Small-School Pass-Rusher Noah Spence Is 2016 NFL Draft's Most Volatile Star

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2016

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 20: Noah Spence #8 of the Ohio State Buckeyes lines up for a play during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers on October 20, 2012 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The most important position in football is quarterback. There's no doubt about that fact.

According to Spotrac, there are 12 NFL players who are currently slated to make $100 million or more during the lifespan of their current contracts. Eight of them are quarterbacks, three are front-seven players who can get after the passer as defenders and one, Calvin Johnson, is a superhuman receiver.

Under the NFL's current collective bargaining agreement, top draft picks have now become cheaper assets during their rookie contracts, which makes "hitting" on young talent a key goal for teams hoping to make a Super Bowl run.

Now more than ever, there has been an emphasis put on players who can contribute in the air game at the top of the draft, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. 

Last year, 22 first-round picks were either passers, bookends, pass-catchers, pass-rushers or defensive backs.

The split between "premium"pass-orientedpositions and non-premium positions has never been greater.

In this draft pool, there is one player who can make a major splash for a franchise but is being overlooked by a majority of the event's coverage. His name is Noah Spence, and he played for Eastern Kentuckyan FCS schoolin 2015.

If you've never heard of Eastern Kentucky, don't feel bad. The Colonels' only active NFL player is Jordan Berry, a rookie punter in Pittsburgh.

So, how did this potential star end up in Richmond, Kentucky?

It's not the tale of a gritty walk-on or junior college late bloomer hitting it big. He's not J.J. Watt at Central Michigan or Aaron Rodgers at Butte College. Instead, a string of mistakes led to him dropping down from one of the biggest platforms college football provides: playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Coming out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he was the state's Gatorade Player of the Year and was one of five defense-first players to win the award in the graduating high school class of 2012. Rated as a 5-star prospect by 247Sports, he was the fifth-ranked overall player in its composite rankings.

With schools like Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Notre Dame and Stanford going after him, he was one of the more sought-after pass-rushers in recent memory.

During his freshman year with the Buckeyes, he showed promise. In his sophomore season, taking over as a full-time starter, he proved his talent.

Finishing with eight sacks in 2013, he ranked second in the Big Ten behind only Randy Gregory, the Nebraska pass-rusher who had top-five momentum heading into last year's NFL Scouting Combine before he failed a drug test.

Everything was pointing up for Spence. He was living up to the expectations set for him. The 6'3", 261-pounder was going to line up next to Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington, two potential top-60 picks themselves, for one more season before going pro. Bosa might even be in the running for the first overall pick.

Unfortunately, Spence was never able to accomplish that "one more season" for the Buckeyes.

Spence's first off-field issue actually occurred during his sophomore season. The defensive end was suspended for Ohio State's Orange Bowl and the first two games of 2014 due to a failed drug test which was triggered by ecstasy.

According to the Columbus Dispatch's Tim May, Spence's father said his son involuntarily took the drug, and his family would later appeal the ban by the Big Ten, which would eventually fail.

Still, that single event didn't kill his draft stock. For example, Draft Insider's Tony Pauline, one of the most respected veteran media scouts, graded the true junior as the sixth overall prospect in the Big Ten heading into the 2014 season.

"Noah Spence is a long, athletic pass-rusher who primarily comes out of a three-point stance but also looks good off the line of scrimmage playing in space," Pauline wrote. "He’ll miss the first two games this season with suspension but has tremendous upside and could develop into a first-round pick."

Right when Spence was going to put his past behind him after serving his three-game suspension, however, he managed to fail yet another drug test.

In one week, it went from looking like he was going to return from an unjust suspension to missing the remainder of the season with his career in Columbus up in the air. The Big Ten labeled him as permanently ineligible. There weren't many options left.

In November of that year, despite not seeing the field since the previous regular season, he sent out a cryptic tweet which came across like he was declaring for the 2015 draft:

When the dust settled, though, he would transfer to Eastern Kentucky without anyone really having a good grasp on why he returned to college, unless he received poor feedback from agents and/or the league. By May, before he ever even suited up for the Colonels, he was arrested for alcohol intoxication and disorderly conduct for throwing a glass bottle.

That was the last time Spence had a public issue, but by that point, when he was ready to start his redemption story, the hole he had dug was already abundantly deep.

Since that moment, though, he seems to have matured, and talks about his past experience with sobering truth. Along with Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports, he told his story, including admitting he wasn't slipped ecstasy:

Those closest to himhis parents, his teammates, his coacheswere all stunned that Spence tested positive for Ecstasy, which given his performance on the field and in the classroom, didn’t seem to make sense. So, he lied to all of them, and kept on doing it.

"Everyone thought someone slipped something into my drink at a party,” he said. “So, in the back of my mind I'm still getting away with stuff because I'm hiding it. I was my own worst enemy. I was hiding everything. That made it easier for me to do it because I felt like nobody knew. I felt like as long as I could still perform on the field and do well in the classroom, I thought, 'Why not act crazy on the weekends?’” 

Per Feldman, Spence has been sober since his bottle-throwing incident in Kentucky. As long as he checks out off the field and has learned his lesson, this whole ordeal shouldn't weigh too much on his future, considering the league's recent track record with prospects of a same background.

Many players have come through the draft with non-violent, off-the-field issueslike Justin Houstonand have proved to be huge value selections for their respective franchises due to their contract statuses.

Houston was a first-round talent who was taken in the third round because of a failed marijuana test in 2011. In 2014, he nearly broke Michael Strahan's single-season NFL sack record. In 2015, he signed the most valuable contract ever for an edge defender.

He has had zero issues at the professional level, and the Kansas City Chiefs seemed to have no issue with locking up a lot of money into his future.

Wouldn't you rather be early on a guy, taking advantage of the years on his rookie dealwhen he's making less than $6 million a year at most over the life of the contractthan pick up a superstar in free agency who is making more than $15 million a season?

Spence is one of the few prospects who has that potential: the opportunity to score around a $10 million talent advantage in one contract. And by the looks of it, just about every team would have a shot at him if the draft were held at this very second.

Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated and Matt Miller of Bleacher Report recently put out mock drafts which didn't feature the pass-rusher going in the first round at all. Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com did mock the Colonel as a Day 1 pick, but even then, he landed as the 29th overall player off the board:

A true wild-card prospect, Spence has first-round talent, there is no question about that. But the former Ohio State Buckeye has a history of drug abuse, although he has cleaned up his habits since being banned from the Big Ten. Arizona has the front office, coaches and locker room to take a chance on a boom or bust player like this.

Why should teams be so interested in Spence's talents, overlooking his bumpy path to the NFL? He has a chance to be one of the elite ones. As far as a pure 3-4 outside linebacker prospect goes, he's the best one from a football perspective in this draft.

The four true every-down edge-rushers who flashed in this class are Joey Bosa (much better suited to play 4-3 defensive end at 6'6" and 275 pounds), Carl Lawson (who has already stated he will return to Auburn for his junior season), Shaq Lawson (battling knee and shoulder issues, according to Pauline) and Spence.

There's a very real possibility that after the first pick, the only edge-rushing options teams will have to choose from are Spence's off-field issues and Lawson's health.

Personally, I'm rolling the dice on the big fish. He has amazing body control and flexible hips that we haven't seen coming out of the college level since Von Miller was drafted second overall by the Denver Broncos out of Texas A&M.

He didn't just bend the corner consistently against FCS opponents while at Eastern Kentucky. He dominated the Big Ten while at Ohio State, and he beat down an SEC team in the Kentucky Wildcats this past season.

Teams hoping they can take Spence in the middle rounds, where Houston was found, may find themselves out of luck by draft week. As long as he has his head on straight, which from an outside perspective seems to be the case, then he's in a position to be a big riser.

Because he was able to graduate not just as a redshirt junior but back in 2014, he was able to earn an invite to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, the top all-star game for outgoing graduates.

In one-on-one drills, he's going to outmatch any talent slated to play in the game, on offense or defense. He should also be a combine stud, as NFL Draft Scout projects him to run in the 4.6-second range in the 40-yard dash at 261 pounds.

That's a similar range and weight to Dante Fowler and Bud Dupree, two first-round pass-rushers from the 2015 draft class.

At what point can we remove the off-field filter to discuss Spence like Fowler and Dupree as an on-the-field product? His last incident was eight months ago. He's admitted his flaws.

The Senior Bowl and combine, two tools that can help a prospect's draft stock soar off of athleticism, are also the two biggest job interviews that Spence will go through in his entire life.

No stone will be left unturned, as general managers, coaches and scouts pick apart his brain and play private detectives, making sure that if they invest millions of dollars into him, their billion-dollar franchises won't suffer.

It's now in the hands of Noah Spence to decide who he wants to be. The ending of his story is unwritten. This can all easily get categorized as a college kid flirting with substances who took it too far when he thought he could escape consequences.

If he falls into a family-oriented franchise, like the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers or Pittsburgh Steelers, teams with a history of bringing in troubled stars and surrounding them with a support system, then we may reflect on Spence and the 2016 class in the same way fans scratch their heads when they see Justin Houston was drafted 70th overall in 2011.

It was so obvious. Your team should have taken him. And now it has the chance to right its wrongs.

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