NFL Draft: Off-Field Issues See Multiple First Round Picks Fall Off Boards

In the aftermath of the back-to-back scandals that rocked the NFL during 2014—from Ray Rice, and multiple other players domestic abuse, Adrian Peterson’s child endangerment, even to Aaron Hernandez’ murder charge—the NFL is doing a lot to try and rehabilitate its image. And with less than 24 hours to go before the draft, multiple teams are still unsure how to deal with off-field problems in potential first round picks.

The NFL has an image problem, and is doing a lot to shake it. But the lure of an athletic freak, and the constant pressure to succeed means that NFL executives, scouts and coaches are still altogether too ready to look past off-field issues in the hopes of finding a stud. “If Hannibal Lecter ran a 4.3, we’d probably diagnose it as an eating disorder,” said Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim, 2014 Executive of the Year.

This was altogether too evident in the past few days when multiple players have gone from first-round projections to falling completely off the draft boards of NFL teams.

In the days leading up to the draft, no fewer than three potential first round picks have been called undraftable by multiple NFL executives due to various off-field issues.

First, there was Randy Gregory. At one point, Gregory was considered a top-five talent in the draft. A failed drug test for cannabis at the scouting combine ensured that Gregory wouldn’t live up to that potential, but few saw him falling out of the first round. But then, the “other things” started to be reported on.

In a series of cryptic reports, multiple unnamed NFL executives and scouts admitted removing Gregory from their boards altogether, citing concerns about his ability to “handle the mental rigors of professional football”. While many may be inclined simply to ignore these concerns, at least one of the reports came from Albert Breer and Ian Rapoport, of NFL.com.

There has been a lot of speculation about what this actually means, with many suggesting that Gregory’s primary issue is related to mental health, possibly anxiety or depression—he admitted that he started smoking cannabis to help him deal with anxiety and stress.

Then there is Shane Ray, another consensus top-ten pick who has seen his stock tumble to the point where he has been called undraftable by a number of teams after he was cited for marijuana possession. In Ray’s case, like Gregory’s, the issue isn’t the drugs themselves—if teams refused to draft anyone with a history of drug use, there would be precious few players to pick from—but his maturity level, in the aftermath.

Ray, instead of owning and admitting to his problems, appears to have become blasé, even arrogant. Days after the citation, he still decided to show up at an official NFL Play 60 pre-draft event. Play 60 is an official NFL outreach to young people, and Ray’s presence was clearly seen as another unwanted destruction by some. He has also defiantly refused to keep a low profile at the draft itself, insisting that he will be at the event live, in spite of the very real possibility that he may not be drafted until very late in the event.

Add to that the fact that he is seen by some as being undersized, and is coming off a toe injury which may still require surgery, and it’s easy to see why some teams simply aren’t willing to take a chance on Ray.

However, in spite of several teams removing both men from the board, still others will be willing to take a chance. They know that every player in the NFL draft is a gamble, and the possibility of picking up a potential top-ten talent late on day one, or even into day too will be too much for some teams to pass up on. As Keim says “It’s always going to be enticing for us, regardless of their issues, if they have tremendous skills,”

The same cannot be said for La’el Collins however. Collins, a stand out at LSU is being sought for questioning by police in Baton Rouge in regards to the murder of a woman rumoured to be his former girlfriend.

Though police have specifically stated that they do not consider Collins a suspect at this time, the timing could not be worse for the star. In the light of the recent Aaron Hernandez verdict, few teams will be willing to even risk a draft pick on any player with even a hint of a link to this kind of crime.

The nature of the murder is such that the woman, named as Brittany Mills, 29, appeared to know her assailant. Mills was pregnant at the time, and there are suggestions that Collins may be the father. Though Mills was declared dead at the scene of the crime, medical staff were able to save the baby, which looks set to survive.

This may be why police need to speak with Collins, who is participating fully with law enforcement, and left the draft to travel to Louisiana to speak to them, but until this is confirmed, and Collins is allowed to sit down and explain his situation to officials, it’s hard to imagine any team taking a chance on him at this point.

Of course, for all these players to fall this far, this quickly, proves Keim’s point. Players can only plummet in value, of course, if they were initially ranked highly. With the exception of Collins, both Gregory and Ray had red flags coming into the draft. Both had well known and well documented off-field concerns coming into the draft. Both have prior drugs related issues, and in Gregory’s case, teams will have done in depth psychological analysis into his suitability prior to this, and ignored, or explained away their concerns to rank him as highly as they did.

In spite of the possibility that some players show tendencies which may make them the next Daryl Washington, Ray Rice, or Josh Gordon off the field, the possibility that they will also emulate their on-field performance, and avoid getting caught, will be too big a temptation for some GMs to resist.

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