The 2019 NFL Combine is set to begin this week and lasting into Monday. Every year, there’s at least a handful of prospects who wow scouts, media, and fans with their performances. A guy who runs a sub 4.4 40, a dude who jumps out of the gym, a big ugly up front who runs faster than some of the linebackers.
But there can be as much caution as there is excitement for those players. Those “workout warriors” who excel in a controlled environment and given ample time to train. The idea of such a warrior comes from former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mike Mamula, who blew up the Combine in 1995. He trained specifically for the drills he would be put through, bucking conventional wisdom of players focusing on the football aspect of the workout.
That made his numbers look incredible. Standing in at 6’4, 248 pounds, he ran a 4.58 40, jumped 38 inches in the vert, 10’5″ in the broad, and put up 26 reps on the bench. Numbers that would be impressive even by today’s standards. It vaulted him from a mid-round pick to the 7th overall selection. Though his career wasn’t terrible, finishing with 31.5 career sacks over 64 starts, it was a short-lived one that fell below expectations. Hence, the worry over the workout warrior.
Pittsburgh is no exception to drafting the guy with the high SPARQ score. As a reminder, really, a caution, here are some of their workout warriors. Our criteria are players who were drafted relatively high, fourth round or above, whose NFL career didn’t pan out like the team hoped. Players who matched expectations aren’t included on this list. I’m also leaving off players still in their Steelers’ career. Sorry, the anti-Bud Dupree fan club. Let’s talk in a year.
7. Fred Gibson/WR Georgia – 4th Round, 2005 Draft
In terms of NFL success and longevity, Gibson is one of Kevin Colbert’s worst picks. If he was a 7th round dart throw, it would’ve been worth it. But Gibson was a 4th round pick, relatively decent draft capital, that the Steelers got absolutely zero return on investment for.
They’ve always been enthralled with the height/weight/speed receiver. Unfortunately, Gibson wasn’t the second coming of Plaxico Burress. Standing in at 6’4 and nearly 200 pounds, he had a strong pre-draft workout. His 40 time is something of an obscure debate; some sites have him running as fast as 4.55 at the Combine, some as slow as 4.62, but he reportedly turned in a 4.46 at his UGA Pro Day. He showed off hops, his basketball background was evident, and explosiveness at Indy with a 38 inch vert and 10’6″ broad. His three cone nearly dipped below seven seconds.
So the Steelers took a chance on him mid-way through the draft.
“This guy has a big upside,” Bruce Arians, then the wide receivers coach, said at the time. “He has height, jumping ability and the speed to go long.”
They were quickly disappointed. Gibson didn’t make it out of the preseason turned down a chance to remain on the Steelers’ practice squad and opted to go to Miami’s to begin the ’05 season. He never appeared in a regular season game, failing to even make a 53 man roster, bouncing around between the Falcons, Rams, and Giants for the next couple of years.
His greatest success as a professional athlete came in the NBA’s D-League, playing for Albuquerque, though that didn’t last long. According to this 2015 profile, he found work as a merchandiser for Coca-Cola.
6. Shamarko Thomas/SS Syracuse – 4th Round, 2013 NFL Draft
Combine Thomas in the workout warrior category with “Mike Tomlin’s weird Virginia Beach frandom” mistakes, too. Thomas had a legitimately good career for the Orange, he was most definitely a missile, and he crushed the Combine. 4.42 in the 40. 40.5 inch vertical. 11’1″ in the broad and 28 reps on the bar.
Not only did the Steelers take Thomas in the 4th, they traded up to get him. Which made his lackluster NFL career all the more disappointing. Thomas was given every chance to be the Steelers’ starter and heir to Troy Polamalu’s throne, so much so that Polamalu invited Thomas to train with him, but nothing ever clicked. Thomas struggled with the mental side of the game, making too many mistakes in coverage, too many penalties on special teams, and failing to earn the coaching staff’s trust. He made just two starts in four years as a Steeler.
He’s bounced around since, picked up by Buffalo and Denver and seeing some minor special teams success there. But for Pittsburgh, that doesn’t do them much good and certainly wasn’t what they envisioned after turning the card in for him.
5. Steve Conley/LB Arkansas – 3rd Round, 1996 Draft
Conley is a guy you might not remember. Certainly someone I wasn’t familiar with before writing this article. Finding Combine numbers for players pre-2000 are tough to do but according to NFL Combine Results, a historical database with workout info dating back to 1987, Conley had a strong showing.
Weighing in at 6’4 231, he ran a 4.55 40, jumped 38 inches in the vertical, 11’1″ in the broad, while putting up 21 reps on the bench press. That helped make him the 72nd pick of the ’96 draft, the selection Pittsburgh got in addition to acquiring Jerome Bettis from the Los Angeles Rams.
Such a moment turned out to be the highlight of Conley’s football career. He lasted just two seasons with the team, never starting a game, and recorded just four career sacks.
Pittsburgh traded him at the end of the 1998 preseason to the Indianapolis Colts for a mid-round pick. At the time of the trade, Ed Bouchette recapped Conley’s brief, unremarkable career.
“He began last season as the right rush end in their dime defense, but eventually lost that job to Mike Vrabel. Training camp ended with him losing his grip on the starting job and being relegated to a backup both at linebacker and at end in the passing defense.”
Had it not been for Mamula a year earlier, Conley might have ended up the poster child for the “workout warrior.”
Today, Conley appears to own Conley Fitness in Arkansas, where he played his college ball.
4. Willie Reid/WR Florida State – 3rd Round, 2006 Draft
Willie Reid. There’s a name I’d love to forget. Pittsburgh probably feels the same. Reid was billed as an explosive receiver and returner with the Seminoles.
At the Combine, he turned in a blistering 4.37 40, jumped 37.5 inches while performing well in the short shuttle and three cone.
His career, like all the others on this list, never translated. Reid did little as a returner and even less as a receiver. Spending just two years in Pittsburgh, he caught only four passes and returning seven kicks. He never appeared in another game after getting cut by the Steelers after 2008.
3. Ziggy Hood/DE Missouri – 1st Round, 2009 Draft
When we think of workout warriors, we normally think of the skill guys. But the big guys up front can fit that bill, too. Hood sure did.
At 300 pounds on the nose, he ran a sub 5.00 40 yard dash at the Combine. He jumped 34.5 inches and bench pressed 36 times at his Pro Day, besting his Indy numbers. He was a weird fit for Steelers, cast into the 3-4 role that in hindsight, never worked for him, but if you’re wondering what attracted Pittsburgh to him, it was probably at least in part due to that workout.
Hood wasn’t awful, that’s why he doesn’t crack the top two, but definitely didn’t mesh with the 1st round picks who near him in the team history books. Over five years with the black and gold, Hood made 46 starts, recording just 11.5 sacks. He last spent time with Miami, who signed him in late-October of this past year.
2. Ricardo Colclough/CB Tusculm – 2nd Round, 2004 Draft
I know this isn’t 1971. I’m sure the front office had plenty of Tusculm tape to comb through. But it feels like they took Colcough on the hope and prayer his athleticism would trump all. And that, clearly, didn’t happen.
Colclough turned in a 4.49 40 at his workout, jumping 39.5 inches in the vert, and 10’7″ in the broad. His NFL career went the complete opposite of Ben Roethlisberger, their pick before him. In four years as a Steeler, he never started a game, and picked off just one pass (click here if you really want to check it out).
Pittsburgh finally cut ties with him in mid-2007. He got a cup of coffee with the Kansas City Chiefs, according to Pro Football Reference, inexplicably making one start in 2008 against the New Orleans Saints, before his NFL career ended.
Since then, the Steelers have never taken a non-Power 5 player in the first two rounds and generally, take small school players less frequently than most other teams. Colclough left that sour of a taste in their mouth.
1. Dri Archer/RB? Kent State – 3rd Round, 2014 Draft
Dri Archer. Dri freakin’ Archer.
I chose Archer for the top spot because of how poor the Steelers’ process was here. Did they ever create a plan to use him? Was he a running back, receiver, returner?
Who cares? He’s fast. That seemed to be the front office’s thought process.
He turned in one of the quickest 40 times ever, a 4.26 40 coupled with a 38 inch vert, 10’2″ broad, 6.86 three-cone, and – despite being only 173 pounds – 20 reps on the bench press. Hard to have a better showing than that.
But Pittsburgh never knew what to do with him. Where to play him, how to get him the ball without setting alarm bells off for defenses. And you knew it right away. In training camp, when it came for the real running backs to pass protect, Archer would be shuttled to the receiver drills instead. Except he wasn’t a receiver.
And as a returner, his slight frame was chewed up and swallowed out by linebackers and safeties. In 23 kick returns, he never had a runback longer than 38 yards and on offense, no play that went for more than 15. The only real positive memory is a long catch and run he had in his first preseason game against the New York Giants. That was it.
His fate was sealed in the 2014 Wildcard loss to Baltimore. Archer played third string behind Josh Harris and Ben Tate. His lone carry infamously going for a one-yard loss.
Pittsburgh waived him that November. He spent a few months with the Jets and when the Buffalo Bills attempted to sign him after that, Archer didn’t report.