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It’s a Game of Inches: The Value of Arm Length in the NFL

To kick this off any other way than with the palpitation-inducing speech by Coach Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday would be a disservice to the football community at large. Watch it. Did you watch it? You did? Okay, great! Now that your adrenaline is pumping more ferociously than that of a stressed-out Bruce Banner, let’s saunter our way into a delightful discussion about arm length in the NFL.

Coach D’Amato mentioned it’s a game of inches. The logic is if you win the inches, you win the plays; if you win the plays, you win the games. This is why coaches are so anal about alignments, angles and all sorts of seemingly inconsequential details—they make a substantial difference.

Arm Length and the Draft Process

This obsession with inches is shared among evaluators too. During the pre-draft process, multiple measurements are taken of every prospect. Hand size, wingspan and knee circumference, among others, are incorporated into projection models that predict the likelihood of success for each player.

Depending on the position, some measurements are more important than others, but the one with proven importance across the board is arm length. Many teams impose strict positional minimums for this metric; in the land of bigger/faster/stronger, short arms get exposed worse than a DM leak on Twitter.

A helpful way to understand the value of arm length is to think of it as a multifaceted financial asset. On the field, it can:

  1. Buy time (i.e., for the pass rush while cornerbacks jam receivers to disrupt timing)
  2. Obtain real estate ownership (i.e., along the LOS by a defensive tackle pressing a guard to control his gap)
  3. Recover losses (i.e., when a tight end extends to snag an off-target and nearly incomplete ball)

It’s a highly valuable resource at every single position, and, to paraphrase Coach D’Amato, is frequently the f****** difference between winning and losing.

How Arm Length Helps WRs and DBs

A long-armed receiver is commonly referred to as a “QB-friendly” or “forgiving” target because his length grants him a vast catch radius to secure passes outside of his frame.

Here, we see Big Ben place the ball high and outside, allowing James Washington (32.38” arms) to outreach Mike Hughes (30.88” arms) at the catch point for a touchdown.

Arm length is particularly important in press coverage. Rerouting receivers off their stems can disrupt concept timing allowing pass rushers to get home.

This clip features two teachable matchups. First, in the slot, Xavien Howard (31.25” arms) vs. Stefon Diggs (31.25” arms), and up top on the perimeter, Byron Jones (32” arms) vs. Emmanuel Sanders (32” arms).

Howard uses his length to ride Diggs out to the numbers, preventing him from breaking into the vacant middle of the field. Jones uses his length to land a powerful punch that sends Sanders into the boundary. The disrupted timing allows for pressure to force a throwaway on 3rd-and-short.

What’s interesting is that, in both cases, the players have equal arm length. The deciding factor was who used their length better to win the play. It matters to have the length, but it must be functional, too, and that only shows up on tape.

How Arm Length Helps the OL and DL

In his book Take Your Eye Off the Ball, Pat Kirwan likens the clash between the offensive and defensive lines on each play to “a series of adjacent bar fights.” If you control the chest, you control the man; if you control the man, you control the gap.

In this play, center Garrett Bradbury (31.75” arms) is easily pressed and shed by Justin Hamilton (33.25” arms) allowing him to make the tackle for a negligible gain. Bradbury’s lack of length disabled him from latching into Hamilton’s pads, effectively losing the rep before it started.

Length is a difference-maker for pass rushers. It enables them to open space to work moves and finish sacks.

Watch Danielle Hunter (34.25” arms), rushing off the right side, use his extended arms to create separation from D.J. Humphries (33.63” arms) before ripping under and through to win.

If you look closely, you’ll see Humphries never even touches Hunter’s jersey because of the length disadvantage. Hunter’s length shows on the finish, too, as he reaches back while falling away to capture Kyler Murray for a $230M sack.