The NFL Scouting Combine is a place where stars can be made. Each year, 300 of college football’s top draft-eligible prospects descend on Indianapolis in a week-long effort to prove their worth to executives and coaches across the league.
But an array of football-adjacent drills and too-serious job interviews don’t always capture a player’s future potential. For some, a bad set of drills can be the tipping point that temporarily derails their NFL hopes. For others, it’s the jumping-off point for outstanding careers, some of which end in the Hall of Fame.
Then there are those who set the bar of expectations too high with a strong 40 time or record-setting vertical leap. These are the players who inflate a few minutes of work in March into the monolith that overshadows their entire NFL careers. That doesn’t mean they weren’t still useful players — it just means they weren’t able to follow up on the promise delivered at the combine.
Here are six players who boosted their draft stock to unsustainable heights, then landed somewhere between “bust” and “star” over the course of careers best remembered for their workout prowess.
Mike Mamula, DE, Philadelphia Eagles (No. 7 pick of the 1995 draft)
Mamula’s incredible combine performance has turned into the example of what the mastery of the event’s basic drills can do for a prospect. The undersized pass rusher slayed his workouts in Indianapolis, going from a likely second- or third-round pick all the way up to the seventh selection in 1995 after lighting up the combine with one extremely obvious strategy: getting really good at all the drills.
“I went into the combine having done every test hundreds of times,” Mamula told ESPN in 2008. “Some other guys had never done some of the specific drills.”
Mamula had a decent NFL career for a third-round pick, recording 31.5 sacks in five seasons with the Eagles. This, however, was not what Philadelphia signed up for after trading the No. 12 pick and two second-rounders for the opportunity to select the Boston College star. If the Eagles had stood pat at No. 12, they could have selected Warren Sapp, who wound up snapped up by the Buccaneers at the spot Philly vacated.
Matt Jones, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 21 pick of the 2005 draft)
Jones’ impressive combine convinced Jacksonville the former Arkansas quarterback had Pro Bowl potential. The 6’6 signal caller ran a 4.37-second 40 to establish himself as a potential red zone threat, even if he’d only caught four passes in his college career.
The Jaguars were kinda right! Jones was a useful target who caught 166 passes and 15 touchdowns, starting 15 games for a team that made two postseason appearances over the course of four years. He could have done even more if not for the substance abuse suspension and arrests that ended his tenure in Jacksonville. He’d miss the Bengals’ 53-man roster in 2010 and retire rather than try out with Washington a couple months later.
Jones was fine, but if the Jags needed a receiver they could have picked Roddy White. The four-time Pro Bowler went to the Falcons six picks later.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Oakland Raiders (No. 7 pick of the 2009 draft)
Heyward-Bey’s best season at Maryland saw him catch 51 passes for 786 yards — not exactly No. 1 WR numbers. So why did the Raiders spend a top-10 pick on a player who failed to consistently produce in three seasons as a Terrapin? Because Al Davis has never loved anything more than speed, and Heyward-Bey was 2009’s fastest man.
The 6’2, 210-pound wideout remains the largest prospect to ever run 4.3 seconds or less in the 40, and that’s all it took for Davis to overlook concerns about his hands and route tree. He went from middling wideout prospect to the seventh pick — then caught only 35 passes in his first two seasons as a pro.
Business picked up in years three and four with 1,581 receiving yards and a healthy 15.1 yards per catch, but that would be the high-water mark of Heyward-Bey’s career. He’s managed to stick around as a useful (if little-used) deep threat and pad his NFL run out to a full decade.
Davis’ insatiable thirst for speed prevented Oakland from drafting fellow wideouts Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin, either of whom would have made a more threatening target than Heyward-Bey.
Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, Cleveland Browns (No. 6 pick of the 2013 draft)
Mingo was a first-team all-name selection throughout his collegiate career, but an underwhelming junior season threatened to tank his draft stock. Any questions about his potential were answered with a stellar showing in Indianapolis, where he ranked among the top two defensive linemen in 40 time, vertical jump, and the three-cone drill.
He would be drafted as part of a shaman’s curse in Cleveland, where he started 16 games … in three seasons. His status as a failed high-profile draft pick pushed the Patriots into trading a fifth-round pick for his services in 2016. He won a Super Bowl ring as part of the greatest comeback in NFL history — though he only made four regular season tackles and was relegated mostly to special teams duty.
That was enough rehabilitation to convince other teams to roll the dice on the athletic linebacker. He made a handful of starts for the Colts in 2017 before sliding into a full-time role with the playoff-bound Seahawks in 2018. Mingo’s been a perfectly fine replacement-level player who can play a role on good teams — but that’s not what the Browns had in mind when they made him the No. 6 pick in 2013.
So who could Cleveland have drafted instead? 2013 turned out to be a pretty underwhelming draft — see the following two entries on this list — but Sheldon Richardson would have added a little extra pass-rushing punch for the Browns, albeit at a different position.
Tavon Austin, WR/RB/KR/whatever, St. Louis Rams (No. 8 pick of the 2013 draft)
If Austin were a Day 3 pick, he’d be an overlooked Swiss Army Knife capable of filling gaps as a runner, receiver, and returner — a lower-cost Cordarrelle Patterson. Instead, his electric combine showing helped push him into the top 10 of the 2013 draft and create the great expectations he’s failed to fill throughout a six-year career. Austin lit up the speed events in Indianapolis, running a 4.34-second 40 and recording 2013’s second-best 20-yard shuttle time to tantalize scouts in need of a dynamic offensive threat.
The former West Virginia star has 202 career receptions and 190 carries as a jet-sweeping, gadget-play burner, averaging a solid eight yards per touch in that span. He’s also been a dynamic special teams contributor, leading the league in returns in 2016, returning three punts for touchdowns in his first three seasons as a pro, and generally giving opposing kickers something to think about before booting the ball downfield. That was all Jeff Fisher needed to offer him a four-year, $42 million contract extension that didn’t make much sense in 2016 and looked downright silly after he finished 2017 with 13 receptions.
The problem is no team has figured out how to make him an every-down player. He’s not a running back and he isn’t a consistent enough route runner to be a legit receiving threat. A depleted Dallas receiving corps traded for him in hopes of unlocking his potential (and giving Dak Prescott someone to throw to), but Austin still managed only eight receptions in seven games. Austin’s high draft status means he’s made more than $185,000 per catch as a pro — a rate that would have made Julio Jones $20.9 million last fall. He won’t get nearly as favorable a deal as a free agent this spring.
If the Rams were willing to make a bit of a reach, they could have had DeAndre Hopkins — drafted 27th in 2013 — instead.
Margus Hunt, DL, Cincinnati Bengals (No. 53 pick of the 2013 draft)
The Estonian shot putter was one of 2013’s rawest prospects. He originally came to America to train with SMU’s track and field team, but when the university scrapped its program he found a way to stay in Dallas by taking his talents to the gridiron. He developed into an All-Conference USA talent, but his limited resume and advanced age (25 years old on draft day) didn’t exactly scream “Day 2 pick” to interested teams.
His absurd combine measurables — a 4.6-second 40 time at 6’8 and 277 pounds, 38 reps on the bench press — did. That convinced the Bengals to snap him up in the second round. For their investment, the club recouped zero starts and 1.5 sacks over four seasons on what looked like a wasted pick.
But Hunt wasn’t just taking up space in Cincinnati; he was learning a game he didn’t pick up until he was 22 years old. The big European moved 90 minutes west to Indianapolis as a low-risk signing for general manager Chris Ballard and slowly developed into a starter after moving from defensive end to nose tackle. In 2018 he recorded 30 tackles and five sacks — more than he had in his four seasons as a Bengal combined.
Hunt’s selection in the second round wasn’t as big a risk as the other players on this list, but other defensive linemen still on the board when he was selected included Bennie Logan, Brandon Williams, and Alex Okafor.