Allen.
Current NFL Network lead draft analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah had high praise for Allen when evaluating his tape from the 2019 season calling him “the best route runner in the NFL.”
Here is a perfect example of Allen using route-running savvy over speed to get open. Watch how he uses his head to trick the defensive back into thinking he’s running a crossing pattern and then snaps it back into an out route creating over five yards of separation. Running a 4.30 isn’t getting you open on that play, being an elite route runner will.
Here is another example of Allen using his eyes and head to completely fool a defensive back. On this play, Allen’s lined up against former All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay. Watch how he turns his head back to Rivers in the middle of the route, forcing Slay to look up and then in the blink of an eye he cuts to the sidelines creating a ton of separation.
These are the skills that turn a good receiver into a great one.
Creating separation is as important a trait as any for a wide receiver and for the last few years, no one has been better at that than Allen. Over the last two seasons, Allen has averaged more separation per target than guys like DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and Michael Thomas.
That doesn’t happen by accident. Allen spends countless hours working on his craft down to the finest details.
One of those fine details that Allen loves to talk about is “setting the cornerback up.”
This clip is a perfect example of that. Watch how Allen plants his left foot and twitches his head, forcing Xavien Howard towards the sidelines and then in a flash, turns it back inside, leaving him in his dust.
This play may not make highlight reels but it’s these kinds of plays that separate the good from the great. Having the ability to create that much separation on a five-yard route is simply incredible and only goes to show that speed can be overrated.
Allen didn’t create five yards of separation because he was faster than Howard, he got open because he is an elite route runner.
Whether you ran a 4.30 or a 4.70, it doesn’t necessarily matter. What matters is getting open and no one does that better than Keenan Allen.