2014 NFL Draft: Red-Flag Prospects Worth the Gamble
Every pick in the NFL draft, even those that are seemingly safe, factors in the balance of risk versus reward.
Some prospects in the 2014 draft, however, might be labeled with more concerns than others.
While a “red flag” on a potential draft pick can constitute a limited physical attribute or a lack of on-field production in college, the term is most often used to describe players who come in with character and/or injury concerns.
All of the players on this list have had off-field issues, come in with injury concerns and/or are older than a typical draft prospect. Despite their risk factors, however, all of these players have the talent that should warrant an NFL team’s draft pick.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Johnny Manziel’s two-year run as the most electrifying player in college football didn’t come without its share of controversy.
From a 2012 arrest to being benched in his 2013 opener following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Manziel had a number of incidents during his Texas A&M career that could lead some teams to question his adequacy to be the face of a franchise as its quarterback.
His on-field play comes with red flags, too. While Manziel’s improvisational, gunslinging style of play led him to a Heisman Trophy and 9,989 yards of total offense in just 26 games for the Aggies, it comes in contrast to the pocket-passing precision that has typically led to success for NFL quarterbacks.
Yet that unusual skill set that makes him worth the risk, potentially as high as in the top five picks of the draft. While NFL defenses will make it more difficult for Manziel to extend plays under pressure like he consistently did in college, his ability to keep plays alive will force opponents to alter their game plans.
It’s unclear how well Manziel’s playmaking ability will translate to the next level, but it’s a special quality that could make passing him up a regrettable decision. And though his maturity might be a concern for some teams, he has often proved himself as a leader on the field, as B/R’s Barrett Sallee explained in February.
Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU
There are few prospects in this year’s draft with more outstanding red flags than LSU’s Zach Mettenberger. Nonetheless, he is the strong candidate—outside of the four quarterbacks projected to be first-round picks—to emerge as a starting quarterback and franchise player in the NFL.
Though he started his collegiate career at Georgia, the Bulldogs dismissed him in April of 2010 following an arrest. He later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery. That incident will ensure that NFL teams dig deep into Mettenberger’s character when considering whether to draft him.
As if his character concerns weren’t enough to hurt his draft stock, Mettenberger suffered a torn ACL and an MCL sprain in LSU’s regular-season finale versus Arkansas on Nov. 29. He could mitigate some injury concerns by throwing at LSU’s pro day on April 9, which he told ESPN’s SportsCenter on March 7 he plans to do, according to Jim Kleinpeter of NOLA.com.
Teams seeking a franchise quarterback might ultimately be hesitant to make that investment in Mettenberger, considering his off-field history and health uncertainty, but his pocket-passing ability could make him worth the risk. He is limited athletically but has terrific arm strength, can throw with accuracy to all areas of the field and does not hesitate to launch the ball downfield.
Mettenberger’s game still needs some seasoning, especially in terms of decision-making and pocket footwork, but he has great size and as much arm talent as any quarterback in this year’s draft class. If a team is in need of a quarterback but isn’t in position to take one in Round 1, the LSU product should be worth a gamble on Day 2 if he checks out medically and behaviorally.
Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
As ESPN’s Todd McShay tweeted on March 1, this year’s running back class is “long on police and medical reports.” Some of those running backs might not be worth drafting as a result, but Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is one who very much is.
Hyde picked up his red flag in July of 2013, when he was named as a person of interest in a reported assault. Though no charge was ever filed against Hyde, the Buckeyes suspended him three games for his conduct, which will lead NFL teams to take his character into closer consideration before potentially drafting him.
That said, Hyde bounced back in a big way from his incident, both on and seemingly off the field, in his senior season. While the Buckeyes running back looked noticeably more explosive than in previous seasons in rushing for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns, OSU coach Urban Meyer said Nov. 18, according to Daniel Rogers of The Lantern, that Hyde had become “more mature” since the incident.
“He was immature a couple years ago — like very immature,” Meyer said. “(Now) he handles his business.”
NFL teams won’t just take Meyer’s word for it, but if Hyde checks out off the field, his on-field play should make him the top running back selected in this year’s draft. At 6’0" and 230 pounds, Hyde is a big, powerful tailback who is tough to tackle, and he also has an explosive burst out of the backfield and catches the ball well.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Alabama State
A 5-star recruit who rushed for 850 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman at Georgia, Isaiah Crowell could have ultimately emerged as the top running back in this year’s draft class. His draft stock took an irreversible hit, however, when he was dismissed from the Bulldogs after being arrested on three weapons charges in June of 2012.
Though the charges were ultimately dismissed in April of 2013, Crowell fell out of the limelight at Alabama State. Furthermore, the dropped charges won’t stop NFL teams from asking extra questions about his character, which could lead some teams to remove him from their draft boards altogether.
Crowell is no longer likely to be an early-round pick, but he could prove to be a late-round steal should a team decide to give him a shot. He still possesses the combination of size (5’11”, 224 lbs), strength, speed and agility that made him such a highly regarded talent out of high school and make him a tough player to tackle for any defense.
In his time at Alabama State, where he ran for 1,963 yards and 30 touchdowns in two seasons, Crowell showed he could grind out tough yardage while also having the explosiveness to break away for big plays. If he can prove that he has matured and maintained a clean record off the field as a professional, he has the skill set of a starting NFL tailback.
Henry Josey, RB, Missouri
Henry Josey’s football career went into real jeopardy on Nov. 12, 2011, when he suffered a knee injury that included multiple ligament tears and a torn patellar tendon. That injury, which ended his season and kept him out for the entire 2012 season, means that NFL team doctors have certainly done their homework on how big of a concern Josey’s durability could be at the next level.
While Josey won’t be able to escape the medical red flag given the severity of his injury, that injury didn’t stop the Missouri running back from rushing for 1,166 yards and a career-high 16 touchdowns in 2013.
It isn’t just his alarming injury history; it's also a lack of size (5’8”, 194 lbs) that makes Josey’s ability to hold up as an NFL running back a significant concern.
Still, his ability to put those issues in the rear-view mirror and stand out in his final season for the Tigers should eradicate some doubts.
He is unlikely to be anything more than a late-round pick, a point at which he would be well worth the gamble. A productive runner with great vision, good hands and the ability to cut sharply and quickly in the open field, Josey has the potential to emerge as a dynamic situational back in an NFL offense.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ draft stock began to fall on March 9, 2013, when the Washington tight end was arrested in Seattle for driving under the influence of alcohol. That transgression, to which he pleaded guilty in July of 2013, is almost certainly something every NFL team has asked him about leading up to this year’s draft.
Seferian-Jenkins was suspended for the first game of his junior season as a result of the incident, and he didn’t bounce back to have the season that was expected. Making matters worse, Seferian-Jenkins was forced out of the NFL Scouting Combine and into surgery when doctors in Indianapolis discovered a stress fracture in his left foot.
Considered to be a potential top-10 pick 14 months ago, the combination of his arrest, his injury and his below-expectations on-field play in 2013 should leave him as a second-round pick instead. Despite those concerns, the team that takes a chance on him in this year’s draft could end up with one of the league’s best tight ends in short order.
Seferian-Jenkins (6’5”, 262 lbs) has terrific size for the position and impressive athleticism to go along with it. He is a big receiving target over the middle who has strong hands and can run through contact, while he is also a very good blocker.
His injury could push him down boards, but he will have a chance to improve it if he recovers quickly enough to put together a predraft workout in front of scouts.
As for his character, Erik Oehler of the National Football Post considers him to be a “very low” risk because of the “isolated nature” of his incident and his positive actions since. While a DUI arrest shouldn’t be glossed over, NFL teams should be willing to give him a second chance if he can prove it was a mistake from which he has learned.
During an interview in February, B/R’s Michael Schottey got that impression from Seferian-Jenkins, calling him "the most respectful prospect" he'd ever spoken to.
Matt Patchan, OT, Boston College
Matt Patchan’s red flags are likely to scare many NFL teams away, but a team that gives him an opportunity just might end up with a starting-caliber offensive tackle or a strong swing backup if he develops quickly.
Patchan is already 24 years old after a college football career that lasted six years, yet his lone season at Boston College was his only full year of starting experience. During his previous five years at Florida, Patchan compiled a laundry list of injuries that included a torn ACL, fractured wrist and strained pectoral muscle.
Despite the tumult of his collegiate career, Patchan showed impressive potential in his 2013 season at B.C.
He combines an impressive 6’6” frame with tremendous all-around foot skills for an offensive tackle. He handles rushers off the edge well as a pass protector, while he uses his physical attributes to get outside and to the second level to make key blocks on runs and screens.
Patchan’s risk factors likely make him a late-round pick at best, but his skill set warrants more. For a team looking for a gem at the offensive tackle position, the B.C. product is well worth a roll of the dice.
Dominique Easley, DT, Florida
An explosive interior penetrator who can wreak havoc on opposing backfields with his tremendous burst and surprising power, Florida’s Dominique Easley seemed well on his way to emerging as a first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft until he suffered a torn ACL during practice in September.
While Easley is arguably the most talented interior defensive lineman in this year’s draft class, his knee health is a cause for concern. While his torn right ACL was not a repeat injury, as B/R’s Dave Siebert recently explained, he previously tore his left ACL in 2011.
Those two knee injuries, both of which occurred in non-contact situations, according to Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar, are likely to push Easley down to at least the second round, if not further. A team could still take a chance on him early, however, because of his on-field star potential.
Easley’s size is another red flag at 6’2” and 288 pounds, but his athleticism and strength give him the ability to line up both inside and outside, though he is best suited to work as a 3-technique defensive tackle in a four-man front. Regardless of where he lines up, he has the first-step quickness, power, agility and hand skills to beat blockers in many ways.
Once Day 2 of the draft begins, Easley should quickly become one of the most enticing bets on the board.
Keith McGill, CB, Utah
Like Matt Patchan, Keith McGill has physical tools and potential that make him an intriguing prospect despite having an objectionable age, injury history and level of experience.
Despite already being 25 years old, the 2013 season was McGill’s first full year of starting experience at the major college level. A junior college transfer, McGill suffered a shoulder injury in 2011 that also kept him out for the 2012 season.
His on-field play also comes with its share of red flags. He doesn’t play with nearly the physicality and aggression scouts should want to see from a 6’3”, 211-pound cornerback, and he tends to give up too much cushion and short throws when he is not in press coverage.
Fortunately for McGill, he is entering the league at precisely the right time. Big cornerbacks are currently a hot commodity in the NFL, with teams looking to find the next Richard Sherman thanks to his success for the Seattle Seahawks, and McGill has a shot to strike while the iron is hot.
He has ideal size for any NFL team looking to add that at cornerback, and he combines his big frame with impressive athleticism. Possessing impressive speed for his size, fluid hips and great leaping ability, McGill can keep up with outside receivers deep downfield and make plays on the ball, as he is also an instinctive playmaker who jumps routes well.
McGill probably won’t be the next Richard Sherman, but he could be the next Brandon Browner, whose successful stint with the Seattle Seahawks—after five years out of the NFL—began when he was already 27 years old. Though McGill’s game is still in its developmental stages, a concerning fact considering his age, there are few defensive backs in this year’s draft with tools like his, and that should make him worth a shot in the middle rounds.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.