NFL draft gurus conflicted on Robert Nkemdiche
Robert Nkemdiche at Ole Miss always has been a prodigy.
Much like Leonard Fournette, Nkemdiche was a premier talent coming out of Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga. — maybe the premier talent of the 2013 recruiting class.
The Rebels signed a quartet of five-star players that year, but Nkemdiche was the one who had Oxford natives and die-hard fans rejoicing in The Square.
Since then, his combination of athletic upside and performance has been just good enough to keep a wire-to-wire narrative in play.
Late in the season, Pro Football Focus ranked him in the top 20 among all college football defensive lineman in 2015. Nkemdiche was a fringe All-America candidate his last two seasons, making some honorable mention lists and accruing some third-team selections.
Add the very good, not quite elite college performance to occasional flash plays and athleticism good enough to merit offensive snaps and Nkemdiche has been a consistent top 10 projection in the 2016 NFL draft.
Then he jumped out of the window of a fourth-floor hotel room in Atlanta. The fall was only estimated at 15 feet — he climbed over a wall first — but it led to a trip to the hospital and an arrest for marijuana possession.
Nkemdiche also was photographed early in his college career with what appeared to be a bong. They’re different individuals, but it’s hard not to associate him with his brother, Denzel Nkemdiche, who reportedly has been found unresponsive and hospitalized twice in recent weeks for unreleased reasons.
Now there’s high drama: At what spot will Nkemdiche get drafted?
So far, ESPN’s draft analysts, probably the most recognizable media members in the industry, both still project him as a high first-round pick.
Todd McShay released his first 2016 mock draft just days after the hotel incident and made waves by projecting Nkemdiche to the San Diego Chargers at No. 3 overall. McShay has been relatively high on Nkemdiche compared to other draft analysts for months. McShay noted Nkemdiche’s size/quickness combination, as the defensive tackle is 6-foot-4 and 296 pounds, as well as his outstanding performance against Alabama this fall.
“Assuming that there’s not a major dependency issue, my guess is we’ll have close to have forgotten about it com draft time,” McShay said on a conference call last week. “I’m not saying it’s not a big deal or it’s not an issue at all. But I’m saying if he does everything right between now and then, if everything checks out and there’s not a bigger issue out there, I think the talent will prevail.
“I just think he needs to be smart and realize what’s at stake.”
Nkemdiche chases down plays from the backside with regularity, and also manages to shed double-teams from SEC offensive linemen pretty often. But the fact that he never developed into a true one-man force like Ndamukong Suh at Nebraska, coupled with his potential drug issue, casts doubt on McShay’s optimistic projection.
Speaking of the Cornhuskers, Randy Gregory was projected as a consensus top-15 pick prior to last year’s NFL Combine, where he tested positive for marijuana. That’s a bit more striking — players know they are going to be tested, and with millions of dollars at stake, a positive test equates to stupidity or dependency.
Gregory, also an athletic standout, fell to the Dallas Cowboys at No. 60 overall, near the end of the first half. Gregory had other potential red flags — he didn’t qualify for Purdue academically — and the timing is different. But that’s the most recent precedent for a touted defensive lineman with a marijuana-related issue just prior to the NFL draft.
The most famous example is Warren Sapp, who was projected as a top-5 pick in the 1995 NFL draft until reports of multiple failed drug tests surfaced on the eve of the proceedings. Sapp, a better prospect than Nkemdiche, fell to Tampa Bay at No. 12 overall.
The pre-draft process will be vital for Nkemdiche, who has a head start since he is suspended for Ole Miss’ Sugar Bowl game against Oklahoma State. If he can convince at least some teams that his multi-million dollar contract won’t be a liability in the NFL, then he’ll still have a shot at a high first-round slot.
One AFC player personnel director insisted — prior to Nkemdiche’s marijuana arrest and hotel-room fall, it should be noted — that he wouldn’t want his team to draft the Ole Miss standout at all.
“I know he gets a ton of attention, but I’m leery … actually, I would stand on a table and tell my franchise to not take him in the top 15 picks,” the personnel director told NFL.com, saying Nkemdiche won’t be able to overpower interior NFL offensive linemen with a bull rush and that he often doesn’t finish plays.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. seemed to defer on the projection in his most recent Big Board, pegging Nkemdiche at No. 9 — a nominal drop.
“I and many around the league ask about where he’s at with off-field questions,” Kiper wrote. “He’s a talent, but you need the reliability. Powerful, quick, football smart, disruptive when he’s 100 percent, he’s a talent. But the draft process will be interesting.”
If Nkemdiche can navigate a murky next few months, keep clean and leave a glowing impression, Ole Miss should boast three first-round picks, along with left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Laquon Treadwell. But it’s possible that Nkemdiche has done himself real damage. One more slip certainly would set up for a major fall.
In many ways, the drama with Nkemdiche and the NFL draft is just beginning.