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Ji’Ayir Brown recorded an in game speed of 21.06 miles per hour according to GPS data

That would have put Brown in contention for the fastest times in the NFL last season

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

John Lynch and the 49ers front office made it no secret how much they coveted Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown after trading up to select him with the 87th overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft.

There are a number of reasons why the 49ers became enamored with a prospect like Brown, including the data recorded by an evaluation tool that is generally not accessible to the public.

I had a conversation this weekend with a coach on the Penn State staff who worked hands on with Brown and the other defensive backs at Happy Valley. He provided a valuable perspective on the kind of player the 49ers are getting with their first pick in the 2023 draft.

The first thing he did was make a point to emphasize the exceptional football IQ that Brown possesses, detailing how much his intelligence on the field stood out from day one. When we started talking about what part of Brown’s game might be getting overlooked as he enters the league, this coach immediately pointed to the fact that Brown plays much faster than the athletic testing numbers he posted at the combine would indicate.

He was adamant that the 4.65 second 40-yard dash time that Brown recorded does not adequately reflect just how fast he is in an actual game setting. Thankfully, there is a way to quantify that, as Penn State utilizes GPS tracking data that can put an exact number on just how fast a player is while they are on the field.

I was provided access to this GPS data courtesy of Penn State’s strength and conditioning staff, and the numbers from Brown were eye-popping. That data indicated that Brown recorded a maximum speed of 21.06 miles per hour on game day, well above the average maximum speed you typically see from players at the safety position.

This is an extremely valuable piece of information when evaluating Brown and the safety class as a whole, as the 40-yard dash time paints a much more inaccurate picture of the kind of explosion Brown possesses. The 4.65 he ran ranked 16th out of the 18 safeties who recorded an official time at the combine, while the GPS data quickly dispels any notion that he is not among the elite athletes at the position in this rookie class.

However important the testing done at the combine may be, one thing can never be overlooked, which is the fact that football is played in pads, not tights. And when Brown had pads on, he was fast as almost anyone else out on the field with him.

Another thing that is likely to endear Brown to his new coaching staff in San Francisco is the fact that the speed he showed on game day was also there in practice as well. He recorded a max speed of over 21 miles per hour during his practice sessions, which mirrored the intensity he showed on game day as well.

It’s been well documented how adamant Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers staff are about giving maximum effort during practice. Everything the data shows echoes what is said by those who coached Brown, which is that this is an exceptional athlete who is going to work his tail off, no matter what setting he is in.

Overlooking a 40 time in favor of an impressive in game speed is not new for this 49ers front office. If you recall, something similar happened with Brandon Aiyuk coming out of Arizona State when the 49ers drafted him with a first round pick in 2020. Aiyuk had a 40-yard dash time of 4.50 seconds, which doesn’t exactly scream “explosive athlete” on the surface.

However, the 49ers had access to GPS tracking data that charted Aiyuk at an in game speed of 21.97 miles per hour, which was far more reflective of the dynamic weapon he would ultimately become in the NFL.

The hope is likely something similar for Brown on the other side of the football. A gifted athlete whose explosion and the impact it has on the field can't be properly measured with what they were clocked in with a stopwatch at the combine.