Why you should care
Because these men could be the future of a franchise — or its ruin.
There’s no such thing as a “safe” draft prospect.
Every year, from February to April, NFL teams spend countless hours and dollars vetting draft prospects for “red flags.” The scouts aren’t looking for what’s right with players; they’re looking for what’s wrong with them. No stone is left unturned and no player is exempt, because come draft weekend, just one red flag can cost teams millions of dollars. Which is not to say that red flags are no-nos. Further down in the draft, prospects with a red flag could be the steal of the century.
History’s a great teacher here. We’ve cherry-picked some high-risk (but potentially high-return) prospects this year. Then we’ve gone and compared them to precedents in years past, both the ones who could make the Hall of Fame — and those who should make us think, “Caveat emptor.”
1. Tyler Ervin, RB, San Jose State
We think he’s a steal. As a running back, Ervin is the complete package: He can return kicks, catch the ball out of the backfield and run it up the gut. He finished second in the nation in all-purpose yards per game last year. Here’s the thing, though: At just 5 feet 10 inches and possessing of an angular frame, he might have problems absorbing hits and getting out of a tackle.
To which we say: Remember Russell Wilson? The Wisconsin quarterback came into the 2012 draft with a red flag for his size. Most analysts agreed that if only he were a few inches taller, could have been a top-three draft pick. Instead, he slid to the third round. Four years and two Super Bowl appearances later, Wilson has shown that even if size matters for most, there are always exceptions.
2. Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State
Although Wentz has a glaring red flag — he played at an FCS school — hardly anyone brings that up. Instead, teams have focused on Wentz’s size, strength and accuracy without docking him that much for playing against weak competition. In fact, the Eagles gave up a handful of draft picks just to move up to the No. 2 spot, presumably because they believe Wentz won’t have any issues adjusting at the pro level.
And that could turn out well. In 2003, Tony Romo, the quarterback at Eastern Illinois, went undrafted because of the same red flag — playing in a small pond — while 13 other quarterbacks heard their names called at the podium. Romo ended up with the Dallas Cowboys, where he sat on the bench for three seasons. Then, in 2006, he started 10 games, saw Dallas in the playoffs and was named to the Pro Bowl. Today, Romo holds most of the major franchise records for passing, including yards, touchdowns and completion percentage.
3. Keanu Neal, S, Florida
Beware the “Hulk-Smash” approach. There is no questioning Neal’s character, which appears flawless, but he may hit too well for his own good — and in a time when the NFL is emphasizing safety. As perhaps the hardest hitter in the draft, Neal may face a difficult choice: Play to his biggest strength and suffer the consequences, or tone it down and become a middling safety.
Vontaze Burfict presumably knows this dilemma firsthand. For most of his time at Arizona State, Burfict was one of the best defenders in the nation — but all those hits ended up costing the Sun Devils: Burfict racked up an impressive 22 personal foul penalties in 37 college games. He went undrafted and signed with the Bengals, where, as a rookie, he led the team in tackles. Risks lurked. Sure enough, in the 2015 playoffs, Burfict’s cheap shot on Antonio Brown put the Pittsburgh Steelers in position to win the game — and send Cincinnati home.
4. Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
Football breaks hearts — and knees. Smith, who in 2015 accumulated 115 tackles and became a consensus All-American, tore his ACL and LCL last season. After medical rechecks, it is all but assured that Smith will miss the 2016 season. Some players’ careers have recovered after knee surgery (they might have to sit out a season, like Willis McGahee), but it’s possible that Smith will never be the player he was before the injury. Which would be a loss: Head coach Brian Kelly went as far as to say that Smith is the best player he’s ever coached.
The analog here is running back Marcus Lattimore. As a junior at South Carolina, Lattimore scored 11 touchdowns in nine games and looked like a top prospect. But in a gruesome injury during a game against Tennessee, Lattimore tore every ligament in his knee, which was also dislocated. On top of all that, he suffered from nerve damage. Nobody could say for certain if Lattimore would ever play again, but he was such a good player that the 49ers spent the 131st pick on him, knowing full well that he wouldn’t play for at least a year. The pick didn’t pan out. Lattimore retired the following November having never played in a game.
5. Robert Nkemdiche, DE, Ole Miss
Weed kills … NFL prospects. Nkemdiche’s draft stock has been hurt this year by an arrest for marijuana possession and a subsequent suspension from the team. It appears he may have dropped out of the top 10, if not the first round altogether.
A precedent here is Frank Clark, the former defensive end at Michigan. He was arrested for domestic violence the fall before the draft. While it’s unfair to compare one violation to another, it’s clear that character issues can harm your position in the draft. Clark was physically gifted enough to be a top-15 pick, but he fell far out of that range. Instead, Clark went 63rd overall to the Seahawks, mostly due to his arrest for domestic violence the previous November. (Seattle insisted that through their own investigation, they didn’t feel Clark’s arrest was as cut and dry as it seemed, and they felt it wouldn’t be an issue again in the future.)