The NFL Scouting Combine gives aspiring pro football players the chance to show their stuff in front of analysts from every team in the league. If they turn heads with a blazing-fast 40-Yard Dash or wow scouts with a big Bench Press, they can vault up draft boards—and increase their potential earnings in the process. Here are 10 guys who did exactly that at the NFL Combine.
10. Mario Williams
All Photos: AP Images
At 6-foot-6 and 292 pounds, defensive lineman Mario Williams was hard for scouts—or anyone, for that matter—to miss. Williams posted solid stats during his college career, but he did so on a mediocre North Carolina State team, so he didn’t necessarily get the attention he deserved before he arrived in Indianapolis.
The 2006 NFL Combine was his welcome party, and his 4.7-second 40-Yard Dash, 40.5-inch vertical leap and 35 reps on the Bench Press blew away scouts and coaches. The Houston Texans were so impressed, they took Williams with the first overall pick that year, bypassing USC’s Reggie Bush, who was the odds-on favorite to go No. 1. Since entering the NFL, Williams has been selected to three Pro Bowls, amassed 76.5 career sacks, and been considered one of the best defensive linemen in the league every year he’s been an active player.
9. Darrius Heyward-Bey
Heyward-Bey demonstrated that no statistic at the NFL Combine is more powerful than an athlete’s 40-Yard Dash time. Heyward-Bey was a speedy wide receiver at the University of Maryland, but he had questionable hands and route-running ability. Most teams pegged him for a late first-round selection, but then he posted a 4.3-second 40. And before you could say “laser timed,” the Oakland Raiders drafted him sixth overall, ahead of more accomplished receivers like Michael Crabtree and Percy Harvin, both of whom are having more productive careers than Heyward-Bey.
8. Dwight Freeney
Dwight Freeney was very successful as a defensive lineman at Syracuse. As a senior, he posted a single-season school record for sacks. But pro scouts had concerns about his size. At 6-foot-1 and 265 pounds, Freeney was significantly undersized for an NFL d-lineman. Freeney put that worry to rest for many at the 2002 Combine, posting a 37-inch vertical leap and running a 4.48 40, while also pushing through 28 reps on the 225-pound Bench Press. He was drafted 11th overall by the Indianapolis Colts. Freeney is considered by many to be one of the best defensive linemen in recent history.
7. Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson had a relatively humble college career. As a speedy running back for the unheralded East Carolina Pirates, he had sporadic success but never faced top-tier competition. Coming in to the NFL Combine, Johnson was pegged as a second- or third-round pick. But then he ran the 40 to end all 40’s, covering the distance in 4.24 seconds—still the fastest time ever recorded at the Combine. His 35-inch vertical leap and 10-feet, 10-inch broad jump didn’t hurt his case, either. Johnson’s stock rose enough that the Tennessee Titans selected him in the first round (24th overall), and the following year, he repaid the team by rushing for more than 2,000 yards.
6. Mike Mamula
The original “workout warrior,” Mamula, in 1995, was among the first players to train specifically for the drills used in the NFL Combine. His work paid off, as his 4.58 40 time, 38-inch vertical leap and 28-rep Bench Press sent his draft stock skyrocketing. The Philadelphia Eagles selected him seventh overall, ahead of future perennial Pro Bowlers Warren Sapp, Ty Law and Derrick Brooks. Mamula went on to have a solid, but not stellar, five-year career with the Eagles, retiring after the 2000 season due to injuries. Today his name is often mentioned as a cautionary tale for draft watchers, warning them not to get too high on a player based on his Combine performance, though that assessment may be unfair.
5. Vernon Davis
Vernon Davis’s skills were no secret when he arrived in Indy. He’d been a standout tight end at the University of Maryland. But his Combine workout, in which he ran a 4.38-second 40, leaped 10 feet 8 inches in the broad jump and displayed a 42-inch vertical, shot him to the front of the pack. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Davis was selected sixth overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2006 Draft, and his NFL career (2 Pro Bowls) has not disappointed. (Did you know? Vernon Davis practices yoga.)
4. Adam Archuleta
Archuleta was a walk-on at Arizona State University, so he was used to being an underdog. Standing 6-feet tall and weighing only 211 pounds, he was undersized as a college football linebacker, but he played well enough to be named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2000. Many pro teams were still skeptical until the Combine, where Archuleta ran the 40 in 4.46 seconds, notched a 41-inch vertical leap, and tied the Combine record at the time with 37 reps of the 225-pound Bench Press. The St. Louis Rams selected him 20th overall, and he became a successful defensive back in the NFL.
3. Dontari Poe
Poe’s University of Memphis team sat at the bottom of the pack in college football in 2012, posting a 2-10 record. This left 6-foot-3, 346-pound Poe off a lot of teams’ radar until his monstrous Combine performance. Poe Bench Pressed 225 pounds 44 times—more than any other player that year, while also jumping 29.5 inches in the vertical and running a sub-five-second 40-Yard Dash. These impressive stats rocketed Poe from a peripheral first-round pick to the 11th overall selection (Kansas City Chiefs). He signed a four-year contract valued at more than $11 million. (VIDEO: Watch the training Poe did at Athletes’ Performance to prepare for the Combine.)
2. Vernon Gholston
Sometimes Combine success leads a previously unheralded player to NFL stardom. At other times, it’s a catapult for a draft-day bust. Gholston is the latter. Although he was a highly touted linebacker from a college football powerhouse (Ohio State), there were concerns that he was more of a physical specimen with spurts of on-the-field brilliance than an all-around great linebacker. At the Combine, Gholston was every bit the workout warrior, running the 40 in 4.58 seconds, crushing 37 Bench Press reps and jumping 41 inches in the vertical. The New York Jets drafted him 6th overall in 2008, only to find out the Combine was his last flash of brilliance. He played sparingly during his first two seasons with the Jets and never recorded a sack for the team. (See Vernon Gholston discuss overcoming obstacles.)
1. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Perhaps no one demonstrates the power of the NFL Combine more than Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Although at 6-foot-2, 192 pounds, he has ideal size for an NFL cornerback, he played his college ball at Tennessee State University. Where? You ask. Exactly. His lack of game film against top-tier collegiate competition kept him off most scouts’ radar until the 2008 NFL Combine made it clear that Rodgers-Cromartie could not be ignored. He registered a 38.5-inch vertical leap, covered 10 feet 11-inches in the Broad Jump, and blazed through the 40-Yard Dash in 4.29 seconds. That performance, combined with an impressive showing at the Senior Bowl, where he was named the Defensive MVP, helped lift him to being drafted 16th overall by the Arizona Cardinals.