INDIANAPOLIS — As constant as any element involved in the overblown annual exercise that is the NFL Scouting Combine, there are plenty of character-issue prospects that must be vetted each and every year, with clubs trying to decipher if the risks they carry outweigh the potential rewards.
But in more than 20 years of covering the NFL’s big job fair, I can’t remember anyone having a more unique red flag attached to his name than talented Mississippi defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who might wind up falling significantly in the draft in part because—get this—he fell approximately 15 feet out the window of an Atlanta-area hotel room in mid-December. Remarkably he suffered only minor injuries, at least, from a physical standpoint. Reputationally, the self-inflicted damage was considerable.
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Nkemdiche was suspended from the Rebels for the Sugar Bowl, and was arrested after his fall and charged with a misdemeanor marijuana possession. Early Friday afternoon he met the media at Lucas Oil Stadium, and didn’t exactly put this bizarre story to bed. Sounding over-scripted, with a well-rehearsed mea culpa that repeatedly stressed him moving forward, Nkemdiche disclosed some interesting new information about the incident in relaying what he has told NFL teams wanting to know what happened that night.
• Nkemdiche said he was indeed under the influence when he fell, but from alcohol, not marijuana: “I was drinking. I was drunk.”
• So where did the marijuana possession charge come from? “Because there was more people in my room,’’ he said. “The hotel was under my name and nobody wanted to take the fall [for the pot]. It had to go under my name.” (And yes, he actually said the phrase “nobody wanted to take the fall,” in an incredibly ironic and comical choice of words).
• Nkemdiche also revealed teammate/offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil—the potential top overall pick in this year’s draft—was in the hotel room with him at the time of the accident, where police later reportedly found as many as 12 rolled marijuana cigarettes. (Hey, what are friends for?)
• And lastly, in another potentially troubling acknowledgment for NFL personnel evaluators, Nkemdiche admitted his lack of consistent effort in college wasn’t a figment of anyone’s imagination. “There are times I didn’t finish. I was lazy on some plays,” he said. How his tendency to take plays off improves once the NFL starts paying him big money, no one can possibly know.
His repeated apologies aside, Nkemdiche on Friday seemingly only intensified the scrutiny NFL teams will subject him to in the coming two months of the draft process, trying to make sense of his obvious top-10 talent in juxtaposition with a draft grade that could have him more worthy of the bottom third of the first round, or even out of the opening round altogether if some teams deem him too unreliable.
“I’ve just got to wait and see [where I’m drafted],” Nkemdiche said. “I’m doing everything I can to make teams believe me, and believe the person I truly am. I made a mistake as a 21-year-old, and I’ve got to just keep moving forward and hopefully they believe me. I’m going to do what I have to do on Sunday [in the defensive linemen combine workout] to make them see my athleticism, and hopefully I go as high as possible.”
Nkemdiche never sounded more practiced than when he said NFL teams had accepted his version of events and explanations, adding: “They believed me because it’s the truth. I’m going to stick with my story, and that’s what it is.”
But moments later he seemed to go off script a bit, distancing himself from his mistake by saying the media had been “tarnishing my name,” a claim Nkemdiche quickly walked back when questioned about it. “It was off my mistake,” he said, with no further clarification offered.
Nkemdiche fell after breaking through the window of his fourth-floor room at the Grand Hyatt Atlanta hotel and climbing onto a ledge, plummeting about 15 feet to sustain multiple cuts and bruises. Perhaps him walking away from the accident is the most remarkable aspect to this real-life drama, but that’s not what most people are focused on.
“[Teams] understand,” he said. “They understand I was drinking and I was drunk, and it happened. [They say] just stay away from it and just keep your focus where it needs to be.
“It was a rash decision by me. Uncharacteristic and that’s not who I am. That’s not what I stand for, that’s not what my family stands for. It was embarrassing for me and my whole family and the whole Ole Miss family. And I told them that’s not the kind of player they’re getting. They’re getting a straightforward player and I’m never going to return to that.”
But whatever team winds up investing in Nkemdiche can’t possibly know yet what they’re getting. They can see the enormous potential and talent—he was once the nation’s top high school recruit—but the enigmatic 6' 4", 295-pound Georgia native has been glaringly inconsistent, without anything resembling top-tier production at Ole Miss. In three seasons with the Rebels, Nkemdiche never had more than 28 tackles, and his six career sacks and 16 tackles for loss speak to that underachievement. He never forced or recovered a fumble in his 29 career games with Mississippi.
“That’s an interesting guy right there,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said in a Monday conference call with media members. “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. 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, once you factor in the inconsistency from snap to snap and game to game and the off-the-field situation, then you get into, how do you measure this kid? At what point does the risk justify the reward? Nkemdiche for me is a total question mark. I have no idea where he could end up. This is a huge week for him.”
Nkemdiche said he had a formal interview with Washington already this week, and informal interviews with a couple more teams, with plenty more meetings to come. Teams are asking more about his character red flags than his production and effort issues, he said, but he has both of those hurdles to clear.
“It’s understandable, but I told them the truth, of the person I am,” Nkemdiche said. “That’s not the morals I hold myself to, that’s not the standards I hold myself to ... I have changed. I lasered my focus more to what’s important, and have kept away from things that can take football away from me and jeopardize my football career. Because I love the game so much, and I never want it to be taken away from me, and I know that if I’m in situations like that, it can be taken away from me, so I’ve cleaned up a little bit and am moving forward.”
With 62 days remaining until the picking starts in the first round of the draft, Nkemdiche hasn’t cleaned it up enough to remove all the question marks the NFL has attached to his name, and Friday’s explanations seemingly did little to diffuse his character issues and repair his reputation. For a player who admits he struggles with finishing, the most important work of Nkemdiche’s football career may be just beginning, and you have to wonder which fall might end up hurting more.