How many players in the NFL are on drugs?

Posted on October 13, 2014

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Five years ago I read an article from Lyle McDonald, What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential? It illustrated what realistic expectations, and limitations, are for body composition. It was one of those articles that sticks with you.

“Of course, to the general public, an individual at a lean 180-190 pounds is still pretty enormous.  It’s just that compared to the absurd size of a pro bodybuilder, it seems absolutely tiny.  But it is reality.

People forget that Arnold Schwarzenegger competed at perhaps 230 pounds (assuming 5% body fat, that’s only 220 pounds of lean body mass) and that was with (admittedly low doses) of anabolic steroids in the mixture.”

Through various ways, the article delineated, for your average male (maybe 5’10”), the upper limits of how much one can weigh, at a low body fat percentage (maybe 10%), is about 200 lbs. That once you start seeing someone who is pretty lean -can see their abs- at more than 200 lbs, the “anabolic drug radar” starts going off. And if they are very lean, the radar goes off more significantly. The leaner the person, the less chances they have of being a higher weight.

To account for height, adding or subtracting 5 lbs per inch usually works. So if the person is 6′ rather than 5’10”, we’d adjust our top weight to ~210 lbs.

“Now, it should go without saying that nobody can really say upfront what someones genetic potential actually is…nobody can say ahead of time what someone can or can’t achieve.  Well, not unless you look at some pretty ludicrous extremes (you’re not going to see someone at 400 pounds ripped any time soon for example).

And, of course, worrying about such things before you even start training is sort of missing the point in my opinion.  At a fundamental level, trainees should train and eat properly and let the cards fall where they may.  Worrying abut what you might or might not accomplish is putting the cart far before the horse.

I’d note that while I do believe trainees should simply get into proper training and not worry up front what they may or may not accomplish, I also believe that there are genetic limits set by underlying biology (again, modulated by behavioral choices and patterns). That’s just reality and recognizing them can save people from a lot of mental anguish about what they think they should be able to or could be able to accomplish if they just worked hard enough.”

I want to somewhat rebut Lyle here. When it comes to certain levels of human performance, I do think it’s worth considering, early on, what’s accomplishable without the aid of drugs. If you were a young cyclist back when Lance was dominating everything, I think it’s worth knowing (if feasible) whether everyone on the tour was on drugs or not, especially Lance. Because the fact of the matter is if nearly everyone is using, particularly the winner(s), if you want to win, you need to use. And if you’re not willing to use, perhaps it’s best to not even try, and take that time and energy elsewhere.

Time and energy are finite. It can be quite rough for people, and this is especially true of athletes, to realize in say your early twenties, the thing you’ve placed a decade or two of effort into is not attainable. Where now at~22, a skill set you’ve built may no longer be usable, and you’re behind your peers professionally. At 25 the lawyer is about to cash in on their past decade of preparation, whereas the athlete may just be starting their skill building.

(If you’re lucky / smart, you figure out how to use your athletic background to your advantage. Coaching is a common example. ESPN analyst as well. And of course, some people do want to start completely over.)

Is America’s most popular sport attainable without drug assistance?

I’ve written how ludicrously fortunate one has to be to make it to the highest levels of sports. The more competitive, more popular the sport, the more fortunate you need to be. You have to be an outlier in the most extreme sense. When you’re dealing with percentages well under one percent, that should be enough for anyone pursuing a professional sport to say, “Alright, in the least, I need to have a backup plan.” You need physical gifts practically unrecognizable, and planetary alignment of the highest order. But do you need even more help than that?

There is a 2005 paper Body Size and Composition of National Football League Players. There is also a more recent, 2014 paper, Body Composition and Bone Mineral Density of National Football League Players. I’m going to work with the 2005 paper. I don’t think much has changed since ’05 anyways. The 2005 paper actually used data from the 2003 season, but still, not much has changed. Take bodyweights for example:

Weights football players with lines

Between ~2004 and 2013 weights have remained steady. (Image credit: http://www.CraigMBooth.com)

Some positions have gone a little up; some a little down. We’ll call it a wash.

From the 2005 paper:

2005 NFL player weights body fat

Before we get into this, we need to do some housecleaning.

This paper used the BODPOD for body fat, whereas the other paper used DEXA. Both have their issues, as does all body fat testing. To learn more about this, I’d point you to James Krieger’s series on body fat testing. BODPOD comments hereDEXA comments hereI will run some numbers to account for the possibility BODPOD underestimated things.

That said, none of the body fat percentages above seem terribly off to me. 6.3% for Defensive Back may be too lean, but beyond that everything seems on target. 10% body fat is roughly where abs are fully visible, and below that they simply get more defined. NFL running backs, if they aren’t 7.3%, I can’t imagine they’re much higher. (Unless we also consider fullbacks, which I will do later.) The numbers are consistent as well. For example, the fastest people on the field are the leanest.

The reason I bring this up is the 2014 paper, which used DEXA, had higher body fat percentages. For the position players, it had much higher percentages.

Packers Body Composition Data

So much higher, it seems too high to use these numbers. 12 percent as an average for D-backs and receivers? The paper had another chart illustrating the range of body fats for each position. The range for receivers was 7.1% to 22.1% That is a FAT ASS receiver.

How is that possible? One issue with the 2014 paper is it used not only active roster players, but free agents and prospective draft choices. In other words, it didn’t only use NFL players. It used people who could be NFL players.

It measured 411 players in five years. Each year a NFL roster has 53 guys. Because this paper used only one team (the Packers), that means it looked at enough players the Packers roster would have had to completely change more than once a year. This paper, despite its title, likely assessed a ton of guys who never actually made it in the NFL. Guys who probably have higher body fat percentages, like obese receivers. Therefore, I’m going to stick with the ’05 paper.

The data from the ’05 paper is also from one team, the 2003 Indianapolis Colts. I’m going to extrapolate some of this to your average NFL player, and I suppose some could argue against that. (The sample size is small at certain positions.) To that, I’d argue -and this will be a theme from here on out- I’m being conservative in my estimates.

I vividly remember the 2003 Colts. They were, if anything, one of the lightest teams in the NFL. Their offense was very pass happy, they ran a lot of zone running plays (involves lighter linemen), and their defense was set up to defend the pass because they were so often ahead in games. There is no date on this article, but ~10 years ago, they were the second lightest team in the league.

Moving on.

Running the numbers

So we have some average NFL heights, mass, and body fat percentages, all by position. From Lyle’s article, we also have a very good idea of the upper limits of what one can weigh with certain body fat percentages at various heights. Time to compare.

For these comparisons, I’m going to use Casey Butt’s maximum weight calculator. Casey’s methodology is based on drug free professional bodybuilders. (You can read more about the theory behind the equation here.) People who push the limits of human body composition more than any other population. His calculator also takes into account frame measurements, such as wrist and ankle circumference.

Casey Butt Calculator

The idea is the bigger your joints, the more muscle you can support. Average measurements here seem to be 7 inches for the wrist and about 8.75 inches for the ankle. Some could argue NFL guys are going to have bigger joints, but you could also argue the other way. African Americans, which the NFL is primarily made of, often have narrower bodies (for reasons here).

I can only find one study that even remotely looked at this. It’s from all the way back in 1975, and looked at players from a division II school (smaller bodies). However, it did find similarities in terms of height and weight trends by position e.g. linemen are similar, linemen are considerably heavier, position players are leaner, lighter, etc. Players were only about 3% -two inches- shorter than current NFL players. Despite the fact there were differences upwards of 50 pounds between positions, wrist measurements were nearly identical between all positions. So, I’m going to use the averages for now, but I’ll come back to this.

And here we go, position by position (I’m going to ignore typing the conversions such as kg to lbs and cm to inches):

Running backs

-Average height = 70.8 inches

-Average body fat = 7.3%

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 193 lbs

-Actual average bodyweight = 212 lbs

Offensive Lineman

-Average height = 76 inches

-Average body fat = 25.1%

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 282 lbs*

-> The asterisk here is because Casey’s calculator only works up to 20% body fat. At 20%, the prediction is 262lbs. If I typed 15% bodyfat, the weight dropped to 242lbs. So, we’ll say for every 5% here, the prediction moves 20lbs. Hence, 282 lbs.

-Actual average bodyweight = 308lbs

Quarterbacks

-Average height = 75.6 inches

-Average body fat = 14.6%

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 238 lbs.

-Actual average bodyweight = 229 lbs.

Wide Receivers

-Average height = 71 inches

-Average body fat = 8.1%

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 196 lbs

-Actual average bodyweight = 188 lbs

Tight Ends

-Average height = 76.5 inches

-Average body fat = 15.1%

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 244 lbs

-Actual average bodyweight = 254 lbs

Linebacker

-Average height = 73.6 inches

-Average body fat = 15.7%

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 233 lbs

-Actual average bodyweight = 237 lbs

Defensive Lineman

-Average height = 75.4 inches

-Average body fat = 18.5%

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 253 lbs

-Actual average bodyweight = 279 lbs

Defensive Back

-Average height = 70.7 inches

-Average body fat = 6.3%

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 190 lbs

-Actual average bodyweight = 191 lbs

Kickers

-Average height = 75.4 inches

-Average body fat = 11.4%

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 225 lbs

-Actual average bodyweight = 210 lbs

Recapping so far

First, nothing about the values above seems unusual. Offensive linemen are bigger and fatter than defensive lineman, position players are leaner than linemen, defensive backs are the smallest and leanest. If one only had a modicum of football knowledge, this all seems right.

Next,

  • Offensive Linemen, Defensive Linemen, Running Backs and Tight Ends are considerably above their predicted maximums, at twenty-six pounds, twenty-six pounds, nearly twenty pounds and ten pounds respectively.
  • Linebackers are decently above their predicted, at four pounds.
  • Defensive Backs are right at their limit.
  • Wide Receivers, Quarterbacks and Kickers are below their limit.

These numbers, again, make sense. The bigger players are the ones most pushing the limits. Wide Receivers, Defensive Backs, and Kickers seem fine. Quarterbacks as well. The positions where punishment is much more a part of the game? That’s where the questions come in.

This is first in line with logic: The bigger the player, the more likely they are to be on drugs. This is also in line with my personal experience playing football. Receivers, D-backs, and Quarterbacks were in a myriad of ways the guys least likely to enter the drug arena. They’re the least likely to hit the weight-room, be concerned about their nutrition, etc. Their offseason program is often pick up basketball more than it is anything that yells out steroids.

Moreover, defensive linemen and tight ends are often where the freaks are. The players whose physical abilities we most talk about. Think Julius Peppers, Jimmy Graham, J.J. Watt, Rob Gronkowski, Jadeveon Clowney. These are huge, lean as hell…most likely to be on drugs, players. These numbers support that.

There is actually a linear relationship between the amount of hitting a position does and pushing the body composition limits:

Kickers > Quarterbacks > Receivers > Defensive Back > Linebacker > Tight End> R-Back > D-Linemen > O-Linemen

15 lbs below > 9 lbs below > 8 lbs below > 1 lb above > 4 lbs above > 10lbs above > 20lbs above > 26 lbs above > 26 lbs above

That’s kind of amazing. Although, when so much money is on the line, you’d expect specialization of the highest magnitude.

Giving the (excessive) benefit of the doubt

Perhaps it’s reasonable to assume some of these positions could be above the average wrist and ankle circumference measurements. Such as the linemen. It’s also reasonable some are below. Such as D-Backs and receivers. Let’s address that.

To give an idea of how much of a benefit I’m going to give here, the average height of all the players above is 74 inches. The average height of an American male is 70 inches. For the sake of argument, say an average American football player is ~5% taller than an average American. If the average American football player had a wrist and ankle circumference 5% greater than the averages of 7 and 8.75  inches we’ve been using, they’d be at 7.4 and 9.2 inches. Point being football players aren’t that huge height wise in relation to the average American. I doubt joint circumferences are much different.

Defensive Linemen (with beyond average circumferences)

-Average height = 75.4 inches

-Average body fat = 18.5%

-Actual average bodyweight = 279 lbs

-Predicted maximum bodyweight with 7 inch wrists and 8.75 ankles = 253 lbs

-Predicted maximum bodyweight with 7.5 inch wrists and 9.3 ankles = 261 lbs.

-> We’re still 18 pounds away from the actual average!

-Predicted maximum bodyweight with 8 inch wrists and 9.75 inch ankles = 268 lbs

-Predicted maximum bodyweight with 9 inch wrists and 10.75 ankles = 283 lbs

If we take our average defensive linemen and give him enormous circumference measurements, then he’s right at the limit. Now, if anyone is going to be way out there, it’s going to be a NFL defensive linemen. But we’re really, really pushing it here.

Tight Ends (with beyond average circumferences)

-Average height = 76.5 inches

-Average body fat = 15.1%

-Actual average bodyweight = 254 lbs

-Predicted maximum bodyweight with 8 inch wrists and 9.75 ankles = 259 lbs

This isn’t as far out there.

Speed usually goes with smaller joints. Especially at the lower body.

Defensive Backs (with different circumferences)

-Average height = 70.7 inches

-Average body fat = 6.3%

-Actual average bodyweight = 191 lbs

-Predicted maximum bodyweight with 7 inch wrist and 8 inch ankles = 185 lbs

This is why I think, in the grand picture, it’s fine to use the average joint circumferences for all positions. First, as I mentioned, the differences are likely quite small; second, if there are differences, some positions will be brought closer to matching their limit while others will move further. Overall, what we can say about the population -NFL players- doesn’t change. In the above, I originally could say D-Linemen look to be on anabolics while D-Backs do not. When I adjust the circumferences, I could say D-Linemen are maybe in the clear while D-Backs look more suspect. In either case, one position beeps on the radar.

Running Backs have been slowly falling out of favor in the NFL. Let’s look at, until recently, the most popular one, Adrian Peterson.

Adrian Peterson

-Height = 73 inches

-Weight = 217 lbs (according to his NFL combine)

-Body fat = I’ve seen this number jump around a bunch. Multiple times I’ve seen him say it’s around 5%. It definitely isn’t, as that’s bodybuilding contest lean, and you’re not running around a football field when you’re that lean, but let’s run with it for a second.

-Predicted maximum body weight at 5% = 195 lbs.

Let’s run with this some more:

-Predicted maximum body weight at 6% = 198 lbs.

-Predicted maximum body weight at 7% = 201 lbs.

-Predicted maximum body weight at 8% = 204 lbs.

-Predicted maximum body weight at 9% =  207 lbs.

-Predicted maximum body weight at 10% = 210 lbs.

-Predicted maximum body weight at 11% = 213 lbs.

-Predicted maximum body weight at 12% = 217 lbs.

And,

Adrian Peterson shirt off

nfl-adrian-peterson

adrian-peterson-body

I doubt he’s 12%.

Let’s say he has 8 inch instead of 7 inch wrists. Then the prediction at 8% body fat is 210 lbs. (He likely has smaller than average ankles, but we’ll keep giving the benefit of the doubt.) Casey points out if someone is especially gifted, they may surpass his calculator by ~3%. That would put Adrian at the utmost limit. Again though, this is a stretch as Adrian’s lower body is likely smaller / narrower than average.

This actually isn’t about Peterson though. It’s about a larger point.

The more popular the player, the better the player…the more likely they’re on drugs

Most teenagers don’t aspire to just be another NFL player. They don’t want to be some average schmuck who is in and out of the league in three years. They want to be the Adrian Petersons, The Clay Matthews, Calvin Johnsons, the freaks. The guys who are in the pro bowl, in commercials, all that lovely crap.

What about those guys? I did some calculations for the average player. Nobody cares about the average NFL running back though. Let’s look at the standouts.

To do this, I’m going to look at the 2014 Pro Bowl roster, sticking with the running backs. For each player, I clicked on their Wikipedia profile to get their height and weight. (Wikipedia often uses combine measurements, which are the most accurate.) To get their maximum predicted body weight, I used the 7.3% body fat average from our average NFL Running Back earlier. This is important because, if anything, this is a conservative measurement. The best running backs, the pro bowlers, if anything, are going to be leaner than the average back.

2014 Pro Bowl Running Backs

2014 Pro Bowl Running Backs Calcs

-Average Height = 71.4 inches

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 195 lbs

-Actual Average Weight = 221 lbs

Just in case anyone is really doing their homework here, the 2005 paper used the 2003 Indianapolis Colts roster. I looked up that 2003 roster and they did have fullbacks on the team. Meaning fullbacks, who are often heavier than running backs, which can skew the numbers, were included in the 2005 data. Therefore, I used fullbacks from the 2014 Pro Bowl roster. But let’s say I didn’t.

2014 Pro Bowl Running Backs (Fullbacks not included in data)

2014 Pro Bowl Running Backs Calc No FullBacks

-Average Height = 71.5 inches

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 195.7 lbs

-Actual Average Weight = 216 lbs

To bring up the Adrian Peterson point again:

-Predicted maximum bodyweight at 12% bodyfat: 210 lbs

Looking at different circumferences:

-Predicted maximum bodyweight at 8% body fat, 8 inch wrists, 8.75 ankles: 203 lbs

-Predicted maximum bodyweight at 8% body fat, 9 inch wrists, 8.75 ankles: 208 lbs

-Predicted maximum bodyweight at 10% body fat, 9 inch wrists, 8.75 ankles: 215 lbs

If we don’t include fullbacks, use likely higher than realistic body fat and wrist measurements, and average ankle size, then we hit the limit.

Let’s look at the 2003 Pro Bowl roster to really even out our data. You’ll see why I held off on this…

2003 Pro Bowl Running Backs (fullbacks included)

2003 Pro Bowl Running Backs

-Average Running Back height = 70.7 inches

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 194 lbs

-Actual average weight = 228 lbs

2003 Pro Bowl Running Backs (not including fullbacks)

2003 Pro Bowl Running Backs No Fullbacks

-Average Running Back height = 70.7 inches

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 191 lbs

-Actual average weight = 222 lbs

-Predicted maximum bodyweight at 10% body fat, 8 inch wrists, 8.75 inch ankles: 206 lbs 

The 2003 backs were huge! Remember the Alstott train? That guy was a monster.

All Running Back Data

-Average 2003 Running Back actual weight = 212 lbs

-Predicted maximum = 193 lbs

-Average 2014 Pro Bowl Running Back actual weight = 221 lbs

-Predicted maximum = 195 lbs

-Average 2014 Pro Bowl Running Back (no fullbacks) actual weight = 216lbs

-Predicted maximum = 195.7 lbs

-Average 2003 Pro Bowl Running Back actual weight = 228 lbs

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 194 lbs

-Average 2003 Pro Bowl Running Back (no fullbacks) actual weight = 222 lbs

-Predicted maximum bodyweight = 191 lbs

The pro bowlers are heavier and further ahead of their predicted maximums. An average running back is 19 pounds ahead, while a pro bowler is 26 lbs ahead. A 2003 pro bowler was a whopping 34 pounds ahead!

This makes sense though. The running back position has 1) Become less prized in the NFL and 2) Has changed due to the shift to the passing game. The position is not as competitive as it once was, nor does it require the level of physicality it once did. Hence, weight is less now than it once was. (And drug use at the position has probably come down.)

Point being, all these numbers seem to jive. Nothing seems particularly unusual. I could go through every position, but I doubt that’s necessary.

A basic principle of statistics

An average is a remark on the middle. Meaning, roughly (this isn’t the median; it’s the mean), half of the population is below the average, and half is above. With certain positions, the average is already considerably above what their predicted maximum weight is. This isn’t like a couple pounds, in some cases we’re talking twenty pounds heavier. In these cases, we could perhaps say not only is the average, say running back on anabolic drugs, but more than half of all running backs are, as half of all running backs are above the average. And, the better the running back, the more likely they are to be taking something.

Please keep in mind I sliced this many ways, in benefit to the players. Sure, maybe these guys are fatter than the BODPOD found. Maybe they have bigger than average wrist joints. Maybe they make up the special few who can surpass Casey’s calculator by 3%.

I compared current players to older ones, as well as older ones to older ones. I lightened the running back averages by excluding fullbacks. I used 10 year old data, where you’d expect less players to be on drugs. I used the average NFL player rather than just the standouts. I extrapolated one of the lightest teams in the league to comprise the average.

In the best case scenario, players are at the limit. In many cases, despite excessive statistical generousness, they are still above it.

When you consider much of this is based on average players from the lightest team, you’re forced to deduce most NFL players surpass these numbers. When you also consider many NFL players have smaller and narrower lower body joints, that NFL players often have such high achilles attachments that their calves are smaller, making them more likely weigh less than someone without this trait (yet they still weigh so much more). That the BODPOD could have overestimated body fat. That NFL players do not train anywhere near what a professional bodybuilder does -half their year is for the actual season; nutrition dedication is nowhere near similar- the amount of running NFL players do, how often they are training around injuries…the likelihood these guys can still not only reach these limits, but often surpass them, is, well…

What I think we can take from this is 1) Some of these guys are at the absolute inherent biological maximums a human can be and 2) Over and over again the player’s body profiles scream “I take anabolic drugs.”

Even if a guy isn’t way heavier and leaner than you’d reasonably predict, that doesn’t mean he isn’t on something. Ben Johnson, one of the fastest people of all time, was like 175 lbs and took a nice cocktail of anabolics. Being on anabolics doesn’t guarantee a certain body profile; but being a certain body profile can almost assuredly guarantee being on anabolics.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most NFL players are taking something, and the best players are almost certainly taking something (barring one or two positions), and we haven’t even talked about all the other drugs out there, like pain killers.

Closing remarks

This is not an indictment on the NFL or the players. I couldn’t care less what these grown men are voluntarily doing to themselves. If anything, it makes the game more entertaining. What I care about is the illusion the NFL and many others purport. One of “Hard work can accomplish anything.” No, it can’t. Especially when it comes to physical performance.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the whole Lance Armstrong charade was when he was directly asked, “Do you think the Tour can be won drug free?” “No, I do not.” Just like the Barry Bonds fiasco has made people realize all the hand eye coordination in the world doesn’t get you 73 home runs.

Another way to view this is for most positions, in a muscularity sense, you need to be as physically gifted as a person can be, or take drugs, or both. Where say you’re a teenager, or the parents of a teenager. Take a look around. Are there those who are clearly more gifted? You’re options at that point are likely 1) Take drugs to catch up 2) Place your efforts elsewhere. The barriers to entry are that specific.

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Posted in: Miscellaneous, Sports