NFL Scouting Combine: The Phenomenon of the Workout Warrior

John Ross III at NFL Scouting Combine

The NFL’s annual Scouting Combine is officially underway in Indianapolis, Indiana.

So far, we have a solid understanding of the top incoming rookies … or do we? Every year, under-the-radar players show up to the Combine and stun everyone by testing off the charts. As a result, the stocks of these prospects, who are often not projected to be a Day 1 pick, suddenly rise at a meteoric rate. 

We call this type of player the Workout Warrior. Sometimes, the Workout Warrior will indeed become a significant contributor in the NFL. Most other times, they will fail.


As we commence Combine Weekend 2024, here are four examples of Workout Warriors and their ultimate fates in the NFL.

Mike Mamula

A defensive end hailing from upstate New York, Mamula played four years of football at Boston College, delivering mostly decent results. After his final season at Boston College, however, he set himself on the path to becoming the first instance of the Workout Warrior.


Mamula had spent months training for virtually every drill he knew he’d have to undertake in the Combine. This was not something very many players did in those days. Once he arrived at the combine, Mamula stunned most present by testing extremely well in almost every single drill. His 4.58-second 40-yard dash was deemed incredibly fast for his position and remains a time some defensive players cannot reach even now. He also put in the second-highest Wonderlic score ever recorded.

The incredible outing at the Combine shot Mamula far enough up the boards that the Eagles engaged in a Draft Day 1995 trade to acquire his rights. However, once he suited up in green, the results did not match what was expected of Mamula. In only five seasons, Mamula recorded 31.5 sacks and was ultimately forced into retirement just before the turn of the millennium. 

Mamula’s story is but one of many cautionary tales from the Combine.

Chris Johnson and John Ross

These two players will forever be intertwined in Combine lore for their historic 40-yard dash times. But how did they ultimately fare as players?


Johnson was widely projected as a second- or third-round pick in the 2008 draft coming out of East Carolina. He would arrive at the 2008 Combine and stun the world by turning in a 4.24 in the 40-yard dash. Johnson, whose Combine showing helped him get drafted 24th overall by the Tennessee Titans, would ultimately turn in a solid career, made most famous by his 2,000-yard rushing effort in 2009. However, late-career injuries and a decline ultimately led him to retirement.

Ross was expected to be a Day 1 selection even before the Combine in 2017. Like Johnson before him, Ross would stun the world by turning in a record-breaking 40-yard dash time, finishing just .02 seconds faster than Johnson. This performance shot Ross into the top 10 of the 2017 draft, and he was taken by the Cincinnati Bengals with the ninth overall pick. (It should be noted that Patrick Mahomes was chosen with the very next selection).

Ross’s career, by comparison, has been much more lackluster than Johnson’s. Plagued by injuries, Ross has not seen the field in any meaningful way since 2021 and has not completed one full season’s worth of games.

Tony Mandarich

Before Mike Mamula, there was Tony Mandarich. Mandarich turned in an eye-popping Combine performance in 1989; this included 39 reps of the bench press and another astonishingly fast 40-yard dash time. His testing hooked the Packers, who took him second overall.

It is safe to say that Mandarich turned in a less-than-stellar career. He only managed six lackluster seasons on the field, splitting time with the Packers and Colts. He ultimately left the NFL in 1998. Mandarich was sandwiched between a run of top-five picks who all became Hall of Famers. Mandarich eventually admitted to having used steroids in college.

What can we learn from these Workout Warriors at the Scouting Combine?

There are sayings as old as time itself: “Be careful what you wish for” and “Appearances can be deceiving.” Workout stats are valuable but can never really be a true indicator of what you may expect from a college prospect once he hits the NFL field.

There will certainly be “Workout Warriors” once again this year. We will have to wait and see whether their performances translate into improved draft stocks and meaningful NFL careers.

Main Image Credit:

Embed from Getty Images


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