In the not-too-distant past, former Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla was a potential first-round pick. Now, he's still waiting for a chance to latch on as a tryout player for one of the 32 NFL teams that passed on him time and again in the draft.
It's a bed he made, and now he's lying in it...waiting for the phone to ring.
Lyerla, only 21, is an absolute beast of a draft prospect at 6'4", 242 pounds. As a junior in high school, he provided one of the most electric plays in recent memory and was featured on SportsCenter. His team won a state championship, and he spurned offers from Nebraska, Miami, California, Oklahoma, Tennessee, USC, UCLA and more in favor of the Oregon Ducks—just a couple of hours away.
According to NFL.com, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds—only one-hundredth of a second slower than first-round pick Eric Ebron (albeit at eight pounds lighter). He has a 39-inch vertical leap, which was tops among tight ends at this year's NFL combine by four inches.
Athletically, in terms of natural ability rather than style of play, Lyerla compares favorably to guys like Washington's Jordan Reed, Philadelphia's Zach Ertz and San Diego's Antonio Gates. He fits solidly into the NFL's current trend of split-out/slot/move tight ends, and has tremendous receiving abilities borne out of time in Chip Kelly's high-octane Oregon (now Eagles) offense.
Yet, personal issues abound for Lyerla, and he may never get a shot at the career he once appeared destined for.
Where Did Things Go Wrong for Lyerla?
The last time Lyerla played in an organized football game was September 28, 2013. He started against California, a game the Ducks won 55-16, but Lyerla did not accumulate any stats. The week before, against Tennessee, he had been ill.
For the young three-game season, Lyerla had only two catches for 26 yards and a couple of rush attempts and a rushing touchdown. He was, at best, still the untapped potential he had been since he had arrived in Eugene—a fantastic prospect, but underproductive.
Then, before an October game against Colorado, Lyerla was suspended from team activities. It seems as though Lyerla had been given an awfully long leash by head coach Mark Helfrich, but had hung himself by repeatedly being late for practices and team activities. He also missed long stretches of class in high school, according to the profile written by NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki.
This past season in Eugene, Lyerla was rarely a student or an athlete.
What Lyerla was—what defined who Colt Lyerla was as a person—is a drug user.
Following his suspension from the team, Lyerla did not recommit himself to his teammates, coaches or all the people who had stood by him for the previous seasons. He did not issues any apologies—real or contrived. He just left.
Lyerla iterated that he loved Oregon football, but that it was time for him to move on—in the middle of the season—for personal reasons.
Less than a month later, we found out exactly what Lyerla needed so much extra time to do.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller was the first to report Lyerla's arrest for possession of cocaine and interfering with a police officer. According to the police report, Lyerla was observed in his car, snorting the "powdery, white substance" by officers who were working an unrelated drug investigation.
Colt Lyerla's mugshot, courtesy of Lane County Sheriff's Dept. Arrested on charges of Unlawful Possession of Cocaine. pic.twitter.com/6Trat5A3Jk— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 24, 2013
Drug use explains Lyerla's lack of responsibility and his erratic behavior. Cocaine—a highly addictive drug—is known to provide users with a sense of invincibility and empowerment. It's not only an effective "upper" in terms of creating chemical imbalances that provide energy and happiness, but it's also the stereotypical "high" of heightened senses and awareness.
Sadly, there's a real good chance that Lyerla threw away a lifetime and a career all for some fake feelings shoved up his nose for roughly 30 minutes at a time.
Being arrested was not rock bottom for Lyerla, oh no. He opted out of a drug treatment program in November at a pretrial hearing. He hired the best and most high-profile criminal defense attorney—one with plenty of similar experiences with athletes-turned-drug users like Zach Randolph and Damon Stoudamire. The court accused Lyerla of trying to delay proceedings as he trained for the NFL.
Things, again, didn't go Lyerla's way.
A month later—just a few days after Christmas—Lyerla finally pleaded guilty to cocaine possession. He served 10 days in jail and will be on probation for two years. He was also forced to enter the drug treatment program he had so politely (and repeatedly) declined.
The typical response for a story like this is often the insinuation that the athlete got off light because of preferential treatment. However, 85 percent of all drug offenses in Oregon ended up with probation the last time it was measured via study, and possession of cocaine is only a class C felony.
In the end, Lyerla spent one night in jail and nine days working on a road crew.
Still, the consequences of Lyerla's past might reach far beyond the legal ramifications.
Where's the Fine Line Between Another Chance and Enabling?
If anyone felt, above, that the language I used was hard on Lyerla, it was done intentionally, and I promise there are some nicer words ahead...just not quite yet.
What benefit of the doubt has Lyerla truly earned to this point?
For much of Lyerla's career, rumors percolated under the surface that things were not right with the troubled player. He had issues with drunkenness and at least one physical altercation. Following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Lyerla took to Twitter with conspiracy theories that had to be addressed by the Oregon athletic department.
It seems Lyerla relied on an almost systematic enabling to stay mostly under the radar.
It was a story that had been Lyerla's very own for quite sometime.
Lyerla's childhood was not June Cleaver, apple pies and warm kisses good night. His parents divorced and his mom was on disability. Most of his time that should've been spent having fun and making the same stupid mistakes all of us do as adolescents was spent taking care of his mom. His father, rather than support the budding star, moved to Hawaii and missed most of his varsity football games.
Yet, alongside that story of a sad childhood, there also sits the tale of an entire high school football program that rallied around their talented player—helping him, not enabling him.
Discipline was a hallmark of Lyerla's high school football team. When he was late, he did bear crawls like everyone else. He flourished, finding himself in advanced classes and with a exemplary GPA.
Then, he chose Oregon.
Chip Kelly on Colt Lyerla: "Arguably the best athlete in the country."— George Schroeder (@GeorgeSchroeder) February 2, 2011
On the field, Lyerla was nearly as sporadic and undependable as he was off it. One Oregon fan site noted that he played "angry" and grew a reputation for being antagonistic (or at least defensive) with fans on his Twitter account. While it should hardly be considered "evidence," much of Lyerla's behavior was actually predicted by online message boards and communities like Reddit, which had given him the nickname "Coke Lyerla" long before his arrest.
While I won't speculate exactly where, when and how Lyerla's issues started, it's clear that Lyerla has needed some sort of help that he was not getting to the extent he needed it for some time. We'll also likely never know what sort of programs Oregon had set up for Lyerla. He seems close with Chicago Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long, who may have had a mentorlike influence on him.
Still, while we don't know exactly what (if anything) the Ducks had in place to support Lyerla, we can see that it wasn't effective. We can see that it didn't have the same effect as his high school program's structure and accountability. We can see that Lyerla was given every opportunity to be responsible for himself and squandered it.
All of that said—even with everything typed to this point being on the public record—drug addiction is still a disease. It's a disease borne out of some degree of irresponsibility and personal action, but it's still a disease.
Remembered hearing from some coaches in recruiting that were spooked by Colt Lyerla's "issues" & sounds like those fears were on target.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) October 24, 2013
The fact remains that Lyerla may need a proverbial slap on the head, but he needs it to help him get better. He needs it to help him fight this disease that has taken over what should've been a very promising life.
Whether Lyerla gets another chance is still very much up in the air, but getting one could be exactly what he needs to aid his recovery. He'll be receiving money, yes, and plenty of it, but he'll also be injected into an atmosphere hopefully with some more accountability.
If a team takes a chance on him, it will need to be a team that has a set plan in place for dealing with troubled players. It will need to have a head coach that will not ignore issues, or enable him, but keep Lyerla accountable for his own choices.
Maybe today is rock bottom for Lyerla or maybe yesterday featured a breakthrough at his court-ordered treatment appointments. Maybe he's not only ready for some more structure in his life, maybe it's exactly what he needs to take the next step in his recovery.
But, maybe not.
That's the discussion that either has been had or is being had in 32 NFL cities.
See, Lyerla has the physical talent where at least one person in every front office is going to raise his eyebrow and ask, "What about him?" The way these things typically play out, the vast majority of teams will simply never get past the decision-makers saying, "No way."
Every personnel move in the NFL can be boiled down to risk vs. reward. What potential reward does this player bring in helping me win football games over and above the risk of using a roster spot on him.
In Lyerla's case, the reward is still a great unknown. While the physical tools are there, he's still raw as a football player and was far less productive than one would've wanted at Oregon. Meanwhile, the possible risks are known and very real.
If a team brings Lyerla in—even for a tryout—it will need to be sure his misgivings are behind him (almost an impossible thing of which to be sure) and it will need to have thoroughly vetted him throughout the draft process, created a rapport with him and trust that he will fit in with them both on the field and off.
What Potential Has Lyerla Potentially Wasted?
Though all odds may be against him, Lyerla still has the outside chance to be very special.
Atop my scouting report for Lyerla—done mostly from tape from previous seasons at Oregon with some extra weight given to combine workouts than I might normally, because of circumstances—there sits two sets of three letters.
The first set says "B.o.B.," which stands for boom or bust. It indicates my opinion (hardly against the grain) that Lyerla doesn't have a steady NFL career ahead of him. He won't be a journeyman that just manages to hang on. He'll either meet expectations and be a great player, or he won't last.
It goes to that risk/reward scenario I described earlier. If Lyerla is given a chance, he'll have to make the most of it, because keeping him around is foolish if the reward is only "role player" compared to the substantial risk of having a known addict around your facility—because, even in recovery, many addiction experts will tell you an addict is always, to some degree, still an addict.
That's a stigma that will follow Lyerla and keep coaches and teammates from fully trusting him, and they won't have a need to trust him if he's not the caliber of football player worth keeping around.
Will Colt Lyerla make an NFL team in 2014?
The other set of letters, though, simply says "wow." It seems trite, but there are some players that just make you say "wow." Lyerla is one of them, and has the potential to be so at the next level as well. Wow players float to the top of lists or positional groupings, not only on my board, but within NFL war rooms as well, because a player that makes a coach say "wow" is one which that coach would love to bring under his wing.
Earlier, I mentioned that his talent level is such that at least one person in each building is going to at least ask the question. More times than not, it's going to be a positional coach saying, "Yeah, I can coach this guy up." That's their job, after all. How many of us say, "Nah, I don't think I can handle this core function of why you hired me," when a boss asks us to do something?
Beyond that, the league is filled with Type A personalities (and naturally so). Believing that you can do anything is darn near a required trait to play, coach or otherwise work anywhere near the NFL.
Kick that field goal? Sure, just let me finish selling this tray of beers.
It's long past the time when any free agent on the market is considered "priority," but I believe Lyerla will get a shot because someone is going to stop coming up with good answers to the question, "Why not?" Eventually, the risk of bringing a guy in with zero pomp, circumstance or even expectations will be mitigated by his potential as a player.
We've talked about the size, check.
In addition to the sheer height and weight (which is impressive), though, we also should mention the 32.75" arms and 10.25" hands. That's the football equivalent of being able to have a shot at catching anything remotely near you. The quarterback can't hit the side of a barn? Great, because Lyerla's catch radius is likely an even bigger area.
We also talked about his speed and jumping ability, double check. Guys who are both big and fast tend to get chances that other guys don't. The story doesn't end there, however, and if we painted Lyerla as only a size/speed guy, it would be doing him a disservice.
A former running back, Lyerla's movement skills are ridiculously impressive. Balance is an underrated trait in route running, but Lyerla's balance was honed by years of running between the tackles. He's translated that into being one of the more fluid and natural route-runners to come out of college—tight end or receiver—in recent memory. Where others must rely on short choppy steps, Lyerla hits the crisp angles with ease.
While he's not an on-the-line, traditional tight end by any means, he showcases fantastic effort (that aforementioned anger) and can stand up defenders at all three levels. He has far more functional strength than weight room strength, and time in a strict NFL strength and conditioning program could improve that exponentially.
Oh, and the big question: How much better can he be when he's clean and sober?
I don't mean it to be trite or funny. That's a serious question that has to be asked, especially if we're talking upside. We saw what happened when Lyerla was barely able to come to practice. He certainly played, practiced and attended workout and team sessions either under the influence or coming down from highs—potentially even worse in terms of physical effects and mental focus.
Former #Oregon TE Colt Lyerla has a chance to be special. If he can overcome the demons, he'll make some team very happy.— Rand Getlin (@Rand_Getlin) May 10, 2014
How good can Lyerla be if he finds a way to put all of his attention on football?
Up until this point, Lyerla has squandered just about every chance he's been given. He doesn't deserve another chance, but he may get one. At that point, Lyerla will be asked to put his past behind him and prove that he truly is worth the risk.
Better yet, he'll be asked to prove there's no more risk, and that he's a changed man.
When and if Lyerla is given that chance, he'll have the opportunity to focus on the future and become the football player he has always known he can be. He can start to make amends for the opportunities he's wasted and repay some of the many kindnesses that have been shown to him.
He has the chance to be truly great.
Colt Lyerla has the chance to be whole again.
I'll be rooting for him.