The NFL Scouting Combine ranks as the marquee pre-draft event on the calendar of every scout and personnel man in the league. Evaluators anxiously await the performances of top prospects to see if their physical dimensions, athleticism and football character match the talent displayed on tape. Although the workouts and interviews comprise just about 30 percent of the final draft grade, combine performances leave a lasting impression on the minds of decision-makers when it comes to putting the finishing touches on their draft boards.
Given the significance of those mental snapshots, the event carries more weight in the overall draft process than most will admit. That's why I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the best and worst combine performances over the past five years, to see how the combine impacted the draft fortunes of some of the top players in college football.
Now, I will be the first to admit that a workout in T-shirt and shorts doesn't accurately represent a player's true potential on the gridiron. Still, several players have used strong workouts to spark successful NFL careers. With that in mind, here are the freaks and flops of the past five combines:
FREAK: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia. The diminutive playmaker blew up the combine with his spectacular performance on the turf. Austin clocked a blistering 4.34-second 40-yard dash and tied for second in his position group with a 4.01-second 20-yard shuttle. Additionally, Austin showed extraordinary balance, body control and burst while running routes and snagging balls in positional drills. Most teams generally will refuse to take a slot receiver in the early stages of the draft, but Austin's sensational performance in Indianapolis helped convince the St. Louis Rams to spend a top-10 pick on the talented playmaker from West Virginia. Although his rookie campaign didn't produce the kinds of numbers some expected, Austin certainly flashed dynamic ability, most notably in a three-touchdown performance against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 10.
FLOP: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M. The Texas A&M star dominated the SEC with his first-step quickness and pass-rush skills, but a lackluster performance at Lucas Oil Stadium torpedoed his chances of coming off the board in Round 1. Moore ran a pedestrian time in the 40 (4.95 seconds) and mustered just 12 reps on the bench press. Those numbers certainly were disappointing for a defender of his caliber, leading to concerns about his work ethic and focus. With Moore also exhibiting immaturity in meetings with NFL personnel, one of college football's top defenders embarked on a dramatic slide down the charts. Taken in the third round by the New York Giants, Moore didn't have much of a defensive impact as a rookie, though he did make some plays on special teams.
FREAK: Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis. Whenever a 6-foot-4, 346-pound defensive tackle shows nimble feet and exceptional body control, scouts immediately take notice. But the buzz grows to a deafening level when said defensive tackle also shows phenomenal strength and power in the weight room. Poe excelled in every aspect at the 2012 combine, with a remarkable 40-yard dash (4.98) and a group-leading 44 reps on the bench press. Additionally, Poe blistered the turf while running through bag drills and position-specific work in front of scouts. Although Poe's critics derided the Kansas City Chiefs' brass for taking him at No. 11 overall based on the strong workout, the defensive tackle emerged as one of the top NFL players at his position this past season, making the Pro Bowl and proving his combination of skills certainly wasn't maximized at Memphis.
FLOP: Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State. Even before his trip to Indy, Burfict's draft stock was in free fall due to concerns about his explosive personality, undisciplined game and hefty body build. Those issues were magnified when Burfict flopped at the combine, posting pedestrian numbers in the 40-yard dash (5.09), vertical jump (30 inches) and broad jump (8-foot-8). Factor in his poor interviews with NFL personnel, and it's easy to see why Burfict didn't hear his name called on draft weekend. However, it should be noted that Burfict was regarded as a top talent heading into his final season at Arizona State. And, of course, he has played to that standard in two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals as an unlikely starter for one of the NFL's top defenses, leading the league with 171 tackles last year. That's why combine performances should be kept in perspective when making final judgments on a player in the pre-draft process.
FREAK: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin. Watt wasn't the biggest name prior to the combine, but his remarkable performance on the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium sent his stock soaring in meeting rooms across the league. Watt was among the top performers at his position in the bench press (34 reps), vertical jump (37 inches), broad jump (10 feet), three-cone drill (6.88 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.21). Additionally, he displayed exceptional balance, body control and burst while running through the positional workout. With Watt's athleticism exceeding most scouts' expectations following their initial film study, the Wisconsin star quickly climbed up the charts to enter the conversation as a possible top-10 selection. He ended up going 11th overall to the Houston Texans, and has since earned the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award and a pair of All-Pro nods.
FLOP: Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama. The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner entered the combine regarded as an elite talent at the position, but his disappointing workout suggested he lacked the burst and explosiveness to terrorize NFL defenses as a feature back. Ingram clocked an underwhelming time of 4.62 seconds in the 40 while also posting disappointing numbers in the vertical jump (31.5 inches) and broad jump (9-10). With slow times in the three-cone drill (7.13 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.62), his questionable change-of-direction quickness became a valid concern in the minds of evaluators watching the performance. The New Orleans Saints took Ingram with the 28th overall pick in April, making him the first running back off the board -- but Ingram has since failed to live up to expectations at the pro level.
FREAK: Earl Thomas, S, Texas. Questions about Thomas' size and agility threatened to knock him out of the first round -- until an impressive showing at the combine put those concerns to bed. Thomas checked in at 5-10, 208 pounds and displayed outstanding fluidity in positional drills. His natural transitions and turns showed his potential in man coverage, while his speed and quickness alleviated concerns about his range in the deep middle. With Thomas also showcasing his exceptionally high football IQ in interviews and chalk-talk sessions, it was no surprise to see him go 14th overall to the Seattle Seahawks. He has since emerged as one of the NFL's best safeties and the centerpiece of the "Legion of Boom."
FLOP: Joe Haden, CB, Florida. Based on his spectacular play on tape, the Florida star was expected to shine at the combine. But a disappointing showing in Indianapolis nearly sent his name spiraling down draft boards across the league. Haden clocked 40 times in the high-4.5 range while also posting a horrific 60-yard shuttle (11.12 seconds). Those numbers are less than ideal for an elite cornerback, particularly one who measures just 5-11 and 193 pounds. Fortunately, Haden made amends for his poor showing a few weeks later at his pro day and eventually went seventh overall to the Cleveland Browns. He has since established himself as one of the best young cornerbacks in the league, having just made his first Pro Bowl.
FREAK: Jared Cook, TE, South Carolina. Cook didn't post significant production during his time with the Gamecocks, but scouts were smitten with his talent and athleticism following his strong showing in Indy. Checking in at 6-5 and 246 pounds, Cook clocked a stellar 4.50 40, with a 41-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump. Throw in his nearly flawless performance in positional drills, and Cook convinced evaluators that he had the athleticism to become a dynamic pass-catcher at the next level. Taken in the third round by the Tennessee Titans, Cook has since moved on to the St. Louis Rams. This past season, he set career highs in catches (51) and touchdowns (five).
FLOP: Andre Smith, OT, Alabama. After entering the combine viewed as the top offensive tackle in the class, Smith's stock nearly plummeted with his uninspired official weigh-in. Smith measured in at 6-4, 332 pounds, showing a sloppy body build that led to serious concerns about his work ethic, focus and preparedness for the pro game. Those reservations were heightened when he inexplicably left Indianapolis early after failing to impress team personnel in formal interviews. Given his highly impressive play at Alabama, Smith still wound up going sixth overall to Cincinnati, where he has logged 45 starts at right tackle over the past three seasons.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.