So You're a Top Draft Pick—Now What?

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 27, 2016

Arizona Cardinals' first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche points to head coach Bruce Arians after being introduced to the media, Friday, April 29, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. Nkemdiche was the Cardinals' first round, 29th overall, pick in the NFL football draft. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York/Associated Press

The NFL is a completely different animal from college football. Incoming rookies need to be prepared or they'll suffer from culture shock.

Beyond the glitz, glamour and notoriety of being a first-round pick, aspiring athletes must still earn their way into the NFL. What happened in college no longer matters. Being a high draft pick doesn't mean a young man "made it." It simply means he has an opportunity in front of him to play professional football.

A tangled web awaits many of these star-struck football elites. As an NFL scout once told me, "I have no clue how any of these athletes become successful after being drafted, because there are so many mitigating factors that go into it."

The potential pitfalls are numerous. Changes extend beyond the gridiron. Those include, but aren't limited to, moving to a new city, dealing with family members, social media and an influx of life-changing money.

And then there's football.

Once the draft weekend festivities fade into the rearview mirror, everything the player previously accomplished no longer matters. He's no longer the big man on campus. He'll start from the bottom just like every other rookie and must earn everything all over again.

Some simply can't handle the transition.

For others, football isn't a priority once they sign their first contract.

Trent Richardson is the poster boy for a high draft pick who showed up to the NFL and looked absolutely nothing like the player who warranted a top-three selection in the first place. The Alabama product signed a league-minimum deal with the Baltimore Ravens this offseason—his fourth team in four years.

"It's very easy to get lazy in the NFL—not having everything scheduled and not having everything like at Alabama where it was so structured," Richardson told AL.com's Matt Zenitz. "We had study hall or we had to get a workout in in between classes and had five classes a day. It was just so structured. In the NFL, everything's on your own."

Not Always Greener on the Other Side

Fans eventually forgive, but they never forget.

Ten years before Cleveland drafted Richardson with a first-round pick, the organization chose Boston College running back William Green with the 16th overall selection in the 2002 NFL draft.

Green actually experienced a modicum of success early in his career. During his rookie campaign, the running back rushed for 887 yards and gave Browns fans one of the rare memorable moments since the team's return to the NFL.

As Browns play-by-play announcer Jim Donovan belted, "Run, William, run," Green's future couldn't have appeared brighter.

Yet football wasn't a priority at the time for the talented runner. Everything that happened to him as an individual overwhelmed the young man.

Green grew up in poverty with a father addicted to heroin. The elder Green eventually contracted AIDS and passed the disease to his wife. Both of Green's parents died by the time he was 13 years old. After their deaths, he was separated from his four siblings since family members couldn't take care of them all.

The talented running back self-medicated with marijuana. As a result, then-Boston College head coach Tom O'Brien suspended him twice for failed drug tests.

The young man carried all his pain into a burgeoning professional career. Being drafted and making it to the NFL didn't prove to be the catharsis Green craved.

"For me, I lost it mentally," Green said in a phone interview with Bleacher Report. "All that passion originally drove me to play the game. I had the desire to be free of this illness and pain. The NFL wasn't the answer. I questioned what I was playing for or why I even played at all. When I lost that passion, and then becoming depressed over the realization I had to deal with this pain my entire life, football became the last thing on my mind. I didn't even care to play anymore. It's a tough spot to be in."

His life quickly spiraled out of control. In his second season, police arrested him for drunk driving and marijuana possession. The NFL subsequently suspended him for four games. During the suspension, a domestic dispute broke out between Green and his then-fiancee and current wife, Asia Gray; she accidentally cut Green with a knife.

His career quickly fell apart. In 2004, the running back only gained 585 yards in 15 games. Once Romeo Crennel took over for Butch Davis as the team's head coach before the 2005 season, the message to Green was quite simple: "We can't trust you."

Even if the former first-round pick was the most talented runner on the roster and recently recommitted himself to the game, the Browns wouldn't commit to him as a person. He played eight more games and carried the ball only 20 more times before his career quietly came to a close.

Green's cautionary tale speaks to the current state of the league. He now spreads his message as an ordained minister through Mike Hagen's Strength Team—a program dedicated to the teachings of the gospel, particularly salvation, by bringing people together through feats of strength.

"With the way I grew up in poverty and losing my parents, the promise of the NFL was it," Green said. "On days I wanted to quit, I told myself, 'Nope. I'm not going to quit, because one day I'll be in the NFL.' There were days I came with no food, but the promise of the NFL was enough. It became the answer to all the horrible things I suffered.

"To finally get there and realize no matter how many touchdowns you score or how much money is in your bank account, nothing is going to take the pain away. None of those things can fill that gap."

Football Characters

Everyone carries some type of personal baggage. Professional athletes are still individuals. In many cases, it's a continuation of a lifestyle that lingers well into their NFL careers.

This is why teams place a prospect's character under such scrutiny throughout the predraft process. An organization doesn't want to be embarrassed after the fact by a player who has demons he cannot control.

Clearly, former Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel had problems, as ESPN The Magazine's Wright Thompson noted nine months before Manziel became a first-round draft pick.

Cleveland's mistake in taking the unstable signal-caller reverberated throughout the NFL. Other teams desperately want to avoid the same situation. This put every other prospect even more under the microscope.

Two primary examples popped up in the first round of this year's draft. Coincidentally, those two instances dealt with collegiate teammates.

Ole Miss left tackle Laremy Tunsil was generally considered the top overall talent in the class. Unfortunately, he fell victim to a vicious hacker minutes before his dream was set to become a reality. In a moment reserved for a future Lifetime movie, the hacker posted an ill-timed video where Tunsil was smoking what appeared to be marijuana via a gas mask.

Tunsil's tumble to the 13th overall pick on draft day might not have been directly linked to the incident, but everyone in the NFL certainly understood the ramifications.

Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman reported one AFC coach told members of his defense: "Don't let this be you."

It's not only about individual decisions. Organizations are also concerned with the company its players keep.

Tunsil's teammate, Robert Nkemdiche, became a primary example in this particular case. The son of highly successful Nigerian immigrants, Nkemdiche's older brother, Denzel, proved to be a potential roadblock in his career.

A certain train of thought floated around the NFL combine in Indianapolis: Nkemdiche needed to distance himself from his brother, who was dismissed from the Ole Miss football team and later rushed to a hospital under suspicious circumstances.

OXFORD, MS - SEPTEMBER 26:  Denzel Nkemdiche #4 and his brother Robert Nkemdiche #5 of the Mississippi Rebels leave the field following a game against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Oxford, Mississippi.  Mis
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

"It's just a matter of [teams] separating those parts of himhis personality, his brothers...if they think that's possible to do," an anonymous scout told SB Nation's Steven Godfrey.

This is a difficult step for anyone to take. How does one make a concerted effort to estrange themselves from a sibling? It's not always possible. And it's a potential pitfall many athletes have to address upon entering the NFL. It's not simply about family; it's the extended family that inevitably helped a young man achieve his dream of playing professional football.

"These guys often come from places where people realized they were good athletes for most of their lifetimes," Green said. "They're always watching you out of the corner of their eyes, and they're thinking, 'This kid might have a chance of making it.'

"You get two things from this. You get a group of people who truly and sincerely care about you. They do everything they can to help you get out of that neighborhood. They want him to accomplish great things. Many professional athletes understand they wouldn't be where they are without this type of help. All of these people truly love them and helped in the athlete's accomplishments.

"The sad part is there are people who want to jump on the bandwagon. They think the athlete is bound to do great things, and they'll act like they love and care about them. They try to latch on for all of the wrong reasons. Once the athlete's career is done, they're gone.

"The problem for those athletes is understanding the difference. Who are the people that would still be there without the NFL? Who are the people who wouldn't?

"It's never about making it and forgetting about those people. The tough part is how to separate between those two groups. It's a tough spot and comes down to individual situations."

Who sat next to Nkemdiche and was the first person the first-round pick hugged upon hearing his name called as the newest member of the Arizona Cardinals? His brother, Denzel.

Know Your Role

Not every young man has off-field concerns entering the league or becomes completely unraveled by the process. But all of them must understand they're entering a new environment with different expectations from the one they just left.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Cameron Heyward fell on the opposite side of the spectrum from Green. While Green didn't have a strong family presence in his life, Heyward grew up in a football family. His fatherthe late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who was also a first-round pickplayed 11 seasons with the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts.

This helped prepare the younger Heyward after being chosen 31st overall in the 2011 draft.

"I got lucky in the fact I learned at a young age the NFL is a business," Heyward said. "Growing up in that lifestyle and seeing how my dad dealt with it, I bypassed the hoopla. I knew what was expected of me. You have to be a role model, and my dad taught me to be one. It's a full-time job, and growing up in that environment you really get a grasp of it."

It might have eased the transition, but the defensive lineman still wasn't fully prepared, even after coming out of the football factory known as Ohio State.

"At Ohio State, it's obviously a bigger school," Heyward said. "You're the big fish in a pretty big pond. Once you come into the NFL, you're still a big fish, but you're swimming in the ocean.

"In the league, guys are smarter, faster and stronger. It's their job. You have to deal with this and understand it. It's a full-time job, and you need to approach it the same way."

Don Wright/Associated Press

An argument can be made that it's optimal to be drafted by a premier franchise coming off a playoff appearance. But it can still be a struggle.

The Steelers already had Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood in the lineup when Heyward arrived in Pittsburgh. While a player should never settle for a backup role—he should always strive to start—these moments can be critical learning experiences and vital to his eventual success.

"It's a big ego check," said Heyward, who didn't become a starter until his third season. "You have to check the ego at the door. You can't be caught up in being a first-round pick and an immediate starter. You'll need to get better. Everyone understands they're not where they need to be coming into the league. They have a ways to go to get where they should want to be.

"You constantly want to get better throughout the season. Even though I wasn't playing, I was still practicing against a great offense. I wanted to give them great looks. When my number was finally called, I knew I'd succeed, because I had success during those earlier times."

Expectations are heaped on first-round draft choices. Fans tend to melt if they're not in the starting lineup on opening day. But it's not always the best path for each individual. Not everyone can be Cam Newton or Adrian Petersonboth of whom excelled from the start of their rookie campaigns.

How to Succeed

One consistent theme emerges when talking to current or former players about how to handle the NFL lifestyle: It's OK to ask for help.

Veterans generally prefer young players who come in, listen and ask questions about everything that is happening to them. Those new teammates aren't going to steer them in the wrong direction.

"The NFL can do a lot to scare you," Heyward said. "There's a lot of tragedies that happened. We've heard them all. What guys need to realize is this starts in college. I'm not sure how to go about it, but there needs to be an understanding you don't need to live like a king.

"I'd rather live like a prince for a much longer time and keep my riches.

"There are so many things with guys who have gone broke. But if you take care of your money and don't spend extravagantly, it's OK to do fun things. Everyone is entitled to do so. You only live once, but you don't need to go crazy. There's no reason to get into a peeing contest over who has the nicer stuff."

Heyward also suggested that young players speak regularly with their team's player personnel representative, who can help ease any problems a player might be facing. More often than not, these representatives are former players who have already gone through the process and understand how to help a player establish new roots not only with the team, but in the community as well.

Personal accountability must also be a part of the equation. Some people just want to watch the world burn, but most don't. Most want to live out their dreams by accomplishing all their goals. Some need more help to do so than others.

Whatever the case, there are those in position to help—whether it's a former player like Green trying to reach out to troubled cases, a veteran like Heyward who already walked a similar path or a league trying to maximize its value.

"The NFL is watching whatever you do," Heyward said. "They're going to follow you on Twitter and Instagram for a reason. You need to make sure you're a great role model, because you're not just putting on team colors. You're also putting on the NFL logo. You're their client. You're sponsored by them, and they want to get their money's worth."

All quotes and visit information obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.


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