There's an awful lot to assess before drafting a new star for your team - while all eyes are on Indianapolis for the combine, Nick Dunkeyson looks at the off the field issues that may knock a player's draft stock
It’s NFL combine season, and that means every franchise is picking over this year’s draft class in fine detail. Combine season’s always a little weird and creepy. It doesn’t take a sociology degree to feel uncomfortable about (mostly) middle-aged white men poring over the athletic traits of young black men. Can he jump higher? Can he run faster? Can he change direction?
Still, we’re not quite at Senior Bowl levels of weird, where player weigh-ins are conducted much like they are prior to a boxing match. And are met with reactions in kind. I think some members of media/NFL cognoscenti are still swooning over the image of Villanova DE Tanoh Kpassagnon all stripped down. American football can seem a little strange, sometimes.
Meet The Problem Players
Of course, the combine isn’t all about barely-disguised lust over human Greek statues. Teams wondering about the character of a given player also get to conduct interviews. We as fans get to wonderif anyone will emulate Jeff Ireland, memorably enquiring of Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute. Last year, Atlanta Falcons defensive backs coach Marquand Manuel put up a stout challenge to Ireland when he asked Eli Apple if he was gay. For what it’s worth, Manuel and his boss Dan Quinn apologised (as did Ireland in 2010).
One thing teams are looking for in interviews are signs of the fabled “off-field issues” that have and will derail many a budding career. Off-field issues could mean that a player will never even get chance to take the field, they’ll be a disappointment when they do, or merely that they’re a poor fit for a certain team. Well-built teams across all sports, all over the world will seek players who fit a general ethic, who will be working in an environment that helps them thrive. Heck, all workplaces will look for workers like that. When you get that right, you get the Seattle Seahawks circa 2013-14, or the New England Patriots circa, well, any year. When you get it wrong, you get the Miami Dolphins Offensive Line, 2013 vintage.
One Character To Another, In The Doghouse: So How Did You End Up Here
At its heart, “off-field issues” is a euphemism. The most egregious example of it you’ll hear this year will probably refer to Joe Mixon. Mixon, for the uninitiated, is a former Oklahoma running back. In December 2016, an Oklahoma judge ordered the release of a video, from 2014, in which Mixon punched a female student in the face. His victim suffered four fractured bones in her face. Mixon’s not exactly been convincingly repentant. He issued a public apology, but not until two years after the incident and crucially, not until the video had been released publicly (delays he blames on his legal team). And you know, it’s easy to be cynical about his intentions when it’s only now his future career is in jeopardy that all this is happening.
Mixon won’t be at the Combine – the NFL deciding that laying out the red carpet for a woman-beater not representing the best PR for them – but he’s going to loom large over the event. And that’s a decent indicator of what “off-field issues” can mean for a franchise.
So, what are the three things teams will be asking themselves:
1) Is he an unrepentant scumbag who’s going to do horrible things on my team, and by extension, pick up long suspensions?
2) Is it bad PR for my team to draft this guy that might distract us all season?
3) Are important players on the team going to kick off if we draft this guy?
You can solve 1) and maybe some of 2) by talking to the guy (depending on how credulous you are), but 3) will require more introspection.
There are several players who had off the field questions during the draft process that are playing in the NFL – for example the Chiefs picked up Tyreek Hill last season. They drafted him anyway, albeit later than his skillset might have dictated. Sure enough, Hill made fantastic plays through the year, started to express contrition, and here we are. For my part, I’m not certain about giving Hill the benefit of the doubt until he’s started to make public amends for his actions (go tell schoolchildren not to hit women, Tyreek! Donate some of your salary to refuge centres!) Though it did, and does, the Chiefs little to no harm having him on board.
Sure enough, teams can thrive with the help of players who, at best, have a dubious reputation when it comes to treatment of women. Just look at what Tampa Bay are getting out of Jameis Winston and Noah Spence. It’s a neat way of understand how much of American football is driven by morals or ethics, and how much of it is driven by winning.
Want a more common (and less bleak) “off-field issue”? Well, how about a fondness for marijuana? Weed – and drugs in general – aren’t exactly uncommon in the NFL. PED use can be tricky to predict, as it exacerbates once players are up against more physically gifted players, on a regular basis, in the professional game. But recreational drugs? Heck, the signs can be there right from the start.
Randy Gregory would probably have been a high first-round pick without teams getting cold feet. They may have done anyway, but testing positive for marijuana at the Combine (of all places!) doesn’t give off the best impression of professionalism and judgement. Gregory was a late-second round pick by Dallas, and when he’s played, he’s looked okay-ish. The problem is, he’s already sat out for 14 games of suspensions in two seasons, and has another year-long ban starting this season.
But just because it guarantees a draft slide doesn’t mean a player is doomed because of drug-related issues. Tyrann Mathieu didn’t play any college football during 2012, his final season. He was kicked off the team after failing “multiple drug tests”. He also got an arrest for weed possession. So no-one was overly surprised when he slid to the third-round, before Arizona picked him up. Plenty were surprised though when he seemingly turned himself around, becoming a breakout star and earning First-team All Pro honours in 2015, his third season.
How about just generally ‘being a bit unusual’, as an off-field issue? Seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Former Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche slid to the end of the first-round because of his “unconventional personality”. What does that mean? Well, there was an incident where he jumped off a fourth-floor balcony to avoid a weed rap, then threw his mate Laremy Tunsil under the bus trying to explain it. This probably put teams off more than the fact he plays in saxophone in a blues band, or that time he started going on about how much he wanted a pet panther. But if it turned out he’d been knocked off several draft boards because he was a bit eccentric, would anyone be surprised?
As suggested with the “poor fit for a certain team” above, off-field issues aren’t a deal breaker for NFL success. Back in 1991, Atlanta drafted a second-round quarterback out of Southern Mississippi in the 2nd round. The quarterback played sparingly, but living in a party town, drank to excess. As they say, he had “off-field issues”. That offseason, in a good move for all concerned, Atlanta traded him to sleepier Green Bay, and from there, the quarterback went on to have a decent career. You might have heard of him.
Off-Field Issues, 2017 Edition
So, who are the magnets for “off-field issues” to look out for in this year’s draft? Well, I’ve already highlighted Mixon. Chad Kelly, the Ole Miss quarterback, is an interesting one. Kelly’s a gunslinger whose play style alone may alienate some teams. The manner he got dismissed from Clemson may put off more. While the way he fought back from Community College obscurity may win back some fans, those not in love with his personality aren’t going to like, say, his proclivity for sliding into porn stars’ DMs. That said, Kelly’s not necessarily the best test case. As well as his off the field issues, he’s also got a torn ACL which will hurt his draft stock.
But Alabama’s Tim Williams is seemingly injury-free, but has plenty of ‘anonymous scouts’ mumbling about his character and behaviour. Williams is a pass-rushing terror, a first-round talent, but has a couple of notches on the ole rap sheet for firearm and marijuana possession. This is a case that’s as much about the dubious things he might get up to as having dubious friends. General Managers will be asking “why” with hopefully enough nuance to understand if Williams is a bit of a nutter, or if these were just one-off things without wider implications.
These are the two players you’ll hear most about, but Florida cornerback Teez Tabor has his own off the field problems. He has a suspension for fighting with a teammate (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), and, referring the “eccentric” point above, he officially changed his name from “Jalen” to “Teez”. He also refused to take a drug test and offered some platitudinous dismissals of his college’s athletics department in the aftermath. So he might be a bit…shall we say fiery? But hey, he’s a cornerback.
Further down draft boards, Ole Miss WR Damore’ea Stringfellow and Baylor WR Ishmael Zamora won’t be at the combine because, like Joe Mixon, they have criminal convictions.
So…Who’s Good And Who’s Bad?
Like everything else when it comes to scouting college players, “off-field issues” can be a crapshoot. Coaches and GMs will have to rely on their gut instinct when interviewing players, former coaches, former teammates, friends, family members, whatever it takes to judge a player’s character. And they’ll still get it wrong half the time. And then, if you’ve picked the wrong player with ‘off-field issues’ one year, maybe next year you’ll pass on a player with similar red flags. But then they might end up passing over a gem! It’s confusing, and you should feel confused, because human beings are confusing. But if a player you covet has “off-field issues”, think about what they are, and try and work out whether it’s a real problem for you and your team. Whether the problem is significant or minor – only time will tell if your player’s going to make it in the NFL.