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Could Deion Sanders Have Shut Down Megatron?

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At Bleacher Report, I tried to answer the hypothetical of whether or not Prime Time could have shut down Calvin Johnson:

The Numbers

Whenever possible, it’s helpful to let the numbers tell the story. In the case of Megatron vs. Prime Time, though, the on-field stats aren’t going to mean much. Football is already a chaotic game that’s anything but standardized in the same manner as a sport like baseball. It’s challenging to compare the stats for players who are on the field together, much less those who suited up years apart from one another.

There are some numbers that can be of use to us, though: those taken at the NFL Scouting Combine. Traits like height, weight and speed are highly predictive of NFL success. They’re why those who argue a wide receiver like Don Hutson could excel in today’s NFL are absolutely out of their minds.

The game has changed so much over the years—even a lot since Sanders’ prime—that it’s unlikely many of the athletes from even a couple decades ago would be able to hang with the big boys in the NFL in 2013.

Sanders was a unique specimen, however—a player most seem to agree was the best to ever play his position.

But he wouldn’t have been able to shut down Johnson on a consistent basis. Here’s why.

Coming out of Florida State in 1989, Sanders checked in at 6’1”, 195 pounds. That’s on the light side for a cornerback, even in Sanders’ days, but Prime Time’s game was of course built upon his jaw-dropping speed.

Sanders ran his 40-yard dash before the NFL instituted electronic timing, so we don’t know exactly how fast he covered the distance. Most reports have him in the range of 4.21, which is blazing.

But playing cornerback in today’s NFL isn’t all about speed. Actually, many teams prefer tall, heavy cornerbacks who can play press man and win in jump-ball situations.

Why the change? Take a look at the height for the top 10 wide receivers in yards in 2012.

The black line is the average of every wide receiver who attended the 2013 scouting combine—a number that’s representative of the NFL as a whole.

You can see that only two wide receivers who finished in the top 10 in the NFL in yards last season check in below the average height for players at their position. That average of 72.9 inches is well below the mean of 74.4 inches for the top 10 receivers.

Looking at weight, we see the same phenomenon.

Three of the top 10 receivers checked in below the league average in weight (202.9 pounds), but most were well above. The average for the top 10 receivers was an incredible 218.2 pounds.

And that’s just for the top receivers in terms of yards. Looking at touchdowns, the results are the same; the average height and weight for the top 10 wide receivers in 2012 touchdowns was 74.4 inches and 217.2 pounds.

At 6’5”, 239 pounds, Johnson is a freak—a man among boys. His scorching 4.35 speed doesn’t hurt, but it’s really that size and his uncanny ball skills that have allowed him to thrive in the NFL—and the reason Sanders wouldn’t be able to come close to shutting him down.

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