Acing drills at the NFL scouting combine can lead to riches but don’t forecast football greatness

Texas wide receiver Xavier Worthy, right, celebrates with Iowa defensive back Cooper Dejean after running the 40-yard dash at the NFL football scouting combine, Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Texas wide receiver Xavier Worthy, right, celebrates with Iowa defensive back Cooper Dejean after running the 40-yard dash at the NFL football scouting combine, Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The big question surrounding former Texas wide receiver Xavier Worthy now is whether he’ll star on Sundays like he crushed it at the NFL scouting combine.

Worthy ran the fastest 40-yard dash in the event’s history Saturday, blazing through the annual gathering’s premier event in 4.21 seconds.

That bested former Bengals and Giants wide receiver John Ross III, who posted a 4.22 time in 2017 but never turned heads in the pros like he did in Indy.

Crushing it at the combine can lead a rise up the draft board but it doesn’t necessarily forecast NFL stardom.

Mike Mamula is both a legend and cautionary tale from the NFL scouting combine in that regard.

He was among the first players to train specifically for the tests that prospects undergo, particularly the 40-yard dash that measures speed, the three-cone drill that calculates agility and the 225-pound bench press that gauges strength and stamina.

Mamula’s standout performance at the 1995 combine rocketed him into the first round of the NFL draft two months later when the Philadelphia Eagles traded the 12th overall pick and two second-round selections to Tampa Bay so they could move up five spots and select the Boston College defensive end at No. 7.

Mamula had a solid five-year career with the Eagles, but never really lived up to the hype he had generated by acing the drills in Indianapolis, which helped turn the annual get-together of teams and talent into the televised spectacle it is today.

Although some prospects skip certain components of the combine, choosing instead to show off in more familiar surroundings at their college pro day or during individual team visits, the vast majority target their week in Indianapolis just like Mamula did. They train like Olympians cutting carbs in hopes of shaving milliseconds off their times, jumping just a skosh farther or higher or pumping out one more rep on the weight bench.

Many of those who ace the drills will also follow Mamula’s path in the pros as more of a workout wonder than a gridiron great, illustrating anew the inexact nature of projecting professional success at the combine, where studs can prove duds and tumbles can be temporary.

Take Orlando Brown Jr., who tumbled from the first round on everybody’s mock draft into the third round in the actual draft after managing just 14 reps on the 225-pound bench press in Indy and then lumbering through the 40-yard dash in 5.85 seconds.

Brown was undeterred by his wretched week that included equally awful vertical and broad jumps, declaring, “I’ve been fat my whole life. I wish I was fast.”

All Brown has done in the pros is plodded his way to a Super Bowl title in Kansas City, four Pro Bowl appearances and more than $57 million in career earnings.

Like Mamula, many of the top performers at the combine have found it much harder to master the game itself. Being the best at a drill doesn’t necessarily translate into successfully chasing down passes or passers.

For some players, their combine prowess proves to be the highlight of their careers. Others parlay it into stardom on Sundays.

The Bengals drafted Ross, the former Washington wideout, with the ninth overall pick in 2017, but he played in just 37 games and caught just 11 touchdown passes over his five-year pro career.

Here’s a look at the other top performances all-time in the NFL combine’s seven staple drills and how it translated on draft day and to the football field:

BENCH PRESS

49 repetitions — Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State, 2011. A second-round pick by the Bears, Paea started for three seasons in Chicago. He also spent a year each in Washington, Cleveland and Dallas.

VERTICAL JUMP

45 inches (tie) — Chris Conley, WR, Georgia, 2015. A third-round pick by Kansas City, Conley has spent 10 years in the NFL, including stints with the Jaguars, Texans and Titans. He has 16 career TDs.

45 inches (tie) — Donald Washington, CB, Ohio State, 2009. A fourth-round pick, he spent three seasons in the NFL, all in Kansas City, and never intercepted a pass.

BROAD JUMP

12 feet, 3 inches — Byron Jones, CB, UConn, 2015. The Cowboys made Jones the 27th overall pick and he missed just four games in a solid seven-year career that finished with two seasons in Miami.

THREE-CONE DRILL

6.42 seconds — Jeff Maehl, WR, Oregon, 2011. Undrafted, Maehl played three games in two seasons in Houston and in 24 games over two years in Philadelphia, where he posted his only career TD in 2013.

20-YARD SHUTTLE

3.81 seconds (tie) — Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State, 2014. The 20th overall pick by the Saints, Cooks’ spectacular 10-year career features 57 TD catches, including eight for the Cowboys last season at age 30.

3.81 seconds (tie) — Jason Allen, CB, Tennessee, 2006. The 16th overall pick by Miami enjoyed a solid seven-year NFL career that included 15 interceptions and stints in Houston and Cincinnati.

10-YARD SPLIT

1.40 seconds — Chris Johnson, RB, East Carolina, 2008. Drafted 24th overall by Tennessee, he ran for 2,006 yards and 14 TDs in 2009 and scored 55 times over a stellar 10-year career with the Titans, Jets and Cardinals.

Whether prospects will eventually burn bright or flame out, fans needing their football fix between the Super Bowl and draft weekend can at least catch a glimpse of what’s to come by watching what’s known to many as the “Underwear Olympics.”

“The 40s are the highlight for everybody,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, “because you have history and you can compare what this guy ran this year to what said Hall of Famer ran in years past. … It’s an apples-to-apples comparison.”

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