CHICAGO -- In a quirk of fate, one of the NFL’s biggest pre-draft storylines for the second consecutive year involves a University of Missouri defensive end who happens to be the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year. But the last-minute spotlight has found Shane Ray for far different reasons this week than last year’s history-making Michael Sam saga.
Ray, unlike Sam, was considered an almost certain early-first-round pick in his year’s draft and was lumped among the five best available pass-rushing prospects. At least, that is, until early Monday morning, when Ray was cited for marijuana possession after being pulled over for a traffic violation just west of Columbia, Mo.
The timing of the incident immediately created major concerns among NFL teams that now had cause to question Ray’s judgment and maturity level, and led to many predictions that his draft stock will suffer the consequences, with him perhaps falling out of the opening round or even further than that.
Somewhat surprisingly given the potential fallout from the controversy, Ray not only kept intact his plans to attend the draft here at the NFL’s invitation; he also participated in the league’s NFL Play 60 event in Grant Park on Wednesday morning, meeting a small throng of media after the youth clinic had ended.
"With what happened, I don’t think a lot of people expected me to still come and be here, and face this," Ray said, in his first public comments other than a statement he issued in the wake of the incident. "But I’m a man and I’m not going to run from anything. I’ve been open with everybody with what happened, and of course I’m very sorry that it did happen."
Acknowledging that he doesn’t yet know how severely his lapse in judgment might affect where he goes in the draft, Ray said he has been in contact with multiple teams that were or are interested in him and has tried to assure them that he does not come with full-blown character issues for his new employer to contend with. Ray had been viewed as a potential option for teams like Washington at No. 5, Chicago at No. 7, Atlanta at No. 8, New Orleans at No. 13 and Houston at No. 16.
"With the timing of what happened, of course they would question my judgment," Ray said. “All I can try to do is assure the teams I will grow from my mistake. I will continue to try to make better decisions and I’ll learn. Teams that have been interested in me want to know what happened. I’ve called every team that has reached out to me, and explained to them my situation and been completely honest with what happened. I can’t control what’s going to happen moving forward. All I can hope is somebody still gives me the chance to play in the National Football League."
Ray declined to specify how many teams he has been in contact with since the news of his pot incident surfaced, but said the situation has prompted teams lower in the first round to reach out to him, an indication of possible slippage in his draft status.
"Besides the teams that already had interest of course, I’m getting a little bit more interest from teams later on in the first round," he said. "That’s what it is. [Teams] ask what happened, and I told them, and they understand that people make mistakes, nobody’s perfect. Teams have been great in listening and talking to me and understanding what happened, and they’re happy and glad I was able to speak to them about my situation."
One team thought to be a potential landing spot for Ray was Atlanta, and first-year Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Tuesday in a radio interview that the team "absolutely" still had Ray on its draft board, even despite this week’s developments and earlier concerns about the effects of a turf toe injury that came to light recently.
NFL teams aren’t the only interested parties Ray has spoken with. Ray said he talked to league commissioner Roger Goodell about his late-developing draft issue, and Goodell was in attendance at the NFL Play 60 event on Wednesday.
"We spoke, and it was very brief," Ray said. "The commissioner just told me, 'Let's move forward on things.' We’re not going to just harp on this and act like this is who I am, that I’m a person with huge character issues, because I’m not. It’s just a mistake I made and a bad decision I made and it was one that’s costing me today, and I understand that."
Goodell later told reporters that he didn’t speak with Ray individually but addressed the 20-plus NFL prospects in attendance as a group, reminding them of their responsibility to be good citizens on and off the field.
It hasn’t been the best of weeks for the NFL on that front, because Ray isn’t the only consensus first-round pick to have his name involved in a story that had the potential to prove very damaging to his draft status. LSU offensive tackle La’el Collins was also in attendance at Wednesday’s event, a day after it was reported that he is wanted for questioning in Louisiana after his pregnant former girlfriend was shot dead at her home Friday night in Baton Rouge.
Collins is not considered a suspect at this point, Baton Rouge police say, but authorities would like to speak with him in part to determine if he’s the father of Brittany Mills's child, who survived the shooting and was delivered after Mills's death. Collins declined to speak with reporters on Wednesday on the advice of legal counsel, but his draft situation is now precarious.
One NFL team executive told me Wednesday morning that he foresees Collins’s draft stock "falling fast," with teams hesitant to select a player who has been connected in any way with a murder investigation, even if that prospect isn’t currently considered a suspect. If the uncertainty of Collins's situation lingers into Thursday night—and it was reported Wednesday afternoon by ESPN that Collins is leaving Chicago immediately in order to speak with the police in Baton Rouge—he could easily fall out of the first round or even further.
Combined with the unwanted headlines that Ray produced this week, the two developments could potentially cost both players millions if they drop out of the first round or beyond, and give the NFL another potential public relations land mine to navigate in terms of off-field player behavior issues.
"It’s definitely something you consider when something like this happens," Ray said of the potential lost income. "I understand that, and I take full responsibility for what happened. What happened Monday was a terrible decison that I made and I’m definitely very sorry for the position I put myself in and everybody else. But what needs to be understood is everybody makes mistakes, and I made a mistake, and it just so happens that it’s right before the draft, one of the most important days of my life.
"Right now I can’t think about what I can’t control. I don’t know what's gong to happen. All I can do is enjoy this process. At the end of the day, I earned my way to be here in Chicago and I deserve the right to be able to experience these things."
But Ray’s draft experience might not wind up being quite as he expected all winter and spring, with some teams now wary of any prospect whose judgment could be so flawed with so much at stake.
"I think people who feel that way should probably look into their own lives and question if they’ve ever made any mistakes," Ray said, with an air of defiance in his voice. "My whole career I’ve made generally great decisions. I’ve had a slip-up here or there, it happens, everybody makes mistakes. Nobody can look at me and say they haven’t made a mistake. Mine is only magnified because it’s three days until the draft, and that’s what this is all about."
Exactly. But I’m afraid that makes the case of NFL teams more convincingly than it does Ray’s case.