The 2016 NFL draft is now the full focus of teams and fans alike. Evaluating players for their on-field prowess and traits is one of the most important facets of an organization.
There is an off-field aspect to talent evaluation as well. Football character matters as teams decide who to invest in. The NFL will only deal with so much off-field drama before it decides enough is enough and cuts the cord.
Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the latest high-profile prospect who will go through the draft process with intense scrutiny. He has both on-field and off-field concerns he will have to address. We'll dig into the red flags that hint he has significant bust potential.
But Nkemdiche is a supremely talented human being on the football field to counter the concerns. On his 2014 and 2015 film, he shows himself to be a player worth the draft risk because of his considerable potential to be a great NFL defensive tackle or end.
Without intimate knowledge of who Nkemdiche is as a person, we can only look at what has been reported and what we see on the field. His character concerns stem from his alleged use of synthetic marijuana and a subsequent fall from a hotel room window, as reported by Clay Travis of Fox Sports. His brother, Denzel Nkemdiche, has also reportedly struggled with drug use recently.
Who surrounds Robert Nkemdiche is a massive question mark. To stick in the NFL, Nkemdiche must be focused on his craft and stay away from temptations. We've seen players like Johnny Manziel, Joseph Randle, Josh Gordon, Ray Rice and Greg Hardy affected by their off-field issues just in the last few years.
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However, Nkemdiche has the upside worth investing in if his background checks out with teams.
The former No. 1 overall recruit led a terrific 2013 class with a perfect 1.00 rating from 247Sports for a reason. His blend of elite athleticism and disruption ability gives him rare value. Pass-rushing interior defensive linemen who can play in a 3-4 or 4-3 front come along once every few years.
At 6'4" and 296 pounds, Nkemdiche has shown dedication in the weight room to get bigger for the NFL. As a sophomore, he was listed at 275 pounds. That raised concerns about his long-term position fit since he was playing much lighter than he'd need to be in the NFL. Adding 21 pounds in one offseason quelled that concern.
The 21-year-old still has room to continue to mature as his body changes. As NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein noted, his physique is a major positive. "Exceptional build. Carries no bad weight and has outstanding thickness and power through his rear, thighs and calves." If Nkemdiche shows up to the NFL combine Feb. 23 in this type of shape, he will be one of the big winners of the event.
His film shows why his size is important. Nkemdiche is one of the biggest flashers in the country when it comes to burst and closing ability. He explodes off the line and quickly puts his blocker into a compromising position.
His ability to convert speed into power forces tackles and guards alike to be technically sound and A-plus athletes. He doesn't have a go-to counter move, but he can sell inside maneuvers effectively because he has the speed to work the outside shoulder as well. Here is an example of Nkemdiche winning on an inside move, and later he sold a strong inside step to go outside shoulder on the same tackle.
Sequences like that show football intelligence and awareness on top of excellent athleticism. Few NFL linemen meet these criteria regularly, which have contributed to the rising value of disruptive defensive tackles.
Nkemdiche's ability to be a great penetrator showed against top competition. While he may not have put in consistent effort against lesser teams, his dominant showing against Alabama, Mississippi State and Auburn in 2015 showed what he can be when the lights are on.
Coaches who think they can maximize effort will pay special attention to these performances because they mattered more than games against Tennessee-Martin, for example.
Of course we cannot forget about Nkemdiche's natural power. He plays low and shows excellent leg drive when he aligns as a 3-technique in a 4-3 front. He gets inside of guards so quickly they cannot properly anchor and are forced to reset their feet almost instantly.
NFL guards are more equipped to handle bull rushes than collegiate guards, but the mix of power and threat of Nkemdiche's outside speed will be challenging to withstand. Even against the run, Nkemdiche shows a powerful base, strong hands and the ability to shed blockers. This was an area of massive improvement from 2014 to 2015.
There are noticeable weaknesses in Nkemdiche's game that haven't changed since he walked onto Ole Miss' campus. His brilliant athleticism allowed him to produce despite the lack of nuance to his game, but it will hinder him more in the NFL. He must learn how to use his hands to make him a more complete player.
The importance of hand activity and placement is significant. Defenders who have powerful mitts can disrupt their blocker's balance to create advantageous attack angles. Angles are extremely important to those who create and have the athleticism to capitalize on them.
There are too many examples of Nkemdiche playing nonchalantly and forgetting his hands exist. While he was clearly more engaged against better teams, he can't afford to take games off in the NFL. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Nick Fairley flashed similar talent at Auburn, but his engine runs cold too often, and he hasn't worked to improve his game like he needed to.
Another cause for concern was Nkemdiche's lack of statistical production. While he immediately jumps off the screen because of his ability to disrupt offenses, he doesn't finish plays especially well. He had just six sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 29 games at Ole Miss.
While statistics don't necessarily predict NFL success, they are a helpful barometer and have historical precedent. Jim Cobern of Draft Cobern compared Nkemdiche's market-share solo tackles, sacks and tackles for loss against NFL standout tackles, each determined by using a prospect's best statistical season in college.
Nkemdiche's production pales in the side-by-side graphic above.
Ole Miss didn't always have Nkemdiche in a good position to produce. Far too often it would ask him to stunt, which is a mistake for two reasons. The first is Nkemdiche is more linear of an athlete than he is lateral. His explosive first step is taken away on stunts.
The other is Ole Miss didn't have a proper gap eater to leave Nkemdiche one-on-one. Neither Woodrow Hamilton nor Breeland Speaks demanded the center's attention on stunts, so opponents would swallow the two attackers with three blockers. These snaps were wasted and took Nkemdiche out of his best disruptive element, which is counterintuitive for your top defensive player.
The effort angle is certainly more disturbing than schematic misuse or his lack of technical nuance. A crafty veteran and good position coach can help Nkemdiche with his hand usage if he's willing to learn. But taking plays off for large stretches may be a warning that he wasn't just coasting until he entered the draft.
However, he was playing for "free," was a No. 1 recruit and was by far the most athletic player on the field every Saturday except for his teammate Laremy Tunsil. There are explanations for why he'd coast in non-prime-time games. Interviews will help teams determine whether Nkemdiche is the next Mario Edwards Jr. or Fairley.
Strictly based off what Nkemdiche has put on film, I'd be comfortable using a first-round pick on his talent. Franchises with a standout veteran tackle he can learn from and work next to are even more attractive destinations. Teams like the Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans and Washington Redskins are solid fits.
Some may argue that Nkemdiche is the type of player who will get a staff fired. That's a cliche line that really doesn't exist for any position besides quarterback. Even the best general managers miss on first-round picks because the draft is an investment into a human first and foremost. Humans are unpredictable, and it's very difficult to project how they'll react to certain situations.
If Nkemdiche knocks his interviews out of the park at the combine and his pro day, expect his name to rise as teams feel more confident that he will be committed to football. The risk-reward complex with Nkemdiche is as high as anyone's in the 2016 class. But if he is ready to put in the work to deliver on his upside, he can be an All-Pro talent.
All stats used are from sports-reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.