Some NFL stars aren’t made in three or four years at the college level. Some don’t truly break out until a soggy February or March weekend in central Indiana.
For four days, NFL scouts and college football’s brightest prospects turn Indianapolis’ 16 square blocks of shopping malls and Steak n’ Shakes into a mecca for gridiron devotees. Starting Thursday, NFL Draft hopefuls will make their case to scouts and executives over the course of up to seven workouts and an undetermined number of entirely too personal interviews.
Earlier, our own Alex Kirshner looked at 29 NFL veterans who overcame bad performances in Indy to become stars. This list somehow exempted Chris Jones’ awful week, which included a 40-yard dash time so regrettable his penis attempted to escape from his body just to cause a distraction from his lack of coordination. Jones bounced back from that to record 15.5 sacks last fall, proving these workouts aren’t an exact science.
But for these eight athletes, the NFL Scouting Combine portended great pro careers. Here are eight amazing workouts that gave way to fulfilled Pro Bowl expectations and better.
Aaron Donald, 13th overall pick in 2014, St. Louis Rams
Like Dwight Freeney, Donald was a monster performer at a former Big East school.
And like Freeney, Donald’s 6’1 frame raised questions about whether his talent would translate to football’s biggest stage.
The University of Pittsburgh star lacked the bulk of most NFL defensive tackles, leaving scouts to worry whether he’d be bullied in the trenches after making the jump to the pros. A stellar combine showing — he was a top-five performer among all linemen in the 40, bench press, and three-cone drill — showed off the blend of speed, strength, and athleticism that convinced the Rams to roll the dice on the former Panther.
Two Defensive Player of the Year awards and one NFC Championship later, it’s a gamble that continues to pay off in Los Angeles.
Dontari Poe, 11th overall pick in 2012, Kansas City Chiefs
Poe was an overlooked run-stuffer at the University of Memphis, but his absurd combine outing made him impossible to ignore. Not only did he turn in a sub-5-second 40 time at 346 pounds, but he also put up an absurd 44 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press — eight more than any other defensive lineman in Indy that winter.
That turned the second-team All-Conference USA player into a rising star and set the tone for what’s been a solid seven-year career so far. The former Tiger stepped into the starting lineup as a rookie and served as the foundation that allowed Pro Bowl pass rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali to excel, absorbing blockers up front and dispelling any notion he was just a workout wonder.
While he may not have had the success of the other players on this list, the former three-star recruit blossomed into a reliable above-average starter in the trenches. The two-time Pro Bowler has missed only two games in his NFL career. He’s currently in the second year of a three-year, $28 million deal with the Carolina Panthers.
J.J. Watt, 11th overall pick in 2011, Houston Texans
Watt, a former two-star tight end recruit, was the ultimate Wisconsin guy. One of the Badgers’ uber-productive walk-ons (see also Abbrederis, Jared or Leonhard, Jim), the MAC washout became one of the Big Ten’s most fearsome defenders — but his spot in the first half of the 2011 NFL Draft wasn’t secure until he went to Indiana and put together a powerful combine performance.
The future three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was among the top four performers along either side of the line when it came to bench press, 20-yard shuttle, broad jump, three-cone drill, and vertical leap. He also ran a 4.8-second 40 at 290 pounds, previewing the pocket-crumpling fast-twitch muscle that would terrorize the AFC South through the 2010s.
Chris Johnson, 24th overall pick in 2008, Tennessee Titans
The one-year wonder out of East Carolina wasn’t on anyone’s first-round radar until he arrived in Indianapolis and became the event’s hottest story. The former Pirate had only a single NCAA season where he ran for more than 700 yards, but his 17-touchdown 2007 earned him an invitation to the combine. There, he broke out a then-official record 4.24-second 40-yard dash to steal scouts’ attention and go from sleeper pick to Day 1 selection.
The Titans snapped him up with the 24th pick in 2008 and were immediately rewarded with a 1,200-yard season. Johnson wasn’t satisfied with merely being “good,” however. He set the league on fire in 2009 by becoming just the sixth player in league history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season — a breakout campaign wasted on a classic 8-8 Jeff Fisher team.
Calvin Johnson, second overall pick in 2007, Detroit Lions
Johnson was a monster at Georgia Tech, catching 76 passes as a junior in Chan Gailey’s offense despite playing with quarterback Reggie Ball, who completed less than 45 percent of his passes in 2006. That helped push the Yellow Jackets to a spot in the ACC title game, but his incredible season in a down year for his conference still left concerns.
And then the 6’5, 239-pound Johnson ran a 4.35-second 40, putting together one of the year’s most talked-about combine appearances despite participating in only a single drill. That was enough to convince the Lions to spend a top-10 pick on a wide receiver for the fourth time in five years. With Johnson, they finally got it right — he averaged 81 catches and 1,291 receiving yards per season in a nine-year NFL career.
Vernon Davis, sixth overall pick in 2006, San Francisco 49ers
Davis hasn’t had an especially legendary career, but the two-time Pro Bowler is coming up on his 14th NFL season and has more receptions to his name than all but 10 other tight ends to ever play the game. That all started when he busted out a sub-4.4-second 40 time at the 2006 combine — the 10th-fastest time among all players and fastest time for a tight end in the event’s history. His 42-inch vertical leap was nearly five inches higher than any other player at his position and tied for best at the combine that year.
Dwight Freeney, 11th overall pick in 2002, Indianapolis Colts
Freeney was a four-year wrecking ball at Syracuse, recording 50.5 tackles for loss and finishing his career third in the all-time Big East record book with 34 sacks. But at 6’1 he was undersized as an NFL defensive end, which meant his status as a potential first-round pick hinged on impressing scouts in Indy.
He was up to the task. His 4.48-second 40 time and 40-inch vertical leap at 266 pounds established his bonafides as 2002’s most explosive athlete. He’d get the chance to return to the RCA Dome months later after being drafted by the Colts. His 16-year career — 11 in Indianapolis — included 125.5 sacks and a likely spot in the Hall of Fame come 2022.
Jevon Kearse, 16th overall pick in 1999, Tennessee Titans
Kearse earned his nickname “the Freak” thanks in part to a combine performance that saw him run a 4.43-second in the 40 and record a 40-inch vertical leap. The converted safety proved he hadn’t lost a step while bulking up to 260 pounds, showcasing a deep well of potential underneath some solid but not mind-blowing college stats (16.5 sacks, six forced fumbles in three seasons at Florida). He reportedly tied Deion Sanders’ mark for the fastest 10-yard start in the dash, showcasing the speed that would make him one of the league’s most fearsome edge rushers.
That led him to Nashville, where he became the face of the Titans’ defense. He forced eight fumbles and recorded 14.5 sacks as a rookie to earn All-Pro honors and help propel Tennessee to an AFC title. While he’d never again reach those heights, he was a productive — albeit oft-injured — defensive end throughout an 11-year NFL career.