The NFL Combine, America’s most-watched indoor exercise convention, annually produces workout legends. Let’s stack those legends against each other.
These picks are based entirely on what happened at the Combine, not on college careers, pro careers, Draft results, or anything else. Workout warriors only, with special consideration given to those who moved fast while also being big.
Old Combine records are spotty, but I’ve used a combination of numbers from the NFL and Pro Football Reference.
- Robert Griffin III, Baylor, 2012: The #3 40-yard dash since 2000 among QBs (4.41, behind Michael Vick and Texas A&M’s Reggie McNeal, both of whom were a little smaller than RG3), plus a vertical one inch shy of the QB record and a broad jump 4% shy.
Note: Arkansas’ Matt Jones would be the pick, based on his 4.4-second 40 and other impressive numbers at 6’6 in 2005, but he was projected as an H-back and ended up at WR.
- Chris Johnson, East Carolina, 2008: Held the overall official 40-yard dash record until 2017: 4.24 seconds.
- Saquon Barkley, Penn State 2018: Extremely explosive for a big guy, as 4.4 is the second-fastest time ever posted by an RB 230 pounds or heavier. His 41-inch vert is nearly a record among all RBs, clearing every other 230-pound RB ever by more than an inch. Oh also, extremely strong for a little guy, as his 29 bench reps rank #5 among all RBs 235 pounds or smaller.
Penn State RB Saquon Barkley at 2018 Combine:— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) March 2, 2018
- Stronger than Joe Thomas
- Quicker than DeSean Jackson
- Faster than Devin Hester
- Jumps higher than Julio Jones@PennStateFball pic.twitter.com/usgR6vJvOn
Also, Bo Jackson, Auburn, 1986: Bo’s hand-timed 4.12 has been debated for decades. One detail in his favor: modern Combine dashes aren’t entirely electronic, either.
The 40-yard sprints at the combine have had semi-electronic timing since 1999. It's not true electronic timing because while the clock is stopped electronically at the finish line, it's started by hand on the first movement by the runner. That's because the combine participants aren't reacting to a starter's gun. Instead, they begin running when they are ready.
The assumption has been that Jackson's 4.12 was a hand-timed 40. The International Association of Athletics Federations says to add 0.24 seconds to hand-timed races to convert to the probable electronic timing. So do we assign Jackson a 4.36-second time and declare Johnson the combine 40 champ? It's not that simple, because Johnson's 4.24 isn't a true electronic time either - the clock was started by hand.
- John Ross, Washington, 2017: Football’s fastest runner since laser timing, with a 4.22. He somehow did it while hurting himself.
- Chris Conley, Georgia, 2015: Despite being a big WR at 6’2, 213, he dropped a 4.35-second 40, tied the all-positions vert record (1.5 inches ahead of the next WR), and would’ve done the same in the broad, if not for UConn DB Byron Jones entering orbit.
- Darrius Heyward-Bey, Maryland, 2009: At 6’2, 210 pounds, he’s the biggest player to ever officially crack 4.3.
Also: Julio Jones (with a broken foot!), DK Metcalf, Henry Ruggs III, Stephen Hill, Tavon Austin, Dri Archer, Marquise Goodwin, Trindon Holliday, Chase Claypool, Eastern Kentucky’s Rondel Menendez (the other guy who ran a semi-electronically timed 4.24, with an unofficial time of 4.19 in unapproved shoes), and tons of other WRs. Oh, and Calvin Johnson didn’t actually run a 4.35 in somebody else’s shoes. Other way around. He did, however, run a 4.35 at 239 pounds in his only drill.
- Vernon Davis, Maryland, 2006: The easiest pick, other than the 40 and bench record-holders. Among all players weighing 250+, his 4.38 is the fastest ever, and his 42-inch vert is tied for #1. He’s also #4 all-time among TEs in the bench, with 33 reps.
- Matt Jones, Arkansas, 2005: Ah yes, we could put him here instead of QB.
- Mitch Petrus, Arkansas, 2010: Holds the bench record among OL since at least 2000: 45 reps. Not common behavior for former walk-on fullbacks.
- Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 2013: Holds the fastest-ever 40 time by a player weighing 305+: 4.71. Also, add all of 2013’s tight ends and linebackers to that year’s offensive line class. In a group of athletes weighing between 223 and 339 pounds, Armstead ranked #9 in the bench, #10 in the vert, and #15 in the 40.
- Tristan Wirfs, Iowa, 2020: Among all OL ever, #1 in the vert and tied for #1 in the broad, plus the fastest-ever 40 by any player weighing 320+ (4.85). His 36.5-inch vertical is better than those of far smaller humans like A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, and Amari Cooper.
- Bruce Campbell, Maryland, 2010: Ran a 4.85 at 6’6, 314 and benched 34 reps.
- Lydon Murtha, Nebraska, 2009: #1 among all OL since 2006 in the three-cone by 0.15 seconds, or more than the distance between #2 and #15. Also ran in the 4.8s at 306 pounds and has a top-five ranking in both the vert and shuttle, with a respectable 25 bench reps.
Note: Tony Mandarich had a legendary 1989 workout that included a 4.65-second 40, but that was at Michigan State’s pro day.
- Justin Ernest, Eastern Kentucky, 1999: The Combine’s all-time bench record: 51 reps.
- Dontari Poe, Memphis, 2012: At 346 pounds, Poe ran an official 4.98, perhaps the most farfetched number in Combine history, the fastest ever by anybody 325+. He also hoisted 44 bench reps, #6 all-time. And among the Combine’s 38 all-time 345-pounders, Poe ranks #1 in the shuttle, #2 in the broad, and #4 in both the vert and three-cone.
The physics catastrophe Poe’s unofficial time loosed on the universe:
Fun with Numbers: RGIII's 4.41 40 is proportionate to a 346-lb man running it in 6.84 secs. And Poe (at 346 lbs) just did it in 4.87 secs.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) February 27, 2012
- Myles Garrett, Texas A&M, 2017: At 274 pounds, he was only beat in the 40 (4.64) by three true linebackers in his class, let alone linemen. His size-speed combo compare well to the 2016 workout by Oklahoma 271-pounder Charles Tapper, but Garrett landed 10 more bench reps, seven more vert inches (#3 since 2006 among DL), and nine more broad inches (#4).
- Mekhi Becton, Louisville, 2020: The fifth-biggest Combine attendee since 2000, he ran a 5.1 40. At 364 pounds. That’s the résumé.
Also! Mike Mamula, Boston College, 1995: Mamula’s numbers remain impressive on their own, but you can’t have an All-Combine Team without the guy who helped establish it as an event worth training for.
‘At the time, nobody knew what the hell Jerry was doing because everybody else was more focused on football drills,’ Mamula said. ‘But I went into the combine having done every test hundreds of times while some other guys had never done some of the specific drills.’
That worked out well as Mamula, who was viewed as undersized and about a third-round pick before the combine, vaulted himself into a top-10 overall pick. His 40-yard time [4.58] was faster than some linebackers and he benched 225 pounds as many times  as some offensive linemen.
And he scored a 49 of 50 on the Wonderlic, fwiw.
Also also! Aaron Donald, Jadeveon Clowney, JJ Watt, Montez Sweat, Nick Perry, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Margus Hunt, Vita Vea, and a ton of others. DL is one of the hardest groups to pick.
- Shaquem Griffin, UCF, 2018: The fastest-ever 40 by any linebacker (4.38), plus a Combine moment that will never be topped: when he hammered out more bench press reps per hand than any attendee ever.
- Isaiah Simmons, Clemson, 2020: The all-time #1 40 by any LB bigger than Griffin, and per the NFL, “the first player since at least 2003 to record a 38-plus-inch vertical jump, broad jump of 11 feet or more and a sub-4.4 40-yard dash while weighing 230-plus pounds.”
- Bruce Irvin, West Virginia, 2012: Might’ve had the workout that most approaches Vernon Davis’ in the 250-ish Pounder Club. Irvin ran a 4.41 40, and while he wasn’t as explosive as Davis, Irvin also has the #3 all-time three-cone and #8 shuttle among players 245+ pounds.
- Vic Beasley, Clemson, 2015: Pulled off an absurd sweep, ranking top-five among his year’s position group in all six drills (Watt’s workout is considered epic for nearly doing this), with his bench total #4 among all LBs ever. Von Miller had a similar workout.
- Byron Jones, UConn, 2015: He didn’t just set a football record. As far as anyone knows, he pulled off the best standing broad jump in human history: 12’2.75. From NFL.com at the time:
Norwegian Arne Tvervaag is believed to have held the world record of 12-2 set on Nov. 11, 1968. The standing long jump hasn't been an Olympic event since 1912, so records are spotty. American Ray Ewry, who won gold medals in the event in the 1900, 1904, and 1908 Olympic Games, had held the world record (11-4 1/2, 1904) before Tvervaag established a new mark in '68.
- Gerald Sensabaugh, North Carolina, 2005: His Combine-record 46-inch vert can only be topped by Harlem Globetrotters and international myths.
- Fabian Washington, Nebraska, 2005: Among the eight DBs since 2000 to run 4.29 or faster, Washington ranks #1 in the vert, plus #2 in the shuttle and #3 in the bench and broad.
- Taylor Mays, USC, 2010: 4.31 is the fastest 40 by anybody of 220+ pounds, and Mays did it at 230. And his 24 bench reps are tied for #2 among all safeties.
- Deion Sanders, Florida State, 1989: His workout was so legendary, people will believe anything about it to this day. The real story, via Sports Illustrated:
There was talk pre-combine that Sanders wouldn’t run the 40 at all; he later said he would take his medicals, run his 40, and go home.
‘Deion gets up to the line and runs his first 40 and everyone has him at 4.3. We figured he was done. He gets up and runs another one, and he runs even faster,’ said [Panthers GM Dave] Gettleman, then a scout for the Bills. ‘Some people had him at 4.25 [officially a 4.27]. And the funniest damn thing about it was he finishes the 40, continues to run, waves to everybody, goes right through the tunnel and we don’t see him again. We all got up and gave him a standing ovation because so many of those guys wouldn’t run.’
Most punters, kickers, and long snappers don’t do a bunch of drills. A few do. A few post eye-catching numbers. And a handful probably could’ve played just about any position besides cornerback or lineman.
Let’s spotlight one:
- Pat O’Donnell, Miami, 2014: Oh, just a punter running a 4.64 (faster than Heisman scrambler Johnny Manziel that year) and benching 23 reps (two more than 255-pound #1 pick Clowney did). His specialist-record broad jump was 120 inches, the same as Watt, DeSean Jackson, and Asante Samuel in their years. All at 6’4, 220!