Current NFL Stars Who Once Dominated the Scouting Combine

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystFebruary 21, 2018

Current NFL Stars Who Once Dominated the Scouting Combine

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    In about a week, hundreds of college football's best and brightest will descend on Indianapolis for the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. 

    Players will be measured, interviewed and put through the paces in a number of workouts ranging from the bench press to the 40-yard dash.

    Some of those youngsters will shine, leaving pundits breathless with how fast they run or how far they jump. But a good combine is no guarantee of NFL success. There are plenty of workout warriors who went on to do little on the field of play.

    Looking at you, Mike Mamula.

    However, there are also players who went from combine darlings to superstars and others who fared better than expected in Indy and went on to duplicate the feat by wildly outperforming their draft slots. Players for whom the workout was just the beginning of a fantastic NFL career that continues to this day.

    Players just like these.

Aaron Donald, DL, Los Angeles Rams

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    After four seasons in the NFL, Los Angeles Rams lineman Aaron Donald has established himself as the gold standard among defensive players. He piled up 41 combined tackles, 11 sacks and five forced fumbles en route to the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year award.

    Back in 2014, Donald headed to the combine as an undersized 3-technique who was by no means a sure bet to be selected in the first round. In fact, before a strong showing at that year's Senior Bowl, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had Donald slotted as a fourth-round pick.

    Then came the combine, where Donald put on a show.

    As Ebenezer Samuel reported for the New York Daily News, Donald displayed impressive power, peeling off 35 bench-press reps of 225 pounds. Then Donald left jaws on the floor by running a 4.68-second 40-yard dash—at 6'1", 285 pounds.

    Add in agility drills that demonstrated his lightning-fast first step, and Donald left Indianapolis as a first-round lock. The Rams drafted Donald 13th overall—a pick that now looks like a steal.

    As Los Angeles defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said about Donald, per Cameron DaSilva of Rams Wire, "I thought he was good, but I didn't know he was better than everybody. But, he is. ... He's such a tremendous player. You can't overlook how he plays."

Khalil Mack, EDGE, Oakland Raiders

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    D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

    Khalil Mack participated in the same combine as Donald. But after a dominant season at the University of Buffalo, Mack had quite a bit more momentum. As Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk reported, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock told KFAN that he'd consider taking Mack at No. 1 overall over presumptive top dog Jadeveon Clowney.

    "You talk about a guy like Clowney, who's just got superhuman abilities, versus this kid, if I had a choice between the two, I think I'm going Mack," Mayock said.

    Mack didn't do anything to hurt that stock in Indianapolis. Quite the opposite in fact.

    Granted, he wasn't the most dominant player in any one drill. And his 23 bench-press reps ranked in the middle of the pack at his position. But Mack was in the top five among linebackers in the 40-yard dash (4.65 seconds), vertical jump (40"), broad jump (128") and 20-yard shuttle (4.18 seconds).

    As Dan Parr of NFL.com reported, the performance led two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Willie McGinest to call Mack "a more athletic version of 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman."

    That's some heady praise. Mack has also justified it.

    In four NFL seasons, Mack has averaged over 75 total tackles and 10 sacks. He's been named to the Pro Bowl three times, was a first-team All-Pro twice and was the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year.

    In short, Mack's done nothing to make the Raiders regret selecting him fifth overall in 2014. And much like the aforementioned Donald, Mack's on the verge of a contract extension that will make him one of the highest-paid non-quarterbacks in the league.

J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has already reached a height few players do. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is a member of a club that includes only the great Lawrence Taylor.

    If Watt never played another snap, he'd likely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's widely regarded as one of the most dominant defenders in the NFL despite missing almost all of the last two seasons with back and leg injuries.

    Those issues have cast a cloud over the future of the 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year, but in 2011, Watt had just left the University of Wisconsin as perhaps the best defender in the school's history and a likely first-round pick in that year's draft.

    By the time Watt left the field in Indianapolis, the question became whether he would make it out of the top 10 (he went 11th overall to Houston).

    He put on a breathtaking display for a 6'5", 290-pounder with 11 -inch hands and 34-inch arms. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.84 seconds (a ridiculous time for a player his size), posted 34 reps in the bench press (a great number for players with arms that long) and put up broad and vertical jumps of 120 inches and 37 inches, respectively.

    Watt was only getting started.

    Even with two lost seasons, Watt has averaged nearly 11 sacks over seven campaigns. He's topped 20 sacks in a season twice—in 2012 and 2014.

    He even caught three touchdown passes in 2014.

    When Watt is at his best, there isn't a more feared defensive player in the NFL—and maybe in the league's history.

Odell Beckham, WR, New York Giants

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Odell Beckham Jr.'s 2017 season is best forgotten, as he failed to hit 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his career. He had just 25 catches for 302 yards and three touchdowns in four games before a fractured ankle cut short his fourth campaign in the NFL.

    Still, that does nothing to diminish a career that has elevated Beckham to among the league's best wide receivers.

    And it began—wait for it—at the 2014 combine.

    That year's draft was everything 2013's wasn't.

    As Chris Trapasso reported for Bleacher Report at the time, Beckham showed off his blazing speed in Indy, laying down an unofficial 4.31-second 40-yard dash (tops among wide receivers) that included a ridiculous 1.50-second 10-yard split.

    Beckham also starred in position drills.

    "He cruised through the gauntlet, short sideline, intermediate dig and deep route drills with no drops and made all the catches comfortably away from this body," Trapasso wrote. "With a scintillating 40 time and phenomenally soft hands, Odell Beckham Jr. likely won't last into the second round."

    Sure enough, not only was Beckham was a first-round pick in 2014, but he also didn't make it out of the top 15. The New York Giants selected the former LSU star 12th overall.

    Beckham got off to a slow start, missing the first four games of his professional career with a bad hammy. In Week 9 (his fourth contest), however, he exploded with eight catches for 156 yards. By season's end, Beckham had topped 1,300 receiving yards and scored 12 times. He was named the 2014 Offensive Rookie of the Year.

    Beckham hasn't looked back since, earning Pro Bowl trips in his first three NFL seasons and second-team All-Pro nods in 2015 and 2016.

    And oh yeah—there was this.

Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Beckham isn't the only superstar wide receiver who made quite a first impression at the combine.

    Julio Jones rolled into the 2011 event as the consensus No. 2 prospect at his position, trailing only fellow SEC star A.J. Green.

    (It was a good year for receivers.)

    By the time the dust settled, that consensus had been shaken.

    Jones put on a show of speed and agility, featuring a 38 ½-inch vertical jump, a 135-inch broad jump and outstanding performances in the cone and position drills. His 4.39-second 40-yard dash was over a tenth of a second faster than Green's.

    The amazing part is that Jones needed to undergo surgery on a fracture in his foot, which was revealed after the combine.

    After watching him tear up the track, the Atlanta Falcons were sold. They traded five draft picks (including their first-round picks in 2011 and 2012) to the Cleveland Browns to move up to select Jones sixth overall—two picks after Green.

    To say Jones hasn't disappointed is an understatement. In seven seasons, he has averaged over 80 catches for almost 1,300 yards per campaign. He has been a first-team All Pro two times, he's a five-time Pro Bowler and he flirted with rewriting the single-season record books in 2015, when he reeled in 136 passes for 1,871 yards (93 yards short of Calvin Johnson's 2012 record).

    That trade appears to have worked out OK for the Falcons.

Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    When Luke Kuechly rolled into the 2012 combine, he was coming off a junior season at Boston College in which he amassed a staggering 191 total tackles—seriously.

    But as Luke Hughes reported for NESN at the time, while Kuechly was viewed as a savvy, hard-nosed player, there were questions about both his 6'3", 242-pound size and his athleticism.

    A bulked-up Kuechly knew he had something to prove in Indianapolis.

    "I had to prove I was a sufficient size," Kuechly told Sporting News (h/t NESN). "The biggest thing is being able to move with the weight you have. That was something I've been working on."

    By the combine's conclusion, Kuechly had emphatically answered those questions, whether it was with strength (27 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press), speed (4.58 40-yard dash—third among linebackers that year) or agility (38" vertical).

    After the Carolina Panthers selected him ninth overall, Kuechly didn't waste any time cementing his status as the top linebacker in the league.

    In his first season, Kuechly led the NFL with 164 tackles and won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The following campaign, he racked up 156 stops, two sacks and four interceptions en route to being the youngest player to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.

    With the exception of 2012, Kuechly has been a Pro Bowler every season, and he's been a first-team All-Pro four times. He's never had fewer than 100 tackles in a season and has 15 interceptions in six years.    

Lane Johnson, OT, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Philadelphia Eagles tackle Lane Johnson has had an up-and-down career.

    His highs have included a trip to the Pro Bowl, first-team All-Pro honors and a Lombardi Trophy—all in 2017. His lows have included performance-enhancing drug suspensions in 2014 and 2016, with the latter costing him 10 games. 

    Johnson is one of the better first-round picks to come out of the nightmare of the 2013 draft. That shouldn't come as a big surprise considering what he did in the lead-up to it.

    After a good outing at the Senior Bowl in 2013, Johnson headed to Indianapolis with some Round 1 buzz. By the time he was finished, that buzz had become a roar.

    The former high school track star put those skills to use at Lucas Oil Stadium.

    As Brett Smiley reported a year ago for Fox Sports, Johnson didn't just post some of the best numbers by an offensive lineman for that combine. He had some of the top performances at that position of the past decade.

    Johnson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.72 seconds—at 303 pounds. That's the second-fastest 40 of any offensive lineman at the combine since 2006. His broad (118") and vertical (34") jumps also rank inside the top 10 at the position over that span.

    That impressive athleticism led the Eagles to draft Johnson fourth overall, and suspensions aside, he hasn't given them any reason to regret it, emerging as one of the NFL's best strong-side tackles.

Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

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    Heading into the 2011 combine, scouts had little argument over who the top edge-rusher was.

    It was Von Miller's world, and everyone else was just living in it. Most suspected that Cam Newton was going to be the No. 1 overall pick, but Miller was in the conversation to go second overall to the Denver Broncos.

    Frankly, Miller could have skipped workouts altogether and probably not have damaged his stock.

    He didn't.

    He showed the same sort of otherworldly athleticism in Indianapolis that had been his hallmark at Texas A&M. At 6'3", 246 pounds, Miller ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds and posted a 37-inch vertical leap and 126-inch broad jump.

    The Broncos pulled the trigger on Miller at No. 2, and he's spent the past seven years making Denver glad it did.

    In his first season, Miller blew up to the tune of 11.5 sacks and received the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He posted a career-high 18.5 sacks the following year. Miller has been named to the Pro Bowl six times, and he's a three-time first-team All-Pro. With 16.5 more sacks (a good season for him), he will hit the 100-sack threshold.

    Oh, and he was the MVP of Denver's victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

    Miller is one of the best defensive players in football, even though he's (oddly enough) never led the NFL in sacks.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans

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    It wouldn't be right not to include at least one quarterback.

    While some might call it premature to label Texans signal-caller Deshaun Watson a star, if his 19 touchdown passes over his first seven NFL games (a league record) is any indication, the 22-year-old is well on his way.

    Of course, Watson wasn't the first quarterback drafted in 2017. Or even the second. Entering the combine, there were questions regarding his 6'2", 221-pound size and his arm strength.

    It's not like he played in two straight College Football Playoff Championship Games (winning one) or anything.

    However, Watson did what he could to show he was every bit the pro prospect—like North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky and Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes.

    It wasn't a matter of Watson's measurables. Or his 4.66-second 40-yard dash—which was slower than that of No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, a defensive end.

    No, Watson stood out in the passing drills. He displayed excellent accuracy, velocity and touch. As Jarrett Bell reported for USA Today, his throwing display impressed Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.

    "Unbelievable," Reid said. "He had a great day. Every throw was on the money."

    It wasn't enough for Reid take Watson ahead of Mahomes, but the Texans sent Cleveland their first-rounder in 2018 (along with the No. 25 pick in 2017) to move up to No. 12 and select the Clemson product.

    It appears to have been a wise move—and the second time in this piece the Browns whiffed on a potential difference-maker.

    Because Cleveland.

Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Geno Atkins was part of a 2010 draft class that was stacked with talent at defensive tackle. Many circles viewed Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh as a generational talent; Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy wasn't far behind. They were drafted second and third overall by the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively.

    But when it came to the 2010 combine, Georgia's Geno Atkins stole the show.

    Prior to the event, some considered Atkins a "tweener"—too small to play tackle in the NFL but not fast enough around the edge to play end in the 3-4.

    Yeah. About that.

    First, Atkins arrived in Indianapolis at a bulked-up 293 pounds. If that wasn't enough, he demonstrated his ability to hold up at the point of attack by ripping off 34 reps in the bench press. That was slightly better than Suh (32) and significantly better than McCoy (23).

    Atkins was only getting started. He showed off his wheels by running the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds, which isn't breaking any records but is a fantastic time for a player pushing 300 pounds.

    Despite a great workout, Atkins fell to the fourth round and the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 120 overall.

    He's spent the last eight seasons making the 31 teams that passed on him (repeatedly) regret it.

    He has established himself as one of the best 3-techniques in the NFL and is arguably the best at the position along with Aaron Donald. He's been a first-team All Pro twice and has made six Pro Bowls. Atkins has 61 career sacks, including 29 over the past three seasons.

    That's not bad for a Day 3 pick.