Robert Nkemdiche Aims to Become Seahawks' Latest First-Round Reclamation Success

Seattle held Nkemdiche in high regard coming out of Ole Miss in 2016, but injuries and off-field issues prevented him from meeting expectations in Arizona. After a year away from the game, the organization hopes to unlock some of his untapped potential at a position of need and he got off to a solid start at OTAs.
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When it comes to conducting revival projects, there may not be a general manager in the NFL who enjoys taking a shot on busted first-round picks from other organizations more than John Schneider does.

Since coming to the Seahawks in 2010, Schneider has signed off on numerous one-year fliers for once highly-touted prospects who struggled to live up to their first-round draft billing elsewhere for a variety of reasons. Among those who have been given a second chance in the Pacific Northwest in the past five years are defensive end Dion Jordan, guard Luke Joeckel, and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah from the infamous 2013 draft class.

Schneider's willingness to explore such low-risk, high-reward opportunities has been a mixed bag results-wise over the years. Ansah kept battling injuries and generated just 2.5 sacks in 11 games during his lone season in Seattle, Joeckel struggled in his only year with the team and abruptly washed out of the league, and Jordan dealt with his own injury issues after flashing with 4.0 sacks in five games in 2017.

But in contrast, some of these reclamation signings have worked out favorably. Another former first rounder from 2013, guard D.J. Fluker, proved instrumental in helping the team return to the playoffs in 2018 and 2019, starting a total of 24 games and creating run lanes for Chris Carson to bulldoze for over 1,000 yards rushing each season. While he only had one sack, Barkevious Mingo—yes, another 2013 first rounder—started 14 games at strongside linebacker in 2018 and set a new career-high with 48 tackles, eventually being included in a trade for Jadeveon Clowney.

While Schneider and coach Pete Carroll finally appear to be over their fixation with that 2013 group, the fascination with high-profile first-round picks who didn't pan out with their original teams remains. Hours before the start of the 2021 NFL draft, after bringing him in for a workout that was kept under wraps and unreported, the Seahawks agreed to terms with ex-Cardinals defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.

"We're always looking to get better," Carroll said following day two of the 2021 NFL draft back in April. "We're always looking to find guys and John brought Robert's name up and of course we remembered him from the draft before—lost track of him a bit because he'd been banged up and missed a year—but man, he came in here and worked out and blew us away. So we're thrilled he's going to join us and add to the competition."

Once a decorated five-star, consensus No. 1 overall recruit for Ole Miss, the 6-foot-4, 296-pound Nkemdiche didn't quite live up to the hype during three years with the Rebels. Despite producing only 6.0 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 29 games, however, those numbers were heavily influenced by constant double teams by opponents and he still earned First-Team All-SEC and Second-Team All-American honors as a junior before declaring for the NFL draft.

Many draft experts viewed Nkemdiche as a potential top-10 pick in terms of talent. He possessed rare athletic traits for a player of his size, as he ran a 4.87-second 40-yard dash and posted a 35-inch vertical at the combine. But questions persisted about his work ethic and some teams were scared off by his eccentric personality, while off-field issues also created red flags for consideration, including charges for drug possession that led to a suspension in the 2016 Sugar Bowl.

Far from a flawless prospect, Nkemdiche fell late into the first round given the questions surrounding him. As Carroll hinted at, Seattle had plenty of interest in him and after trading back to No. 31 overall, he remained a possible option.

But moments before the Seahawks were back on the clock, their division rivals snagged Nkemdiche, as the Cardinals used the 29th overall pick. Two picks later, Schneider ended up selecting Texas A&M tackle Germain Ifedi, who had previously met with the team at the VMAC during the pre-draft process.

While Ifedi's selection was panned by critics and he became the whipping boy for fans who became irritated by poor line play in Seattle, he ultimately has had a far more successful career to this point than Nkemdiche. He started 60 games over four seasons with the organization, proving to be durable and more reliable than credited for, while the latter struggled to even see the field during his first two NFL seasons.

Unable to impress on the practice field and displaying a lack of interest in fully investing in his craft, Nkemdiche only dressed for five games and made a single tackle during a very disappointing rookie season. He wasn't much better in 2017, appearing in 12 games and registering 11 tackles and a fumble return for a touchdown.

Much like his time at Ole Miss, Nkemdiche displayed his immense talent in fleeting spurts for Arizona. Finally cracking the starting lineup in 2018, he produced a couple of monster efforts, including racking up seven tackles, four tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. But the momentum was short-lived, as he tore his ACL two weeks later and landed on injured reserve.

Reporting to camp out of shape coming off the injury, the Cardinals waived Nkemdiche with a failed physical designation in July 2019. He briefly latched on with the Dolphins, appearing in a pair of games before being waived again in November. He then served a two-game suspension for an undisclosed rule violation and hasn't played in a game since.

As Carroll acknowledged, Nkemdiche will have to shake off the rust after not playing during the 2020 season. But he's only going to turn 27 years old in September and after Seattle released defensive tackle Jarran Reed in April, the team could certainly use help in the interior defensive line. Carroll believes he can provide that with a unique skill set and capabilities to move around the defensive line a bit.

"He was a very dynamic football player a few years back when he came out. He's only 26 years old. He's ready to go, really excited about the opportunity to come in here, be with our guys and all that," Carroll remarked. "We'll see how this fits in. He does some things that look a little bit different than other guys - exactly what we're always looking for - the uniqueness that a guy can add and we think Robert might be able to do a real nice job playing the 3-technique and moving around in passing situations for us."

As is always the case with these type of signings, especially given his questionable track record and persistent questions about his desire to play the game, the Seahawks shouldn't be banking on Nkemdiche to be a difference maker. To this point, his career hasn't panned out and reliability has never been his strong suit. Even when the ride has some exhilarating moments along the way to almost justify the ticket price, jumping on the hype train has typically ended with the wheels derailing off the track.

After a year out of the league, however, Nkemdiche seems to have gotten a much-needed wake up call being away from the sport and the train has pulled back into the station in Seattle. It's difficult to make any legitimate evaluations during OTAs, but he looked to be in peak physical condition in his first few practice sessions, displaying a quick first step and once again tantalizing with his movement skills for his size. Most importantly, he seemed to be having fun, playfully barking at teammates and bringing quality effort during drill work.

Motivated and back in top shape, it's not out of the realm of possibility Nkemdiche could finally put everything together with an organization that has always allowed for a semblance of individuality. If that happens, his addition could prove to be an under-the-radar steal in free agency and offset Reed's departure. If he doesn't, the team can cut ties with minimal financial consequence, which is why Schneider continues to have no problem rolling the dice on talented players with first-round pedigree who failed to meet expectations elsewhere.

Based on how Nkemdiche has looked initially on the practice field, for as much as that is actually worth amid mundane sessions in June, the Seahawks should be cautiously optimistic about his chances of making an impact and finding a way into their defensive line rotation next season.