Top 10 most head-turning NFL combine performances ever

Each year, NFL draft prospects descend on Indianapolis looking to make their case in front of scouts, general managers and coaches. How these prospects perform in tests of speed, strength and agility can have a profound impact on where they land in the draft.

Whether it’s with a blazing 40-yard dash time, a gravity-defying jump, a show of strength on the bench press, or eye-popping performance in the positional drills, prospects have a number of ways to impress NFL decision-makers during their time inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

Here are players who had dominant combine efforts, and saw their draft stock improve as a result.

1. Mike Mamula: Combine visionary

1995 draft: First round (No. 7 overall), Philadelphia Eagles

Mamula was a rarity back in the mid-1990s: a prospect who trained specifically for the drills of the NFL scouting combine. His performance — including a reported 40-yard dash time of 4.58 seconds, which was especially incredible for a defensive end prospect at the time — vaulted Mamula atop the first round of the draft, and he remains a cautionary tale for NFL teams to avoid being romanced by impressive combine numbers.

2. Bo Jackson: Stuff of legend

Draft: First round (No. 1 overall), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1986); Seventh round (No. 183 overall), Los Angeles Raiders (1987)

Official NFL combine data only goes back to 2006, so Jackson’s unconfirmed 40 time of 4.13 seconds (according to Jackson, though some tales have the time at 4.12) will remain a part of the league’s mythology. One thing is for sure, however: at 6-1, 227 pounds, Jackson’s combination of size and speed was a terrifying prospect for opposing defensive players.

3. John Ross: NFL’s fastest man

2017 draft: First round (No. 9 overall), Cincinnati Bengals

Chris Johnson’s modern-day 40-yard dash standard of 4.24 seconds stood for nearly a decade. At the 2017 combine, Ross toppled that time, running a 4.22-second 40. Unfortunately, Ross’ NFL career didn’t quite take off like his draft stock did after his trip to Indy. He posted a career-high 506 yards receiving in an injury-shortened 2019 season, and played his last NFL season in 2021 with the New York Giants.

4. Byron Jones: Broad jump record

2015 draft: First round (No. 27 overall), Dallas Cowboys

Step aside, Arne Tvervaag. You might ask, who’s Arne Tvervaag? Well, in 1968, Tveraag did a 12-foot, 2-inch standing long jump. That jump is considered a world record. At the 2015 combine, Jones did a 12-foot, 3-inch broad jump, which might be the new all-time mark. The standing long jump used to be an Olympic event, and an American (Ray Ewry) had posted the world record (11 feet, 4 1/2 inches in 1904) before Tveraag broke it. Now the standing long jump lives on at the NFL combine.

5. J.J. Watt: Show of force

2011 draft: First round (No. 11 overall), Houston Texans

Watt already was considered a strong first-round candidate before the events of the 2011 combine. Inside Lucas Oil Stadium, Watt put on a performance that would offer a glimpse of what would eventually transpire in the NFL. The future three-time NFL defensive player of the year ran a 4.84-second 40, had a 37-inch vertical and 10-foot broad jump, while also doing 34 bench press reps. All except that 40 time — which for a 6-5, 290-pounder was still mighty impressive — were enough to place Watt among the best in his position group.

6. Aaron Donald: Strength and speed

2014 draft: First round (No. 13 overall), St. Louis Rams

Donald was a fast-rising prospect in the time between when he collected the 2013 Outland Trophy and became a first-round draft pick. Like Watt before him, Donald displayed the sort of athleticism at the combine that would help him win defensive player of the year. Donald ran a 4.68-second 40 and had 35 bench press reps, both among the best for defensive linemen at that year’s combine. 

7. Vernon Davis: Fastest TE ever

2006 draft: First round (No. 6 overall), San Francisco 49ers

At 250 pounds, Davis ran a 4.38-second 40 and had a 42-inch vertical, and his draft stock sprinted to near the top of the 2006 class. No notable tight has come close to beating that 40 time. Evan Engram, a 2017 first-rounder to the Giants, came the closest among recent competitors with a 4.42-second mark.

8. Stephen Paea: NFL strongman

2011 draft: Second round (No. 53 overall), Chicago Bears

Paea is the NFL combine bench press king. His 49 reps of 225 pounds has yet to be surpassed. The closest any prospect has come to that total was at the 2012 combine, when Dontari Poe did 44 reps.

9. Dontari Poe: Big man who can run

2012 draft: First round (No. 11 overall), Kansas City Chiefs

Poe boosted his draft status in a big way in 2012, and the most impressive number posted by the defensive tackle might have been his 40-yard time. Poe ran the 40 in under five seconds (4.98) at nearly 350 pounds. Poe went from a possible second-rounder to a mid-first round selection. Three years later, Poe became the heaviest player in NFL history to score a touchdown.

10. Pat O’Donnell: Most athletic punter ever?

2014 draft: Sixth round (No. 191 overall), Chicago Bears

At a combine that featured hyped-up prospects such as Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney, O’Donnell out-performed both. O’Donnell, it should be noted, is a punter, and specialists rarely go through combine drills. O’Donnell’s 40 time of 4.64 seconds was faster than Manziel’s time of 4.68. On the bench press, O’Donnell did 23 reps of 225 pounds, bettering Clowney’s total of 21.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jim Reineking on Twitter @jimreineking.

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