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The most incredible, memorable and infamous performances in the history of the NFL Combine

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 11:00, 4 March 2022

The NFL Combine in Indianapolis is the first high-profile date on the NFL’s post-Super Bowl calendar. While the pre-draft gathering is hardly the be-all or end-all in player assessment, the Combine has given us countless memorable performances throughout the years.

Like all other things NFL, the Combine – a few days in Indianapolis during which potential draftees gather for interviews, physical examinations and to conduct drills that display their elite athleticism – has taken on a life of its own. It’s not the least bit strange to see a player make or break (or, at the very least defer) their draft status thanks to a tenth of a second or an extra inch on a leap. The event has its proponents as a player assessment tool, though there are plenty of others who are hesitant to base their entire opinion of a player on a number of time drills that barely approximate to the game of football itself.

What we cannot deny, however, is that, through the years, the Combine has produced a number of memorable feats of incredible athleticism, some of which live in our memories longer than their authors remained in the league.

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Let’s start with a couple of giants whose physical exploits beggar belief to this day:

Trent Williams, OT, 2010

Strength is seldom a concern for any lineman, offensive or defensive, projected to earn selection in the NFL draft. What separates early-rounders from fringe draftees is the ability to dominate physically in more ways than one.

Given the career he’s since put together, the fact that Trent Williams set himself apart at the Combine won’t come as a huge shock. However, the extent to which he astounded at the pre-draft gathering may blow your mind.

Interestingly, Williams managed ‘only’ 23 reps on the bench press (225 pounds). However, he positively dazzled with his speed and agility, with a time of 4.81 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 4.63-second short shuttle, a 34.5-inch vertical leap, and a 9’5″ broad jump. Not bad for a guy who’s 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds.

Williams arrived at the 2010 Combine as a borderline first-round pick. The power of his performance vaulted him into the draft’s top-five (#4 overall by Washington, to be exact). He’s gone on to earn nine Pro Bowl selections and an All-Pro nod in the dozen years since, it is safe to say that decision was a sound one.

Dontari Poe, DT, 2012

Two years later, Dontari Poe put on a similar, if markedly more jaw-dropping display. Prior to the Combine, the University of Memphis defensive tackle was seen as a second-round talent. However, Poe arrived in Indy and disabused anyone of the notion that he’d have to wait anywhere near that long to hear his name called.

As we go through these name – and follow the NFL Draft in general – a weird thing tends to happen. The lowest 40-yard dash times – 4.2, 4.3 seconds – which are only realistic for the fastest of wide receivers and defensive backs, begin to skew one’s internal scale of what constitutes ‘fast’. At some point, those who have never tried a 40-yard dash will begin to believe that a ‘5-second 40’ is somehow a pedestrian feat. It is not. Any human being who can run 40 yards in five seconds in a truly elite athlete.

Combine that speed with mind-boggling strength, and put all of that in a gigantic physical package, and you’ve got a legitimate physical marvel. So, back to Dontari Poe…

At the 2012 Combine, Poe’s 44 reps on the bench press were five short of the all-time Combine record, dwarfing the 35-36 mark that is considered ‘good’ for a defensive tackle. He then stepped up and ran a 4.89 in the 40. If you’re not aware, Poe is 6-foot-3 and THREE HUNDRED AND FORTY-SIX POUNDS.

That showing boosted his stock dramatically, and he was selected #11 overall by the Kansas City Chiefs. He is seemingly now in the twilight of his career, but Poe has started all but three of the 128 regular season games in which he’s played, and was named a Pro Bowler in 2013 and 2014.

Bruce Irvin, DE, 2012

Coming out of the University of West Virginia, Irvin was seen as a likely third- (maybe second)-round pick. However, when the 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive end rolled into Indy and ripped off a good-for-a-tight-end (even ‘workable’ for a wide receiver) 4.41 40-yard dash, he secured his status as a top-15 (#15, actually, to the Seahawks) selection.

Due to injuries and age, Irvin’s production has fallen off terribly over the past couple of seasons. However, Irvin transitioned smoothly into the NFL, racking up eight sacks as a rookie (he has 52 for his career), and holding down a starting job for seven seasons after that, including for the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run in 2013.

Saquon Barkley, RB, 2018

Barkley is another elite prospect whose Combine performance did little for his draft stock (after all, he was drafted #2 overall), but did succeed in blowing the mind of every last person who witnessed it.

The 233-pound running back out of Penn State basically churned out a 40-yard dash (4.40) and 10-yard split (1.54) that would please all but the speediest receivers, leapt an outstanding-for-anyone 41 inches vertically, and put up a lineman/linebacker-eque 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench.

In his first two NFL seasons (he lost almost all of 2020 and was still hampered in 2021), Barkley was a top-tier multidimensional threat, averaging 1,155 rushing yards (at 4.8 yards per carry) for 8.5 touchdowns, and 81.5 receptions, for 580 yards and three receiving TDs per season. We can debate whether the Giants ought to have drafted a running back with the second overall pick. What’s undeniable is that they’d love to have the standout playmaker that they did get back in 2022.

Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, 2009

They say that ‘speed kills’. For some, those in danger are opponents tasked with keeping up with an incredible speedster. In other instances, however, this refers to the franchise that, intoxicated with blinding speed, overlooks shortcomings in a prospect’s ability to actually play the game at a high level.

In 2009, the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders, long noted their love of any receiver with blazing speed, bet big on a University of Maryland wideout who’d previously been rated as a second- or third-rounder. In must be said, however, that Heyward-Bey’s showing – a 38.5-inch vertical leap (at 6-foot-2), a 10’6″ broad jump and, most impressively, a 4.25 40-yard dash (then the second-fastest ever recorded at the Combine) – suggested that this was an unheralded super-athlete who’d dominate at the pro level with his elite physical tools. Thus, the Raider saw fit to draft him #7 overall in the 2009 draft.

Oops!

Heyward-Bey played just four seasons with the Raiders, during which he caught a total of 140 passes, for 2,071 yards and 11 touchdowns. That’s an average season of 35 catches, 518 yards and just over two TDs. And those were the good times! After leaving the Raiders following the 2012 season, Heyward-Bey spent six seasons with the Colts and Steelers, during which he managed a total of 62 catches, 826 yards and five touchdowns. He retired after the 2018 season.

Vernon Davis, TE, 2006

Three years before Heyward-Bey, another Maryland Terrapin wowed the assembled masses in Indy.

It must be said that Vernon entered the Combine as an elite prospect, so it’s not as though he completely changed the world’s perception of him. What he did do, however, was set a new benchmark for athleticism at the tight end position.

At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Davis ran a 4.38 40-yard dash (tied for ninth-fastest that year), 4.17 short shuttle, 42 bench press reps (third), a 42-inch vertical (second), and 10’8″ broad jump. That’s positively obscene. There is a case to be made that this was the most comprehensively impressive display of athleticism that we’ve ever seen at the Combine.

The San Francisco 49ers selected Davis with the sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft. Over nearly a decade with the Niners, Davis hauled in 441 catches, for 5,640 yards and 55 TDs, and was selected to two Pro Bowls. A midseason move in 2015 landed Davis on the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. After that he spent just over three solid seasons in Washington, before retiring in 2019.

Deion Sanders, CB, 1989

Let’s keep this short and sweet. In the leadup to the 1989 draft, there was little doubt that ‘Neon Deion’ Sanders was an elite cornerback prospect. Nor was there any doubt of his astounding speed. Deion is here not for what he did, or what it did for him, but how he did it.

Sanders arrived at the 1989 Combine, took part in a single drill – the 40-yard dash – posted an unofficial (hand-timed; yet still bonkers) time of 4.2 seconds, and proceeded to immediately exit the building, and climb into a limousine that was waiting for him just outside. Not sure there’s an NFL Combine performance that more perfectly screams ‘PRIME TIME’.

Chris Johnson, RB, 2008

Prior to the 2008 Combine, East Carolina’s speedy running back was not expected to be selected before the second or third round of the draft. However, after Johnson showed up at the Combine and broke the all-time record for the fastest 40 time with a 4.24, he shot into the first round, where he was selected #24 overall by the Tennessee Titans.

He then proceeded to put together one of the great beginnings of a career for any running back in history. In each of his six seasons in Tennessee, Johnson topped 1,000 yards rushing and caught at least 36 passes for at least 232 yards each season. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons and, in his second season (2009), earned All-Pro and Offensive Player of the Year honors with a season for ages, in which he became the sixth running back to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a season (2,006) and set a new single-season record for total yards from scrimmage (rushing + receiving) with 2,509.

Johnson’s performance fell off dramatically after the 2013 season, his last with the Titans. He spent another four years in the NFL with the Jets and the Cardinals before retiring after the 2017 season.

Shaquem Griffin, LB, 2018

Griffin was one of the very best players on the upstart University of Central Florida Golden Knights team that finished the 2017 NCAA season undefeated. After that magical final season in college, the six-foot, 227-pound linebacker than attended the NFL Combine, where he ran the fastest 40 in Combine history by a linebacker (4.38 seconds).

Most incredible, however, was his display on the bench press, where he put up 20 reps, while using a prosthetic attachment on his left arm. You see, a congenital disorder forced the amputation of Griffin’s left hand when he was just four years-old.

Griffin spent three seasons (2018-20) with the Seattle Seahawks (with his twin brother Shaquill) as a special teamer, and did not play in the 2021 season. Even if that’s all for his NFL career, Griffin authored one of the awesome feats of athleticism in Combine history.

Mike Mamula, DE, 1995

If you’re a Combine/NFL Draft historian, you just knew this guy was going to pop up.

Mamula had a very good college career at Boston College, and was tipped as a mid-round selection who’d turn in a solid NFL career. However…

What the ‘experts’ at the Combine had not taken into account was that Mamula spent the entirety of the pre-draft process studying for precisely this exam.

In Indy, the 6’4”, 250-pound Mamula threw the NFL for a loop. This seemingly non-elite talent scored 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test, ran an outstanding-for-a-pass-rusher 4.58 40-yard dash, leaped 38 inches vertically (this is comparable to Julio Jones’ mark in 2011) and put up an offensive lineman-esque 26 reps on the bench press. The football world was astounded. As a result of this showing, Philadelphia Eagles traded their first round pick (#12 overall) and a pair of second-rounders to the Buccaneers, in exchange for the #7 overall pick, which they used to select Mamula.

It’s worth noting that Mamula wasn’t the complete flop that he’s treated as today. As a rookie, he finished fifth in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. In his second season, he had eight sacks and performed at a near-Pro Bowl level. In his third and fourth seasons – 1997 and 1999, which came on either side of a 1998 season which was lost to injury Mamula was an above average performer. However, by the 2000 season, the injuries were taking their toll, and ultimately drove Mamula from the league.

In all, Mamula played 77 games over five seasons (again, in six years), and registered 31.5 sacks. Hardly terrible… though also not what his eye-popping Combine performance suggests he had in store.

Also not helping matters is the fact that the first round pick the Eagles sent to Tampa turned out to be future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp. Ouch!

Mario Williams, DE, 2006

Even prior to Combine, Williams was thought of as a genuinely elite athlete for someone his size (6-foot-7, 295 pounds), but his showing in Indianapolis not only catapulted his reputation into the ‘physical freak’ tier, but elevated his draft stock from ‘mid-first-rounder’ to #1 overall. He ran his 40 in an outside linebacker-esque 4.7 seconds despite out-weighting the average OLB by about 60 pounds, while also posting outstanding 10-second split (1.6), broad jump (10’2”), vertical leap (40.5”) and bench press (35 reps) numbers.

In hindsight, it’s not difficult to see why the Houston Texans deemed him worthy of the top pick in the 2006 draft. However, at the time, the team was pilloried for opting for Williams over USC’s spectacular running back Reggie Bush and national championship-winning Texas quarterback Vince Young. Eleven NFL seasons, 97.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, 121 tackles for loss, four Pro Bowls and an All-Pro selections later, that decision is more than vindicated.

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