By Casan Scott
During the offseason of 1982, National Football Scouting, Inc. held the first National Invitational Camp in balmy Tampa, Florida to help facilitate member organizations in evaluating NFL prospects. Former president and GM of the Dallas Cowboys, Tex Schramm, proposed a centralization of scouting camps to simplify the talent evaluation process for NFL teams. Starting in 1982, The National Invitational Camp would hold small camps in Tampa, New Orleans, and Arizona, before permanently moving to Indianapolis in 1987. The NFL Combine is now a week-long exhibition every February at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana and has developed into a media- and sponsor-backed spectacle for NFL hopefuls to showcase their athleticism.
With such little media attention in the early years, the Combine used to carry a myth-like presence with it. Legends of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders running sub-4.3s in the forty were captivating for a football fan, but without verification, these stories were akin to pitch speeds from baseball’s dead-ball era. Over the years, record keeping for Combine drills has improved. The NFL Combine began electronically timing 40s in 1999, which now allows accurate historical comparisons.
Once difficult to obtain, results from the NFL Combine are now streamed in entirety on The NFL Network, and updated continually through the week on ESPN. The NFL Combine draws more viewers than most NBA Playoff games. Today’s attendees no longer wear sweats or athletic department-issued shorts from college, but are rather outfitted in all the latest sports performance wear that Under Armour has to offer. Adidas offers the chance to win a Porsche to athlete’s willing to sign with the shoe company prior to running the 40 yard dash. The NFL Combine holds allure for nearly every football follower. Fans may watch in hopes that one of these special athletes are drafted by their team. Others may be intrigued by the other-worldly athleticism that these players possess in shorts and a t-shirt. Regardless of reason, The NFL Combine is a showcase of extraordinary talent that seems to intrigue fans more and more each year.
Athletes attend the NFL Scouting Combine by invitation only. Redshirt sophomores, juniors, and seniors are eligible to be chosen by a selection committee. Up to 335 participants can be chosen by directors of both National Football Scouting and BLESTO scouting services. These two services combine to represent twenty-five NFL teams, and are joined by members of different NFL personnel departments in hopes of inviting every player drafted at that year’s NFL Draft. Over the last 10 years, invitations were distributed by position as shown below.
The most intriguing part of the NFL Combine is the on-field drills which measure the speed, strength, leaping ability, change of direction, and acceleration of each prospect. On-field drills include the 40-yard dash, broad jump, vertical jump, shuttle run, three-cone drill and bench press. In the last 15 years, there have been many outstanding performances in these on-field drills, but some of the freakiest performances for each position are discussed below.
Before joining Art Briles to re-write the Baylor football record book, Robert Griffin III broke Texas state records for the 110 and 300- meter hurdles in high school. His times of 13.55 seconds and 35.33 seconds were faster than those of fellow Texas track star Jamaal Charles in high school. Griffin III was 0.01 seconds away from tying a national high school record in the 300-meter hurdles. As a junior at Copperas Cove High School, Griffin III was named to the USA Today’s All-USA Track and Field team, and was named the Gatorade Texas Track and Field Athlete of the Year. So naturally, Robert Griffin III went on to set school records for career passing yards, TDs, QB rating, and completion percentage at Baylor, all before being selected 2nd overall in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Brandon Jacobs is as large as NFL running backs get. In high school, Jacobs initially played defensive line and considered himself a better basketball player than football. At 6’4” tall and weighing 265 lbs, it is easy to see why he would begin his career in the trenches. However, Brandon Jacobs has extremely rare speed for his size, having been clocked running the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes in 10.82 and 21.59 seconds respectively. His 40 yard dash time of 4.56 and vertical leap of 37 inches make Brandon Jacobs truly one of the most uniquely physical backs ever.
Megatron. To garner a nickname like Megatron, an athlete must truly be inhuman. Anxiety and intrigue surrounded Calvin Johnson’s weigh-in at the 2007 NFL Combine. General managers were weary of overgrown and out-of-shape wide receivers. At 6’5” tall, Johnson weighed in at nearly 240 lbs, resembling more a defensive end than a wide receiver. Adding to the concern, Johnson informed scouts that he would not run or workout at the Combine, and would rather wait for his pro-day. But competitiveness must have prevailed, because Johnson borrowed a pair of cleats, and recorded a 4.35 40 yard dash speed, a 42.5 inch vertical leap, and over an 11 and a half foot standing broad jump. Crisis averted.
In addition to his explosive leaping ability, Megatron has an 82” wingspan, which combine to allow a maximum vertical reach, while airborne, of 12 and a half feet. This measurement of maximum vertical reach is higher than any NBA player has ever been officially measured.
Vernon Davis had one of the most memorable combine performances ever, and managed to convert those athletic gifts into several Pro-Bowl selections. At 6’3” tall and 254 pounds, Davis ran the fastest 40 yard dash ever by a tight end, 4.38 seconds. He added 33 reps of 225 lbs on bench press (which extrapolates out to around a 450 lb max), and a 42 inch vertical leap as well. Vernon Davis is the fastest NFL prospect ever when 40 yard dash time is normalized to body weight, and he is the most explosive tight end in NFL history.
Lane Johnson was a 6-foot-6, 220 pound all-state quarterback in high school, a state finalist in shot put, and a former quarterback and tight-end in junior college. Johnson bulked up to 250 pounds to play tight end in junior college, while maintaining 4.5-second speed. When Oklahoma recruited him as a tight-end, he continued to bulk up to 280 pounds until Bob Stoops ultimately moved the gifted athlete to offensive tackle. At the 2013 Combine and measuring 6’6” tall and 303 pounds, Johnson ran a 4.72 second forty and became the second fastest offensive lineman in NFL Combine history.
Bruce Campbell, former University of Maryland Terrapin, is a Bruce Feldman: Workout Warrior alumni. Prior to the 2010 NFL Draft, Campbell possessed a max bench press of 490 pounds (34 reps of 225 lbs) with extremely long arms, a 4.85 40 yard dash (1.7-second 10 yard split), 32-inch vertical leap, and nearly single digit body fat %.
Ryan Kalil has always been a master of the center position, but he is vastly underrated as an athletic specimen. He is a former 2-time National Champion and an All-American in college, an NFC Champion, a five-time pro-bowler, and a two-time All-Pro. His father was a former NFL Draft pick, and his brother is a former 4th overall Draft pick. Ryan Kalil’s 40 yard dash of 4.96 lands him in the 95th percentile of any center ever. Kalil also bench pressed 225 lbs for 34 reps, and ultimately was a second round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.
I could not choose just one player as the most athletic defensive tackle in NFL Combine history. Aaron Donald is arguably the best defensive player in the NFL now, but he is also the fastest defensive tackle prospect ever with his 4.68 second time in the forty. Despite being very small for a defensive tackle (6’1” 285 lbs), Donald managed to press 225 lbs 35 times and vertical leap 32 inches.
As astounding as Aaron Donald’s athleticism is for his size, Dontari Poe is perhaps the freakiest big man ever. Poe bench pressed 225 lbs 44 times, which extrapolates out to a max bench-press of over 520 lbs. Most people would struggle to do 44 push-ups. Weighing 345 lbs, Dontari Poe is the 8th heaviest defensive prospect ever. However, somehow he managed to still break the 5 second barrier in the forty, and ran an unbelievable 4.98 40 yard dash, which is one of the fastest weight-normalized 40 yard dashes ever.
Mario Williams and J.J. Watt are both perennial Pro-Bowlers, and also owners of two of the best combine workouts in NFL history. Mario Williams played defensive end and running back in high school, and was a state qualifier in the shot put. J.J. Watt lettered in football, baseball, basketball, and won a state title in the shot put in track and field. Watt played wide receiver and defensive end in high school, tight end initially in college, and he still lines up as a tight end in the NFL. Watt and Williams are two of the heaviest defensive ends to ever workout at the Combine, but still rank as the most athletic ever. A video of J.J. Watt box-jumping 61 inches went viral and highlighted how unique Watt’s athleticism (37 inch standing vertical leap) is for 290 lbs. Even more otherworldly, Mario Williams (6’7” 295 lbs) vertical leaped 40.5 inches, which is over 10 inches higher than the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook!
Heading into the 2012 NFL Combine, there were many questioning the highly productive Luke Kuechly’s athleticism. He quickly erased all doubt by turning in one of the greatest combine performances ever by an inside linebacker, and has since become an All-Pro for the Carolina Panthers. Kuechly ran a sub-4.6 second forty, vertical leaped over 38 inches, and essentially led the linebacker class of 2012 in every combine metric.
Demarcus Ware is one of the most productive pass rushers of this decade, and a newly crowned Super Bowl Champion. As a high school athlete, Demarcus Ware could long-jump over 24 feet, high-jump well over 6 feet, and was voted Most Valuable Receiver on the football team. At Troy University, Ware transitioned to a full-time defensive player, and registered outstanding numbers in the weight room: 430-lbs bench press, 570-lbs squat, and 360-lbs power clean. Ware combined that strength with size (260 lbs), elite speed (4.56-second forty), and leaping ability (38.5 inch vertical), to become the 20th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
Antonio Cromartie owns the NFL record for the longest return of any kind by returning a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown. So not surprisingly, he is possibly the most athletic cornerback ever – not named Deion Sanders. A standout track and field athlete in probably the fastest state of Florida, Cromartie was a state finalist in high school for the 110 hurdles, 4 x 100 meter relay, and the triple jump. At Florida State, Cromartie was a member of the Seminoles’ ACC Championship track and field team in 2004, running the 200 meters in 21.35 seconds and the 400 meter dash in 46.39 seconds. At the NFL Combine, the 6’2” Cromartie ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds, vertical leaped 42 inches, and broad jumped 11 feet.
Taylor Mays won Washington state titles in the 100 and 200 meter dash as a high school sophomore. Mays left track to pursue football, but did not leave his speed behind. As a high school senior, Mays attended a Nike training camp where he ran a 4.59-second forty yard dash as a 218 lb safety prospect. Mays maintained a single-digit body fat percentage during his time at USC, but still managed to bulk up to 238 lbs before his senior year. At the 2010 NFL Combine, Mays ran a 4.43 second 40 yard dash and vertical leaped 41 inches while weighing 230 lbs.
Before Matt Jones terrorized the SEC as a quarterback for the Arkansas Razorbacks, he was multiple time All-State selection in football and basketball, and a McDonalds All-American in basketball. After only his junior year in high school, Jones broke the Arkansas high school basketball scoring record. Jones played one year for the Arkansas basketball team, and four years as the quarterback of the football team. Jones set the SEC record for career rushing yards by a QB and is perhaps the most unique athlete to ever perform at the combine. Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 242 pounds, Jones had the frame of a defensive lineman, but ran a 4.37 in the forty yard dash, and vertical leaped 39.5 inches. Jones was drafted as a wide receiver by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the 2005 Draft, and had a relatively successful rookie year at a new position with 5 TD receptions.