Examining the pros and cons of pursuing “controversial” players in the NFL Draft

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Domestic abuse, marijuana usage, and DUI's can all be very touchy subjects, but that's what NFL teams have to deal with every single year before the draft. Off-field red flags are a big thing in the NFL. Gambling on the right type of off-field issue can result in great selections, franchise-altering type picks; think of Warren Sapp’s drop to pick No. 12 in 1995, landing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and propelling them to a Super Bowl without any '"weed problems" ever affecting his pro career.

Here in Denver we’ve seen it already play out several times with the Broncos as players like Bradley Roby and Shane Ray dropped into their laps on draft day after having fallen off due to a DUI and marijuana possession charges respectively. It’s easy to talk about how every NFL team was unwise in passing on Dak Prescott last year, but a big part of his fall was brought on by a DUI charge just a few months before the draft. That’s bad timing, and bad timing can really ruin a player's draft stock.

Now, none of this is to say that gambling on off-field issues is wise or a safe route to take in the draft. While it’s easy to give players a pass on stupid but youthful mistakes like pot use or DUI’s, even those players don't always work out. Speaking from personal experience, I had Randy Gregory ranked very high, and he has yet to make an impact in the NFL as he’s always suspended and hasn’t been able to get past his marijuana problems. Josh Gordon is another great example as he’s smoked away one of the most promising young careers we’ve ever seen in the NFL.

DUI’s and pot possession are far from the only problems in the league as domestic abuse has become an even bigger concern since Ray Rice’s horrid video and his subsequent absence from the league. In the aftermath of the Rice video, it was easy to dismiss players with similar off-field issues as un-draftable prospects. Again from personal experience, all I had to do with Tyreek Hill and Frank Clark was read the police reports that got them kicked off of Oklahoma State and Michigan respectively to take them off my board. Clark was surprisingly drafted in the second round by the Seattle Seahawks and has been a successful contributor. Hill was one of the best rookies last season and now teams all over the league trying to find the next Tyreek.

This year’s class has lots of off-field dilemmas, they may be the next Tyreek Hill, but they may be the next Josh Gordon. Making sense of it all isn’t easy. But it’s important not to analyze the players from our own moral prisms as that doesn’t necessarily translate to NFL success or being able to stay out of trouble.

Reuben Foster is a potential top-10 pick in 2017, but a dismissal from the Combine after a dispute with medical staff at the hospital and a diluted positive drug test are hurting his stock greatly. Potentially allowing him to slip to the 20th pick for Denver. Are those issues worth being concerned about, though? It’s hard to say watching from afar. If drugs (including performance-enhancing) aren’t an issue for the young man, his long-term success could be worth the gamble, a big 'if.' Foster is a great example of a player who’s coming from a big program (in this case Alabama) where he’s protected by a cocoon that Nick Saban’s tried very hard to build.

Better examples of the "Saban Shield" are offensive tackle Cam Robinson and edge rusher Tim Williams, two players who got in serious trouble last offseason for drug and firearm possession. The two were surprisingly let off easy by an Alabama judge who said, "The main reason I'm doing this is that I refuse to ruin the lives of two young men who have spent their adolescence and teenage years, working and sweating, while we were all in the air conditioning."

The NFL won’t be so lenient.

Williams, in particular, is worrisome as he’s admitted to having failed "a few" drug tests in college. Staying clean in the high-pressure world of the NFL won't be easy.

Of course, another big player with off-field issues is Joe Mixon, who punched a woman in the face during his first year at Oklahoma. Mixon served a one-year suspension and has since become a star. One with enough talent to warrant a top-15 selection if not for that very serious incident. For football people, he could be a steal as he falls down boards potentially to the draft's second day. But to understand if this incident could happen again, NFL teams will require high-level, CIA-type vetting—diving deep into the circumstances that caused the incident and the reaction—while also having a plan for the young man once he's on the team's campus.

Florida State’s Dalvin Cook was also suspended for a brief period while being investigated for a similar incident. Eventually, he was ruled not guilty, but having that stain in his past is rumored to hurt him in the draft as well.

As you move on down the need board for the Broncos, and you reach the defensive tackle position, you find more players who have seen their reputations marred with questions, mainly Malik McDowell and Caleb Brantley. McDowell’s rumored to have a tough character to deal with, a similar case to Robert Nkemdiche last season.  It also appears his “issues” affect him on the field as much as they do off, often looking undisciplined and not sticking to his responsibilities on a play-to-play basis. Potentially, he’s a top five player in this class, but he's another guy who’ll require serious research and individual interviews allowing a team to feel comfortable with his personality.

Brantley’s case is more cut and dry as he’s recently been charged with battery on a woman and pleaded not guilty, all within the last few weeks. These are troubling events that require quick research, and if you can’t get to the bottom of things, it’ll be hard to draft Brantley anywhere.

Finally, there are always some players who, like the Chiefs' Hill, get into trouble early on in their careers and then become absolute reclamation projects in the pros, but sometimes turn out the right way. There are several candidates this year, but one who stands out is former Miami prospect and eventual Texas Southern wide receiver Derrick Griffin, a top recruit that had to leave Miami as he was unable to qualify academically. Griffin is a hybrid receiver and tight end who, at 6-foot-7 and 248 pounds, moves smoothly and shows lots of promise. He’s still raw, and even at Southern never dominated the way he should have, but like Hill, could be a player who slips through the cracks only to break out in the NFL.

Gambling on character concerns can be a risky business; there’s no way around it. But there are few players who will present the draft value of a Foster, Mixon, Williams, McDowell or even Robinson if they drop because of off-field concerns. Unlike other prospects, though, their bust potential is much higher. The risk-reward game is tough to navigate, but Elway has done it to perfection in the past. Might he strike again this year?

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