One of the most-discussed elements of the evaluation of professional football players in both the CFL and NFL is 40-yard-dash times. The 40, being run today at the CFL E-Camp in Toronto, is often seen as a key pre-draft test; however, it is a bit of an odd football construct, as it isn't a track and field distance at all, but rather derived from the average distance of punts (to give coaches an idea how long of a hang time would be required for special-teams players to get in position to make a tackle). It's become one of the more important cross-position standards, though; coaches and general managers obviously aren't looking for offensive linemen to beat receivers in the 40, but how linemen do does present an idea of how quick they are. It's more important for positions that extensively depend on speed, but the 40's cross-positional applications are evident.
How much credence given to 40 times varies from team to team. If you buy Oakland Raiders' owner Al Davis' strategy, the 40 is often all-encompassing (and leads to frequently poor results, such as drafting guys like Fabian Washington and Darrius Heyward-Bey in the first round. Speed is an advantage, but speed alone won't get you too far. Most CFL and NFL teams tend to rely on a more balanced brand of evaluation than Davis does, but the 40 still plays a large role in where players get drafted.
It's a test that can be so important to players' draft positions and future football careers, but it seems pretty simple, right? How hard can it be to track how fast players cover 40 yards? Well, it's more difficult than many would expect. As this Scout.com article shows, NFL 40 times at the combine are actually based on six different readings; players run twice, and each run is measured by two hand-held stopwatches and an electronic timer. However, it's the electronic numbers that are published. The CFL uses a similar approach, but has historically published the handheld numbers instead of the electronic ones (which, as Drew Edwards writes, are generally assumed to be about .1 to .2 seconds slower, but more accurate). This year, they've decided to reverse that, publishing the electronic times instead. This is great for cross-comparison with NFL results, and probably is fairer to the players involved (as there's less possibility for human reactions to add error into the times). However, it does mean that this year's players are probably being recorded with slower times than others have been in the past, so it's best to compare them to this year's class instead of historical performances.
In terms of actual times recorded in the 40 at E-Camp, the top showing this year came from York defensive back Andre Clark (pictured at right above battling Waterloo's Patrick McGarry for a ball during a practice for the 2010 East-West Game), who was clocked at 4.49 seconds. At first glance, that's nowhere close to the E-Camp record of 4.31 seconds Bishop's RB Steven Turner set last year, but it could be close or even faster depending on just how big that handheld-to-electronic discrepancy is. In reference to the NFL, it's a considerable ways behind Chris Johnson's 4.24 in 2008 or Demarcus Van Dyke's 4.28 this year, but it isn't far behind several highly-touted cornerbacks, including Nebraska's Prince Amukamara (4.43). Full results for the E-Camp players are available here; several receivers and DBs hit the 4.6-4.7 range, as did Calgary running back Matt Walter (4.64). Quarterback Brad Sinopoli showed he can move pretty well, too, clocking a 4.84. Of the bigger guys, the best defensive lineman was Bishop's Mathieu Boulay (4.78), and the best offensive lineman was Western's Brendan Dunn (5.14).
How much a good 40 time (and other notable E-Camp performances, like Michael Knill's bench-press record) actually do for a player's stock is debatable, though. Knill broke the lifting record of Laurier running back Mike Montoya, who wasn't even drafted last year (and despite Turner's blazing-fast 40 time, he was taken 30th overall by Toronto last year). Impressive athletic performances certainly don't hurt a player's stock, but there's much more to being a successful professional athlete than that.
In fact, this weekend's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT saw a rather interesting panel on the subject, featuring noted author Malcolm Gladwell (whose draft-related ideas I've covered before), Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck and Athletes' Performance CEO Mark Verstegen. They talked about how some physically gifted athletes like Marcus Banks and Jamario Moon wind up being less successful professionally than those with lesser natural ability but more determination. As Dan Devine pointed out over at Ball Don't Lie, in some cases that can be due to injuries and other circumstances beyond players' control, but the point remains that skill alone doesn't necessarily determine success, and that might particularly be the case in a league where the cerebral side seems to matter as much as the physical one. We don't have access to the results of the interviews teams conducted with prospects at E-Camp, and they'd be difficult to rank quantitatively anyway, but they may play just as important of a role as the 40 times and the game tape in determining who's drafted where.