NFL vs NBA: Which sport has the better athletes?


First of all, I am comparing apples to oranges. Most NFL players couldn’t cut it in the NBA and vice versa. However, I’m a big fan of both basketball and football, and I’ve always wondered who is generally more athletic: NBA players or NFL players?

Let me define athleticism: anything you see in a workout. Nothing related to coordination. Simply speed, strength, agility, etc., all relative to the size of the player. I try to hold no bias, but I’ve always appreciated the raw physical tools of NFL athletes, and believed that, in general, the NBA pales in comparison, with the exception of a certain LeBron James.

The only way to even attempt to do this is by looking at the results of something the two sports have in common; combines for draft prospects. The workouts at each combine are mostly different, but a couple are comparable: the standing vertical jump and the 40 yard dash vs. the 3/4 court sprint.

Let’s start off with the vertical jump numbers. At the NBA combine, prospects have both a standing vertical jump and a running vertical jump (side note: at the last combine, a player’s running vertical was, on average, 6.029 inches higher than his standing vertical). At the NFL combine, it’s just a standing vertical jump. After looking at the vertical jump numbers, only one thing was on my mind: I really wish the NFL had a slam dunk contest. I love watching the Slam Dunk Contest and you don’t necessarily need NBA skills to dominate at the Slam Dunk Contest. All you need is size, length, and athleticism. And after comparing the vertical jumps of these athletes, I can’t help but imagine how amazing it would be to see NFL athletes put there skills on display. The numbers from the NFL are astounding. At the NBA combine, the highest standing vertical jump on record is 38 inches, by Harrison Barnes in 2012. 18, that’s right, 18, players from the last NFL combine had higher standing vertical jumps than 38 inches. The highest ever? Gerald Sensabaugh, with a jaw dropping 46 inch vertical jump at the 2005 combine. 46 inches is actually higher than the highest recorded running vertical in NBA history, 45.5 inches from Kenny Gregory. I’m sure Sensabaugh could hit 50 while running. Chris Chambers and Donald Washington each have 45 inch verticals. What might be the most impressive part about the NFL’s numbers is how well they endure with size. Mario Williams, who is 6’6, 290lbs, has a 40.5 inch vertical. Scott Fujita, Calvin Johnson, and Vernon Davis each have a 42 inch vertical and are over 235lbs. Virgil Green, Rocky McIntosh, Mark Anderson, and Dontay Moch are all at 42 inches and above as well as 240lbs.

And then there is Cameron Wake. Cameron Wake has a 45.5 inch vertical. By simply adding his height and his standing vertical, you know that Cameron Wake can get his head a shocking 10 feet and 0.5 inches off the ground in a single jump, without the need of a running start. After looking at the standing reaches of players close to 6’3 at the NBA combine (standing reach isn’t measured at the NFL combine), I would guess Wake’s standing reach is probably around 8’3. If that is his standing reach, Cameron Wake could touch the rim on a 12 foot hoop without the need of a running start. Seriously. He’s that amazing. Being taller than Wake at 6’6, Mario Williams might be able to do the same thing if his standing reach is 8’8, which isn’t implausible. Again, I really wish I could see some of these guys in a dunk contest, because it would be something no one could ever forget. Every once and a while, you’ll see a player dunk the ball over the 10 foot crossbar after scoring a touchdown. Let’s not forget they are wearing about 30lbs of equipment. These guys are pretty incredible.

The only other way to compare these athletes is speed. This is where it gets a little bit more tricky. They aren’t running on the same surfaces, and they are not running the same distance. NBA players run a 25 yard (75 foot) dash at the combine. NFL players run a 40 yard dash, BUT, within the 40 yard dash, a hand timed 10 yard split (which I don’t think is official) is also known. By adding the 40 yard dash time and the 10 yard dash time, and dividing by 2, you will get a rough estimate as to what the player’s 25 yard dash time is. Alternatively, you can add the 10 yard dash to half the time it takes to run the remaining 30 yards and get the same answer. Keep in mind, this method has a slight bias toward NFL players. Most of the accelerating is withing the first 10 yards, but not all. However, looking at Usain Bolt’s 10 meter splits, the change in average speed from 15 meters to 25 meters is only .119 yd/s^2. Let’s say, for Tavon Austin, it’s a bit higher. Let’s say he’s accelerating at a rate of .2 yd/s^2 during the 10 yard to 25 yard interval. The estimated 25 yard dash time goes from 2.90 to 2.92 (I was an AP physics student). Fairly negligible. On the other hand, they are running on different surfaces. I have no idea whether it is easy to run on hardwood with basketball shoes or turf with football cleats. But I will say this; the 40 at the combine is run on turf, and the 40 yard dash is much easier to run on grass than turf (compare combine 40’s to pro day 40’s), so if it is easier to run on a football, the gap is narrowed since combine 40’s are on turf. With that, let’s look at the results from the last combine (results from WalterFootball).

Average wide receiver 25 yard dash estimate, among 34 receivers: 3.0296.

How good is that number? Well, the fastest 3/4 court sprint at the NBA combine this year was 3.08, by Miami’s Shane Larkin. Of course, these times are just estimates. The running surface may have slightly favored NFL players. The error in the estimates was in the NFL’s favor, although my Tavon Austin calculation makes me think the difference is quite negligible, no more than .05 seconds on any individual player, assuming the 10 yard split data is accurate. And, since there are fewer NBA players than NFL players, and fewer players at the NBA combine than the NFL combine, the NBA has fewer players there to break 3.08 seconds. And guards/Lebron James type players are the only ones that have a shot at breaking a wide receivers time. But, despite all of that, you still have to wish that the fastest player at the NBA combine would have a better time than the average receiver at the NFL combine. It’s further proof that NFL athletes are better than NBA.

The only other evidence available is that more NFL players have been to the Olympics for track and field events than NBA players. I don’t know of a single NBA player that has competed in any Olympic sport (other than obviously basketball) and you also see more football players that ran track in college than basketball players. The NFL has lots of players who have at least flirted with the Olympics. Donald Driver was a world class high jumper that could clear a 7’6 bar. Marquise Goodwin and Jeff Demps have been involved in the Olympic track team. Margus Hunt was a Junior Olympic world record holder for longest shot put and discus throws.

Yes, comparing NBA athletes to NFL athletes is like comparing apples to oranges. But there are ways to compare them in certain physical attributes. I think this article proves one thing, if nothing more: the NFL needs a slam dunk contest.