La'el Collins Undrafted: How One Team Faced Puzzle of Talent, Fairness, Murder

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterMay 3, 2015

AP Images

CHICAGO — One team's brain trust, probably like that of teams throughout the NFL, sat in its draft room several hours before the start of the draft and wondered how exactly to handle the unprecedented case of La'el Collins.

The team's executives, officials, coaches and scouts knew the basics of what had happened as of their Thursday meeting: On April 24, a woman thought to be Collins' onetime girlfriend, Brittney Mills, was shot dead in her home in Baton Rouge, as reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter. She was pregnant and the child was still alive. Collins, an offensive lineman from LSU, had come to the draft in Chicago but was leaving to meet with police. Police said he was not a suspect. (The child died Friday. The New Orleans Advocate is one of the outlets that's been reporting the story.)

This team's decision-makers met specifically about Collins approximately three hours before the draft. They went around the room, asking everyone in it—including the owner—what should happen.

All agreed that Collins—predicted to be a first-round pick because he's quick and technically sound at 6'5", 320 pounds—should be removed from their draft board for the first round.

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 30:  A general view prior to the start of the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 30, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images)
Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images

This was part of what became, easily, the most chaotic, unusual and, in some ways, frightening story of the 2015 draft. It tested the capacity of the NFL ecosystem. It created a conflict between the mission to draft highly talented players and the horrid news of a murdered woman who may have been close to a coveted player. And the story played out under the big lights and pressures of the draft as it got under way Thursday and through its final rounds on Saturday.

Also in play: the league's ability to be fair with a prospect; the machinery of a collective bargaining process that cannot account for everything; the problem of having to quickly evaluate a player as a human being in crisis. All of this had to be confronted while remembering there were actual victims: a woman and a child.

Here is how one team handled the messy situation of Collins. The team's officials spoke on the condition of anonymity.

After that vote in the draft room before the first round, the team's lead investigator was told to continue gathering information about the case and Collins. (The team declined to share with Bleacher Report whether it had negative information about Collins in general or about the shooting.)

All of the information about Collins was reviewed and reviewed again. The lead investigator worked with the NFL's security team. Other teams were doing the same.

Jul 16, 2014; Hoover, AL, USA; LSU Tigers tackle La'el Collins talks to the media during the SEC Football Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Some teams began sharing everything they knew about Collins. Sharing draft information is unusual. It's a competitive sport.

When Roger Goodell approached the podium to announce that the Buccaneers were on the clock for the first overall pick, Collins had been taken off the board of the team I spoke with, for Day 1. But there was a movement from some in the draft room to take him in the second round, on Friday.

"Why are we punishing a guy for something we know he didn't do?" one of the personnel men asked the room.

This was one person's opinion based on limited information, but this was a sentiment some others shared. What the scout was saying was: He's not a suspect, so why not take him? 

It was a fair question, and the answer was a simple one: The risk was too great. So both the team's owner and the general manager agreed on what would happen next: Collins would be removed from their draft board altogether.

But the research didn't stop.

You have to understand something. This team, probably like others, was looking for reasons to draft Collins, not to set him aside.

To this team, Collins was one of the best talents in the draft. That was part of it. There was also the sense that teams were treating him unfairly, as if he were guilty of something.

So, on Friday afternoon, some on the team hoped the police would issue a statement—or tell the team—that Collins was officially clear. But nothing like that came.

Also on Friday, the team spoke to the agency for Collins, Priority Sports, and team officials were asked if there was anything Collins could do to convince them that he had nothing to do with the death of Mills.

We just need to let the process play itself out, the general manager responded.

The team didn't care that Collins' representatives had told everyone that if he were drafted after the third round, or not drafted at all, he would sit out the year and try again for the draft in 2016. To the team, that part of the story was something the league office would decide. (In fact, as NFL Media reported, Collins, by rule, cannot enter the 2016 draft.)

That became the phrase of the draft when it came to Collins: Let the process play out. It was likely repeated in every draft room across the sport.

Given the unusual specifics of Collins' case and its timing, the league was not equipped to offer teams any set of instructions. That is why this story pushed boundaries of the league's ecosystem: The situation was brand new. 

What could teams do? There is nothing in the CBA that directly addresses a situation where a player is asked to cooperate in a murder probe just prior to the draft. As Bleacher Report's Jason Cole reported, Collins passed a lie-detector test given by his agent's company. But teams couldn't rely on that. Even if the teams gave Collins a lie-detector test, what would that mean?

Teams know how to test a player's football ability and knowledge and even his personality. But in this case, there was no device or means teams could use to help them move forward.

Teams hate the discomfort of "unprecedented." That is what made this story so unusual, maybe the most unusual draft story ever. Few teams want to be the first to dip a toe into the water. So Collins will wait, and all the teams likely will wait until the cops are done with their look at Collins.

There were team executives predicting to me before the draft began that Collins would not be drafted. They were right. The draft came and went and he wasn't picked.

What happens now? "He becomes a free agent like any other undrafted player," Greg Aiello, spokesman for the league, told me in an email. "You only go through one draft."

It's likely the union will have something to say about that, because, again, this is all uncharted stuff.

Said one member of the team, speaking on Collins: "We'll never see anything like this again." 

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.