The most memorable pre-draft workouts ever: Coaches, scouts, execs make their picks
NFL team decision-makers are digging into 2023 draft preparations as combine workouts kick off in Indianapolis Thursday. Of course, everything will come back to the game tape, but prepare yourself for a few “wow” workouts to really get people talking this week, even if it’s just one part of the evaluation.
Every scout, coach and executive has prospect workout moments they remember from over the years. I’m talking about the rare, are-you-kidding-me, OMG moments that have never left them. That includes amazing feats in standardized combine drills, private workouts or even viral video clips. These moments might not have even influenced prospect grades at the end of the day, but they still live on as legendary exploits and measuring sticks for elite physical traits.
Which workout moments stand above the rest, from the blazing 40-yard dash times to the incredible shows of strength? We surveyed more than four dozen coaches, scouts and personnel executives (some retired) in recent weeks to find their most memorable moments. Here are the ones that popped up the most.
Bo knows speed
Almost none of those surveyed saw it with their own eyes, but Bo Jackson’s otherworldly 40-yard dash lives on in scouting lore. The Auburn running back has said he was asked to run it on his way to track practice in 1986, and the clocking on his first run was just over 4.3 seconds — though he slowed up before finishing to avoid running into the wall at the end of the gym. He recalls that they opened the door at the school’s indoor facility to allow him enough room to run through the finish line on his second run. The electronic timer had him at 4.13 seconds.
There is plenty of skepticism about just how fast Jackson ran — and what is even possible. There have been extensive breakdowns of the fastest 40-yard splits within Usain Bolt’s 100-meter dash record (9.58), which many say would debunk Jackson’s time. But some scouts still say it was hand-timed at 4.17 or 4.18.
No matter, Jackson is often referred to as the fastest player many scouts have ever seen. The Heisman Trophy winner had plenty of options, including playing professional baseball. And when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him No. 1 overall in the 1986 draft, he signed with the Kansas City Royals in MLB instead, citing a conflict with then-Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse. The Los Angeles Raiders selected Jackson a year later in the seventh round of the 1987 draft and told him they would support his desire to play in both leagues. And the legendary 40 time became just one moment in a long list of his unbelievable accomplishments.
Polamalu’s disappearing leap
In 2003, a knee injury kept USC safety Troy Polamalu from working out at the combine or Senior Bowl, so his on-campus pro day would be his only real non-game workout before the draft.
“He runs in the 4.3s,” said Jim Nagy, a former NFL scout and now the executive director of the Senior Bowl. “But what I remember most is the old USC facilities were like in the basement. They had to knock out some panels in the ceiling because of where they had the vertical [jump] set up. He jumped like 43½ inches. I just remember you lost like half of his body — you couldn’t see him from the waist up because he disappeared into the ceiling.”
Polamalu confirmed his first-round status that day with a complete performance. The Pittsburgh Steelers moved up in the first round from 27th to 16th to select the future Hall of Famer.
McNair’s marathon throwing session
Multiple scouts say the endurance award goes to Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair at his 1995 pro day. Unlike most of the draft’s top prospects, McNair eschewed stacking the deck at wide receiver for his workout and instead threw to several former high school teammates. He threw for about an hour, and the late Floyd Reese once said he asked McNair how far he could throw the ball as the pair walked toward the sideline after the workout. McNair apparently just smiled, turned around and threw a ball almost 70 yards.
Reese went on to select McNair — who would later share league MVP with Peyton Manning in 2003 — with the Houston Oilers’ pick at No. 3 overall.
The ultimate big-man workout
At the 2012 combine, 346-pound defensive tackle Dontari Poe was clocked at 4.98 seconds in the 40-yard dash, did 44 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench press, had a 29.5-inch vertical and reached 8-foot-9 in the broad jump.
Poe’s performance seemed to influence his draft weekend, too. A player who had 22 tackles in his final season at Memphis and was tied for fourth on his own team in tackles for loss (seven) was the 11th pick of the 2012 draft. Poe ended up a two-time Pro Bowl selection for the Kansas City Chiefs and played 128 games in a nine-year career, which included one passing and two rushing touchdowns on offense.
Here are a few quick special mentions for big-man workouts:
A few evaluators picked out Taylor Lewan‘s combine in 2014. The offensive tackle out of Michigan ran a 4.87-second 40 at 309 pounds and hit 9-foot-9 in the broad jump. He was also the 11th pick (Tennessee Titans), two years after Poe.
One long-retired scout still raves about Cincinnati Bengals legend Anthony Munoz’s athletic achievements before he was drafted No. 3 overall in 1980. “Anything I watched Munoz do is the greatest ever,” he said. “I mean, that guy pitched on [the USC] baseball team.”
Griffin’s uplifting lift
At the 2018 combine, Shaquem Griffin — a UCF linebacker who had a hand amputated as a child — ran a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash and then did 20 repetitions on the bench press with a prosthetic on his left arm. Griffin, whose twin brother, Shaquill, just finished his sixth NFL season, was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the fifth round of that year’s draft. He played 46 games, largely on special teams, over three seasons before announcing his retirement last year.
Vick’s whole new level of speed
Several evaluators mentioned Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick running a 4.33 40-yard dash at the 2001 combine as a big-time “wow” moment. There had been mobile QBs in the past and plenty of signal-callers had been capable of throwing deep on the run, but scouts saw Vick — who routinely showcased high-level arm strength in college — at a whole new level.
One former NFL GM said, “Look, we knew he was fast, but just seeing that time pop up on the watch, that was different.”
Vick was the No. 1 pick of the draft that year, selected by the Atlanta Falcons. He went on to hold the record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback (1,036 yards in 2006) until the Chicago Bears‘ Justin Fields broke the record this past year.
Special mention to Julio Jones, who ran his 40 at the 2011 combine with a fracture in his foot. The Alabama receiver still posted a 4.42 and was eventually the No. 6 pick by the Falcons.
Jones’ amazing flight
Cornerback Byron Jones set a combine record with a 12-foot-3-inch broad jump at the 2015 combine. Several of those surveyed used the word “levitate” to describe what they saw from the UConn product.
“I see that picture sometimes of Byron Jones jumping,” Nagy said. “I was with the Seahawks then, and [scout] Josh Graff was measuring that day. And he was out there at like 11 [feet], and I have this picture of Jones soaring over his head. You can’t help but walk away from things like that wondering if you’ll ever see it again.”
Jones went into the draft process that year with some scouts questioning if he was sudden enough at the position, as some said Jones lost his balance too often and didn’t keep his footing. The workout displayed elite traits, though. Jones added a staggering 44.5-inch vertical jump, and evaluators were forced to go back to the tape after the combine. The Dallas Cowboys ended up taking Jones with the 27th pick that year.
This past Saturday, Jones reacted to a 2023 combine promo on Twitter and said he “can’t run or jump” anymore because of injuries he has suffered over the course of his career. (Jones, now with the Miami Dolphins, missed all of last season because of surgery on his Achilles tendon.)
Workout props gone viral
Several evaluators had a special category here for workouts with props. Two that came up a few times as we spoke to scouts, coaches and execs:
New Bucs OT Wirfs shows off impressive strength with pool jump
Buccaneers draft pick Tristan Wirfs shows unbelievable strength as he hops out of a pool.
How do scouts balance these moments against the tape?
The evolution of the profession means there is certainly some recency bias in all of this. Before the world was digitally wired and when scouting staffs were much smaller, the moments of memory were usually more about the quiet trip to work a player out in solitude — those solo victories to see what no one else saw. Things like Bill Nunn’s decision to stay and work out wide receiver John Stallworth the day after a slow 40 time in bad weather, or longtime scout C.O. Brocato working out a player outside of a construction supply business owned by the player’s girlfriend’s father.
But through the years, balancing the extraordinary workout moment and the in-game tape is always an enormous part of the challenge. The temptation is there for one good day in Indy to tip the scales against a far bigger body of work over multiple seasons. Scouts have to gauge what’s a sign of what could be and what’s an amazing snapshot. But it’s all information that has to be gathered and digested.
Linebacker Mike Mamula produced a confetti-inducing workout at the 1996 combine. The Boston College product had a 4.58 in the 40-yard dash, jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical, put up 26 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench and scored a 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test. Mamula is often credited as the prospect who cracked the code on combine and pro-day workouts. Unlike most prospects in that era, Mamula not only trained to be conditioned but also trained specifically for the combine drills themselves. He prepped for the drills with the Boston College strength and conditioning staff and continued focusing on the workout itself in the weeks leading up to the combine. It’s commonplace now, but the drill-specific training made his workout pop at that time.
Though he was already considered a promising prospect, Mamula’s workout impacted what scouts and personnel executives believed he could be as an NFL player. And for that reason, he is seen by many as the cautionary tale. Mamula was selected No. 7 by the Philadelphia Eagles. And though he played at least 14 games in all five seasons of his career, he never had more than 8.5 sacks or 52 tackles in a season.
Reese, the longtime general manager of the Oilers/Titans, said, “You don’t want to miss anything, and you don’t want to ever discount something that makes you say, ‘Whoa.’ But you don’t want to get fooled, either. You trust your eyes, but you still have to sort of sort through everything they see, you know?”
Similarly, Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has said, “Data is observations. Data is noticing how I walk into a room. Data is also a number. And we use all those things at our disposal. … You have your other information sources, and you combine them. At the end of the day, when these things don’t agree, that’s the call to process. Let’s get in a room and figure out this, because great decisions are made when you learn.”
But sometimes evaluators discount these wild workouts and don’t give outrageous testing moments enough credence. Bill Polian remembers when he was the GM of the Carolina Panthers in 1996, the team worked out Arizona’s Tedy Bruschi in private ahead of the draft. After an amazing workout, Polian was convinced that Bruschi could replace Kevin Greene at linebacker in his defense. But he showed too much patience on draft weekend, as the team made three picks before the New England Patriots selected Bruschi at No. 86. Carolina was on the clock at No. 88 and had planned to take him.
“I’m certain I’ve never been more upset in a draft room in my career than when New England took Tedy right in front of us,” Polian said. “The lesson learned is, it is better to take a player you have a conviction on a round too early than a round too late.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.