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Stan Becton | | January 17, 2023

Can the fastest NFL players beat the NCAA track stars? Here's what the numbers say

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Are football players faster than track and field athletes? It's a question that's been in the spotlight recently, with the likes of Tyreek Hill (NFL's Miami Dolphins) challenging Usain Bolt (arguably the greatest Olympian sprinter ever) and more. However, before we get to the all-time greats, we should figure out if NFL players can even beat the best sprinters in the NCAA. 

I compiled data from the NFL and the top collegiate sprinters to finally get an answer to the oft-asked question. Here's what the numbers say.

Fastest 2022 regular season NFL speeds

Every year, the NFL uses Next Gen Stats to track the fastest players each game. Below you'll find the fastest players that carried the ball from the 2022 regular season.

1 22.11 Parris Campbell WR Indianapolis Colts 18
2 22.09 Kenneth Walker RB Seattle Seahawks 7
3 21.87 Breece Hall RB New York Jets 7
4 21.72 DeSean Jackson WR Baltimore Ravens 12
5 21.72 Christian Watson WR Green Bay Packers 13
6 21.68 Jaylen Waddle WR Miami Dolphins 16
7 21.68 Dalvin Cook RB Minnesota Vikings 10
8 21.62 Travis Etienne RB Jacksonville Jaguars 17
9 21.6 Devin Duvernay WR Baltimore Ravens 2
10 21.58 Tariq Woolen DB Seattle Seahawks 4

In total, 36 NFL players ran faster than 21 mph during the 2022 regular season, but only Parris Campbell and Kenneth Walker surpassed the 22 mph threshold. Campbell's 22.11 mph speed ranks as the fifth-fastest top speed by a ball-carrier during an NFL season since 2016.

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1 23.34 Tyreek Hill 2016 Kansas City Chiefs
2 23.09 Raheem Mostert 2020 San Francisco 49ers
3 22.3 Matt Breida 2019 San Francisco 49ers
4 22.13 Jonathan Taylor 2021 Indianapolis Colts
5 22.11 Parris Campbell 2022 Indianapolis Colts
6 22.09 Matt Brieda 2018 San Francisco 49ers
7 22.05 Leonard Fournette 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars

So, how do these speeds relate to the top track and field athletes? Let's find out.

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Fastest NCAA track athletes in 2023

While mph data for NCAA track and field races isn't always readily available, there's luckily data from NCAA sprinters who participated in the 2022 World Athletics Championships. We'll be using that data for this article.

Top male sprinters

The 100 meters is the premier male sprinting event, with track athletes running the shortest distance during an outdoor meet. To compare the 100 meters to football, it equates to just over 109 yards, roughly the front of one end zone to the back of another end zone. 

It's rare that a football player will ever run 100 meters in a straight line continuously in a game like a sprinter would in a race, but a football player still needs to hit his peak speeds to escape from opposing players in the same way a sprinter needs to hit his peak speeds to win a race.

That said, here are the fastest 100 meter sprinters that returned to collegiate track and field in 2023.

SPEED (MPH) PLAYER School Time (Round)
26.2 Favour Ashe Auburn 10.00 (Heats)
25.6 Ismael Kone Florida State 10.17 (Heats)
24.3 Shaun Gill Texas A&M-Kingsville (DII) 10.76 (Prelims)

All three of the collegiate 100 meter sprinters ran faster than all NFL players since 2016. Yet, none of the collegiate sprinters above made the 100 meter final at World Championships, meaning there were even faster sprinters in track and field in 2022.

NCAA T&F: Here's how the outdoor track and field championships work

What about the equipment?

A common cry in debates between football and track speed is that football players where equipment that can slow them down. Per Sports Illustrated, football equipment like shoulder pads, helmets and more can weigh more than 10 pounds. While there's no hard data on how much football equipment slows down a player, one can assume that it likely knocks off tenths of a second from top speeds.

40-yard dash

That said, we have seen football players run their top speeds in non-game like settings via the NFL Combine's 40-yard dash. Take a look a some of the speeds from 2022's NFL Combine.

Speed (MPH) 40 Time Athlete School Position  
25.1 4.23 Kalon Barnes Baylor CB  
24.8 4.26 Tariq Woolen UTSA CB  
24.6 4.31 Velus Jones Tennessee WR  
24.5 4.34 Bo Melton Rutgers WR  
24.1 4.33 Danny Gray SMU WR  

Speeds taken from Reel Analytics.

Kalon Barnes ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash time in NFL history, only one-hundreth of a second behind the NFL record of 4.22 seconds. Tariq Woolen ran the fifth-fastest time in NFL history.

However, none of the top-speeds from the 2022 NFL Combine ran without football equipment surpass the top two recorded speeds from the NCAA athletes listed above at World Championships. 

While the 40-yard dash is a decent indicator of speed, it's not the end all be all as shown by analytics experts. There's no correlation between 40-yard dash speed and in-game speed, with players with slow 40 times running just as fast — with equipment on — as players with fast 40 times.

Moreover, the NFL record of 4.22 seconds in the 40-yard dash pales in comparison to what track athletes have ran in the 40-yard dash. Take former NCAA Champion Christian Coleman for example. He ran a 4.12 second 40-yard dash back in 2017, blowing the NFL Combine record out of the water. Coleman even beat NFL legend Bo Jackson's rumored 4.13 second 40-yard dash time.

Coleman's 40-yard dash performance shows that even in similar conditions, without equipment, track speed is faster.

The DK Metcalf race

While Christian Coleman tested out NFL conditions with his run in the 40-yard dash, NFL wide receiver DK Metcalf did the opposite, running a 100 meter race on the track.

Metcalf ran the 100 meters at the Golden Games in an attempt to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials. In his first 100 meter race with only a few months of training, Metcalf ran a 10.37-second time to finish 15th out of 17 competitors in the preliminary round.

Metcalf's speed paled in comparison to track and field sprinters in a race that didn't include some of the America's best 100 meter runners. Yet, when it comes to the NFL, Metcalf is one of the fastest in the league with a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash and a top speed of 22.64 mph 2020.

Metcalf's top speed in the NFL is one of the fastest since the NFL has tracked the data. However, when Metcalf transferred his football speed to the track — without equipment — his speed didn't keep up

The dual-sport athletes

NFL x track speed

For all the comparisons between NFL and track speed, there's one person who blurred the lines in 2022, Devon Allen. Allen, an NCAA champion and Olympian, was a finalist in the 110 hurdles at the 2022 World Championships and also is a member of the Philadelphia Eagles roster, even scoring a touchdown during the preseason.

Devon Allen hit a top speed of 20.93 mph on his 55-yard touchdown in the preseason. While Allen's top speed ranks below some of the top speeds in the NFL this year and the top collegians in track and field at the World Championships, Allen is an Olympian hurdler, running the third-fastest 110 hurdles time ever (12.84 seconds) at Worlds. With out football pads and routes and without hurdles, Allen's top speed is likely much higher.

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NCAA football x track speed

Texas A&M's Devon Achane is a soon-to-be NFL player with legit track speed. How do we know this about the 2023 NFL draft prospect? Because he actually ran track in college.

Achane qualified for the 2022 DI outdoor championships in sprint events. Achane finished in the semifinals during the outdoor championships with a 10.48-second 100 meter time. On the gridiron, Achane was clocked at 22.2 mph in 2021 on a kick return for a touchdown.

Achane's speed on that kick return is faster than any NFL player's top speed during the 2022 regular season. He's one of the select few players than when someone says "he has track speed" legitimately does.

Elsewhere, Kentucky has a football-track standout of its own — and he's only a freshman. Jordan Anthony plays wide receiver for the Wildcats and runs sprints. Prior to enrolling, he won the U.S. U-20 200 meter title with a personal-best 20.34-second finish.

Anthony kicked off his 2023 indoor season with less than a week of track practice between the transition of football and track season by breaking the Kentucky freshman record in the 60 meters in 6.57 seconds. That performance comes after Anthony redshirted on the gridiron, playing in just two games.

Anthony is another dual-sport athlete with true "track speed".

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So who's faster?

From the data, it's clear than the top-end speed of NCAA track and field athletes is faster than the top-end speed of NFL players. While there are other external factors like distance run, equipment weight, directions run and more, the top-end speed data is plain to see.

Could things change if the fastest NFL players raced track and field's best? Maybe, but until that happens the win goes to the trackletes.

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