Ryan Mallett is not just the most intriguing player in this year's NFL draft. In so many ways, he is the draft -- everything we love and hate about it. He is a tantalizing talent, a worrisome character, a walking rumor mill, a marvel on film, a statistical freak, a top-five talent who could easily slip to the second round, a guy you might love if you met him and one you might hate if you never do.
He was a great quarterback at Arkansas, but some people question whether his skills will translate to the next level. Everybody has an opinion on Mallett. He could be a franchise player for 15 years or flame out in three. This is why we watch the draft.
Rule No. 1 of the NFL Draft is that where there is smoke, there is probably a bong, and Mallett has been hit with drug and partying rumors since he left Arkansas. In every draft, it seems, somebody emerges as the Most Scrutinized Guy. Last year it was Dez Bryant. The year before, it was Michael Crabtree. This time it's Mallett.
And we're all asking the question: Would you want him?
There is no right answer -- yet. That is the beauty of the draft. If you say you love Mallett's talent and think he can win Super Bowls, you are correct. If you say he hasn't shown the maturity required to be an elite quarterback, you are also correct.
I have only dealt with Mallett a little bit, during his freshman year at Michigan in 2007, before he transferred to Arkansas. I had to laugh at recent stories downplaying Mallett's cockiness at Michigan. Of course he was cocky. Everybody around the program knew it. He was also immature, and he didn't seem to take criticism well, and he rubbed some of his older teammates the wrong way.
But on a scale of 1 to 10, his talent level was a 12. Michigan has had as much talent at quarterback as any other school in the country in the last 20 years. Mallett may have been the most physically talented quarterback in the school's history.
The one thing I can promise you about Mallett is that when he shows up to his first minicamp -- whenever the NFL is back in business for real -- people will drool.
And yet, SI's Peter King has five quarterbacks going in the first round of the draft -- and Mallett isn't in the group. I don't doubt Peter's prognostication skills. I'm sure that is an accurate reflection of how many NFL people view this draft. But there is no way there are five quarterbacks in this draft more talented than Ryan Mallett.
We have gotten to the point where people are inventing reasons not to like him. He isn't mobile enough. Oh, come on. How many 6-foot-7 pocket passers run a 4.5 40? If Mallett is so immobile, why didn't it show on the field? Cam Newton, who is an elite athlete, threw 280 passes last season and was sacked 23 times. Mallett threw 411 passes and was sacked 25 times.
Newton also left Florida after getting caught with a stolen laptop, and according to one report was caught cheating on his schoolwork. Yet he is the likely No. 1 overall pick, while Mallett gets far more scrutiny.
That strikes me as sort of crazy. But maybe it isn't. These things are hard to figure. You would be hard-pressed to find two players with more similar pre-draft profiles than Charles Rogers and Randy Moss. They were both tall receivers with freakish speed who were highly productive in college. They both faced rumors of off-field issues. Rogers went No. 2 overall and Moss fell to 21. And of course, Rogers turned out to be a complete bust because his off-field issues destroyed his career, while Moss put up Hall of Fame numbers.
It is easy to mock NFL executives for those decisions. But if you drank your way through college, as I did, ask yourself this: At age 21, could you really distinguish between your friends who were on their way to serious alcohol or drug problems, and the ones who simply partied too much because hey, that's what college students do?
I'm not the best reporter in the world, but it didn't take me long to discover that the social-whirl rumors about Mallett are widely believed in NFL circles. That doesn't mean they're entirely true. But when he gets drafted, I highly doubt you'll hear the drafting coach or GM say this was all a media creation and there is nothing there. They might say it's overblown. They'll probably say they aren't worried about it. But I doubt they will deny it completely.
The fans-and-media hot-button topic is whether the rumors are true. I think for NFL teams, there is a different question: How much should you worry? I bet there were teams that passed on Brett Favre in 1991 because they were worried about his drinking. We know now that a) they had good reason to be worried, and b) they should have taken him anyway.
If he were a receiver, he would be a lock first-rounder, and he might go in the top five, as Rogers and Braylon Edwards did. That position is mostly about production. Quarterbacks are different. There are expected to lead -- to be the first one in the building for film study and the last one out. It's hard to do that if you party too much.
Quarterbacks are also expected to take slings and arrows with a straight face when they lose, even if they lose because a receiver cuts off a route and the ball gets picked off. That's something else we don't know about Mallett. His college action came at Michigan, a media-wary sheltered program, and Arkansas, where he was the homegrown star. How will he handle the media scrutiny in the NFL?
Mallett's NFL fate will probably come down to two factors:
1. How much does his career mean to him?
I can't overstate the importance of this. If he really wants to be great -- if that matters to him more than being famous or rich or on Dancing With the Stars --then Mallett will be great. In the NFL, he will face 100 different forks in the road. Should he shoot a commercial on his off day or go watch more film? Should a coach's criticism hurt his feelings, or should he suck it up and learn from it? Should he take responsibility for a loss or point out that he played OK?
If the desire to be great dictates his choices, he will be a Pro Bowler. But that will be determined, at least in part, by ...
2. Who drafts him?
Love Mallett or hate him, we should be agree on this: He is not a finished product. He still has so much to learn about how to conduct himself in the NFL, when to stand up for himself, who to trust and who to avoid. It was disconcerting to see him sitting next to John Daly for his ESPN segment with Jon Gruden. Yeah, I know Daly is an Arkansas guy. But if you are an NFL prospect dogged by rumors about partying, how can you be seen in the same county as John Daly, let alone on national TV with him?
Mallett would benefit, even more than most players, from getting drafted by the right team. What if he gets drafted by the Patriots? They have the No. 17, 28 and 33 picks --all in the part of the draft where Mallett could go. They have coaxed production out of players with bad reps before -- they did it with Moss and Corey Dillon. Mallett would be able to learn from Tom Brady and Bill Belichick without the pressure of playing right away. (Besides, let's face it: If the Patriots draft him, most of us will say "Wow, what a steal," the way we did when they traded a fourth-rounder for a supposedly washed-up Moss. Some organizations just get the benefit of the doubt.)
The NFL is a quarterback's league, and Mallett is a potential All-Pro quarterback. It is also a risk-averse league, and Mallett is a risk. If I had a mid-to-late first-round pick, I'd worry about taking Mallett. But I'd worry more about passing on him.