10 NFL Stars Who Overcame Terrible Combine Performances
The roster construction portion of the 2014 NFL season is officially underway. With the league's front office personnel gathered at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, Indianapolis serves as a hub for exchanging ideas and nitpicking the minute differences between draft prospects.
Being one of the final chances to impress scouts, the combine can irrefutably have an impact on one's draft stock. Whether or not a series of drills far removed from true game conditions should hold such weight is another debate altogether, but the combine's influence is clear.
Of course, there are countless examples of players bucking their combine impressions, for better or worse. Indeed, it is important to note that the combine is not so much a test of athleticism or skill, but rather preparedness and discipline.
With that in mind, here are 10 current NFL stars who most notably overcame their poor first impressions.
10. Zach Miller
The 2007 tight end class appeared thin, with just four being selected over the first four rounds. Arizona State's Zach Miller looked like a near certain first-round pick at one point, competing with Miami's Greg Olsen for top spots.
However, a disastrous 40 time in the combine of 4.83 seconds sent Miller into the second round, where Oakland selected him 38th overall. Only four tight ends ran a slower time and none of them were drafted.
Nevertheless, the former Sun Devil has gone on to forge a solid career. Since the beginning of his career, Miller ranks among the top 10 at the position in catches, the top 15 in yards and the top 20 in touchdowns.
The rest of the class has exceeded expectations as well, with fourth-rounder Scott Chandler, fifth-rounder Kevin Boss and sixth-rounder Brent Celek producing varying levels of success. Miller may not have the same cachet as the latter half of this list, but he has quelled doubts and emerged as a long-time starter.
9. Vontaze Burfict
Scouts like to dissect character as much as physical measurables at the combine, creating a "mob mentality" that can lead to a false consensus forming.
In recent history, perhaps no prospect was victimized more by that mindset than linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
In fairness, Burfict did beget many of his own problems with an exceedingly poor public reputation, causing his stock to plummet all the way to the ranks of the undrafted But as ESPN.com's Cole Harvey illustrates, a more personal approach from Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis dug past the widely accepted perception:
During a dinner at a P.F. Chang's in Tempe, Ariz., he first realized how much Burfict reminded him of Ray Lewis, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame former Baltimore Ravens linebacker who now serves as an analyst for ESPN. Their mannerisms were the same, their humility was similar and their respect for the position was comparable, Marvin Lewis said.
"I told [owner] Mike Brown, 'I don't mean to overstate this, but he's special,'" Marvin Lewis said. "He reminds me of another guy I've coached. ... They're not full of themselves. It's all about, 'How do I get better? How do I help the team win?'"
Not all prospects with character issues are simply "misunderstood," obviously. Burfict, who led the league with 171 tackles in just his second season, has overcome the odds to emerge as a valuable three-down linebacker. Still, his undrafted status serves as a cautionary tale for scouts arriving with preconceived notions.
8. Anquan Boldin
Despite solid production at Florida State, converted quarterback Anquan Boldin raised some eyebrows with a 4.7 40-yard dash time that ranked last among all wide receivers. Consequently, the immensely talented prospect fell to the Arizona Cardinals at 54th overall.
Since then, Boldin has become one of the toughest and most consistent possession receivers in the league, a reliable weapon on two Super Bowl-participating squads and numerous contenders. The ex-Seminole has compiled 857 receptions and 11,344 yards over an 11-year career. Since the merger, only 17 other receivers have matched those totals, and 14 of them are either current or likely future Hall of Famers.
Judging any player purely on his 40-yard dash time is foolish, but it seems especially short-sighted in Boldin's case. A tough-as-nails receiver who runs a full route tree, Boldin has never relied on his straight-line speed to create separation from defenders.
Similarly slow shuttle and three-cone drills may have convinced scouts that Boldin simply did not have the natural tools to beat NFL cornerbacks, a perception he has spent the past decade thoroughly debunking.
7. Justin Houston
Unlike most of the players on this list, Justin Houston actually performed exceptionally well in the combine drills. With a solid across-the-board performance at the 2011 combine, Houston looked like he had separated himself from much of the linebacking class.
However, the Georgia product failed a scheduled drug test, raising glaring red flags over his lack of discipline. A former first-round prospect, Houston fell all the way to Kansas City in the third round, where the Chiefs took him with the 70th pick.
After an uneven rookie season, the Chiefs have since been rewarded with arguably the league's best edge-rushing tandem in Houston and Tamba Hali. The former has accrued 21.0 sacks in 25 games during the last two seasons, 12th-most in the league over that span. The first half of the 2013 season was Houston's most dominant stretch yet, as he compiled 11 sacks in the first eight weeks, spurring Kansas City to the league's best defense.
An elbow injury slowed the former Bulldog down, but Houston remains one of the league's most promising young pass rushers. He has stayed away from off-field issues since the failed drug test and fulfilled his early-round promise at a bargain price.
6. Elvis Dumervil
Despite a record-breaking campaign at Louisville, concerns about Elvis Dumervil's 5'11" and 257-pound frame caused him to fall to the fourth round, where the Denver Broncos snatched him up with the 126th pick.
Dumervil has since moved from defensive end, where he was one of the smallest prospects at the combine, to outside linebacker.
The results have been tremendous, as his 73.0 career sacks are the ninth-most over the last eight seasons. Considering Dumervil missed the entire 2010 season due to a torn pectoral, that lofty ranking is especially impressive.
Dumervil may not be a complete linebacker—he has only compiled 186 total tackles over his career—but in an increasingly pass-dominant league, a top-notch pass-rusher is one of the game's most valuable commodities. His size may not have impacted him as much today, as numerous teams are seeking lighter and faster front-seven players, but it resulted in a significant steal for the Broncos.
5. Joe Haden
Joe Haden entered the 2010 combine as the undisputed top cornerback in his class, but put that distinction in jeopardy with one of the worst workouts in recent memory.
Haden raised eyebrows with a head-scratching 4.57-second 40-yard dash time as well as a meager 35-inch vertical jump. Both were among the worst 10 marks at the position, and for a small corner who measures just 5'11" and 193 pounds, they are less than ideal.
Nevertheless, Haden did not fall in the draft, unlike many players on this list. The Cleveland Browns selected the former Florida Gator seventh overall, and he has since blossomed into one of the league's best corners. Per ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required), Haden conceded just 55 receptions on 99 targets the entire 2013 season.
A slow and small corner is typically a recipe for disaster, but Haden has defied a disastrous combine and demonstrated that his stellar college tape is a much closer reflection of his true skill.
4. NaVorro Bowman
Characterizing NaVorro Bowman's 2010 combine as terrible might be a bit too harsh, but his ho-hum results hardly foreshadowed the three-time All-Pro he would become.
Bowman's combine performance was a bit haphazard, as the Penn State product ran a middling 4.70-second 40-yard dash, an excellent 6.91-second three-cone time and a poor 11.52-second shuttle time. Consequently, despite being the backbone of "Linebacker U," Bowman fell to the San Francisco 49ers in the third round, 91st overall.
Today, the duo of Bowman and Patrick Willis represent the best linebacking tandem in the league. Having two highly mobile three-down linebackers has turned the 49ers into one of the league's top run defenses—since drafting Bowman four seasons ago, no defense has topped San Francisco's 3.69 opponent's yards per carry average.
Bowman is one of five linebackers on this list, illustrating a bizarre inefficiency in scouting the position in recent seasons. The next player ranked ahead of Bowman is perhaps the most glaring example of allowing measurables to overshadow a complete package.
3. Terrell Suggs
Terrell Suggs may have set an NCAA single-season record with 24 sacks in 2002, but few scouts cared about the Arizona State product's college stats.
Indeed, the glaring number was not 65.5, 44 or 14 (his collegiate career tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles, respectively), but rather 4.84, his mediocre 40-yard dash time.
Combined with a similarly underwhelming 18 bench press reps, scouts questioned Suggs' motivation and fitness levels. At the time, Suggs refuted those concerns with the bravado we have all come to expect from the fiery linebacker, per USA Today's Jarrett Bell:
Suggs, who has visited Chicago, Detroit and Houston, wasn't available for comment this week. After his March workout he said: "I didn't do as good as I want. ... Some teams might grade me down, (but) in my opinion football speed and track speed are totally two different things.
"Just look at me playing football. I can play football."
The Baltimore Ravens bought that sentiment and took the leap on the ex-Sun Devil, selecting Suggs 10th overall. Since then, the Ravens have reaped 94.5 sacks, 48 pass deflections, 25 forced fumbles and unquantifiable but unquestionably invaluable leadership. Certainly not bad for a purportedly slow player who lacked passion for the game.
2. Drew Brees
Drew Brees fits no one's ideal depiction of an NFL quarterback in size. Measured a smidgen under 6'0" at the 2001 combine, the Purdue quarterback faced questions not only about his height, but also about his downfield throwing ability.
Those questions now lie buried in the deep recesses of the Internet, as Brees has evolved into one of the league's greatest quarterbacks.
On Pro-Football-Reference's career similarity measurements, Brees just completed a season that placed him in the company of Brett Favre, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas, among others. Brees is also rapidly ascending the record books as he currently sits fifth in all-time passing yardage and first in career completion percentage.
Having brought a Super Bowl to New Orleans and paving the way for other vertically challenged quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Johnny Manziel, his legacy is secure.
1. Tom Brady
Tom Brady's bumbling 40-yard dash is an indelible image of a quarterback who has exceeded pre-draft expectations more than perhaps any player in NFL history.
Brady's 5.28 40 time, second-worst among quarterbacks at the 2000 combine, reflected a larger concern about the Michigan quarterback's dubious measureables. With a unimposing frame, questionable arm strength and bottom-of-the-barrel mobility, Brady simply did not possess the tools to impress the scouts, even in an underwhelming quarterback class.
Brady still looks painfully awkward when forced to scramble, but his fairytale story is etched in stone at this point.
Whether or not the three-time Super Bowl champion adds to his ledger is largely irrelevant to his legacy as one of the greatest draft steals of all-time, as well as a cautionary tale against snap reactions to poor combine results.
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