Questions Abound for Robert Nkemdiche Entering the NFL Combine

Christopher Walsh@@WritingWalshCollege Football National ColumnistFebruary 24, 2016

What's on the line for defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche at the NFL combine? A lot.
What's on the line for defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche at the NFL combine? A lot.Thomas Graning/Associated Press

It’s the million-dollar question at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, where coming in almost no one has a good grasp on when Robert Nkemdiche could potentially be selected in the upcoming NFL draft.

Actually, it’s worth a lot more than that to the former Ole Miss defensive lineman, who has an obscene amount of talent and a number of question marks that are nearly as big.

“How do you measure this kid? At what point does the risk justify the reward?” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said during a teleconference with reporters Tuesday.

“Nkemdiche for me is a total question mark. I have no idea where he could end up.”

That appears to be just about the only certainty regarding Nkemdiche, who was once 247Sports' unanimous top-rated prospect in the recruiting class of 2013 and is now drawing criticism for not playing up to his potential. 

He’s also the key to whether Ole Miss has an epic draft, as only once before have the Rebels had multiple players selected in the first round of an NFL draft—2009 (Michael Oher and Peria Jerry).

With tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell widely hailed as the best players at their respective positions, all three could potentially hear their names called among the first 15 selections.

But while there are merely some questions about the other two (the NCAA investigated Tunsil and he was suspended for half the 2015 season; Treadwell won’t run at the combine), Nkemdiche is the equivalent of being a draft enigma.

When Robert Nkemdiche was on his game, like against Mississippi State in the 2015 Egg Bowl, he was very difficult to stop.
When Robert Nkemdiche was on his game, like against Mississippi State in the 2015 Egg Bowl, he was very difficult to stop.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

In terms of talent and potential, he’s almost off-the-charts.

“If you look at Robert Nkemdiche in a vacuum and just watch his Alabama tape against the best team in college football, he was dominant,” Mayock said. “Off that one tape, if he didn't have any off-the-field issues and if he'd played that hard every week, we'd be talking about him as the first pick in this draft. That's how talented he is, and that's how much upside he has.”

However, the last six months are causing teams to dig deeper on the prize prospect whose draft stock has taken a clear hit. 

He was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession after taking a fall from an Atlanta-area hotel room, leading to a team suspension from the Sugar Bowl. Nkemdiche offered an apology, but almost immediately he announced he was leaving for the NFL.

However, it brought other issues back into the forefront, including when Nkemdiche and his brother, Denzel, were named in a $2 million lawsuit alleging they assaulted a man at a fraternity party three years ago.

Denzel, a linebacker, is also in the draft but will probably go unselected. He was hospitalized twice late last year, including once after being found unresponsive, and didn't suit up for the final two games of the regular season in addition to the Sugar Bowl.

The other big question with the younger Nkemdiche is his work ethic, as his statistics make nearly everyone initially think, “Wait, that can’t be correct.”

His career high for tackles was 28 as a freshman, per Sports-Reference.com. He had just 16 tackles for a loss and six sacks in his entire career. Nkemdiche also never forced or recovered a fumble during his three seasons with the Rebels (29 games played).

Robert Nkemdiche Stats
Ole Miss stats

There’s no arguing how disruptive he could be to offenses, but someone with that kind of talent should have posted better numbers.

“I understand he was double-teamed, triple-teamed, but in the NFL you’re going to have the best in the world doing it, and in college that’s not the case,” ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. said Monday. “I can’t just excuse that away like some have. Add then the off-the-field concerns, that’s why I have him going late [first round].”

Another factor that’s not working in Nkemdiche’s favor is that it’s an extremely deep and talented draft for defensive linemen, with most draft experts projecting at least 10 could be selected in the first round alone.

“It’s probably the best defensive line group I’ve ever seen in my 40 years of doing this,’’ Kiper said.

Among interior defensive linemen, Mayock has Nkemdiche second behind Oregon’s DeForest Buckner—a talented player with a high motor—in his positional rankings and ahead of Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins, as well as Alabama’s Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson. 

Few expect them to go in that same order, with Nkemdiche being the most polarizing.

For example, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller reported at the Senior Bowl that teams like the San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys, who both have top-five selections, didn’t appear to be discouraged by the off-the-field issues and were extensively looking into Nkemdiche.

Meanwhile, NFL.com quoted an anonymous NFC executive as saying: “He will not be on our board as a first-round option. If he slides, we'll see."

In NFL.com’s most recent mock drafts, Lance Zierlein had him going 19th to Buffalo, Daniel Jeremiah slated him for No. 21 to Washington and Bucky Brooks projected him No. 26 to Seattle.

That’s where Kiper has him as well for now, going to the Seahawks.

“I thought Robert Nkemdiche if he were there would be a [coach] Pete Carroll/[general manager] John Schneider type of pick,” he said. “I thought that would be a real nice fit for him based on the fact that Seattle could kind of roll the dice and feel like, 'Hey, we’re getting a guy who on most boards would be in the top five to 10 at the beginning of the year and now here he is at pick No. 26.'”

At this point, landing with a strong Super Bowl contender is one of two likely scenarios for Nkemdiche, the other being one of the teams near the top of the draft trading down for an extra selection in the round. The team would then use the first pick on someone who doesn’t have anywhere near the same baggage and the second pick on Nkemdiche.

It sounds like something Ozzie Newsome might consider, and the Baltimore general manager has a strong history of moving both up and down to get the guy he wants. It’s an organization that heavily believes in the draft-value concept and landing the best-available talent.

Then again, Nkemdiche might not even end up being on the Ravens draft board, especially if he doesn’t impress them during the combine. Last year, the rookie pay-scale difference between the No. 6 and No. 26 selections was roughly $10 million. 

2015 First-Round Draft Signings
PickNamePos.Team4-Year Contract, Bonus
1Jameis WinstonQBBuccaneers$23.35 million, $16.7 million
6Leonard WilliamsDTJets$18.6 million, $11.8 million
11Trae WaynesCBVikings$12.9 milion, $7.6 million
16Kevin JohnsonCBTexans($9.5 million)
21Cedric OgbuehiTBengals($8.4 million)
26Breshad PerrimanWRRavens$8.7 million, $4.6 million
31Stephone AnthonyLBSaints$7.7 million, $3.9 million
NFL.com/Forbes (projected)

Defensive linemen start the four-day gauntlet Thursday, when the only things on the agenda are registration, X-rays (if coming off an injury), orientation and interviews.

"He needs to come in in the best shape of his life to show people how serious he is about the process, and then he's going to have to deal with every team in the league asking him about all the off-the-field stuff and the on-the-field inconsistencies,” Mayock said. “I feel like this kid, along with Noah Spence, the edge-rusher from Eastern Kentucky, I think it's a huge week for both those kids.”

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.


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