Robert Nkemdiche is one of the 2016 NFL Draft's most glaring question marks. His is the latest case of a talented player facing down a barrage of questions about his off-field life, and this year's Combine should prove to be a grueling test of his athletic and personal attributes. Virtually all scouting reports on Nkemdiche tout his 6'5, 297-pound frame and other-worldly abilities as a defensive tackle before pivoting away from his on-field prowess and toward the fateful Atlanta hotel room incident that resulted in a broken window, inexplicable tumble to earth, and subsequent marijuana possession charge.
Once considered a sure-fire top-10 pick (ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. had Big Rob at No. 1 midway through the season), most projections currently situate him in the high teens to early twenties. Because Nkemdiche was suspended for Ole Miss' trip to the Sugar Bowl, Sunday's workout in Indianapolis will be his first chance since the late-December arrest to remind scouts how gifted of an athlete he is.
It's not really a question of whether he'll put up impressive numbers. He most definitely will, because...
And he's insanely athletic for his size:
The question is, will the freakish athleticism he displays at the Combine be enough to counteract the weight of his off-field transgressions and begin moving back up draft boards.
What the experts are saying
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller reported back in January that Nkemdiche was drawing interest from the Cowboys (pick No. 4) and Chargers (pick No. 3), the former no stranger to players' personal baggage and the latter just that badly in need of a defensive trench grenade. It seems, however, that a top-10 pick may not be in Big Rob's future, at least not according to the majority of mock drafts presently out there in the lead-up to this week's Combine.
Here's FOX Sports' Joel Klatt, who projects Nkemdiche as the No. 31 overall pick, one of the lowest projections out of all high volume big boards:
It will be hard to overlook his off-field incidents that showed up at the tail end of his career at Ole Miss. He is very talented, but, at times, that is not enough to make an NFL organization overlook those transgressions. He is, both as a player and a person, the exact opposite of Emmanuel Ogbah,as he flashes great technique and raw athleticism, but his production lags behind. His draft slot is likely to be all over the map. Won’t surprise me if he is taken in the first 15 picks and it won't surprise me if he falls to Round 2.
ESPN's Kevin Weidl is more optimistic, placing Nkemdiche top on his list of players with the most to gain:
On the field, it will be hard to miss the 6-foot-5, 297-pound physical freak who will likely generate a lot of buzz during workouts. But the most important portion of Nkemdiche's combine will be behind closed doors during interviews with teams. The underclassman has seen his stock cool off after getting suspended for the Sugar Bowl (marijuana possession) and putting together inconsistent tape in 2015. Nkemdiche will need to be upfront and forthright during his 15-minute interviews. He has a chance to get his stock pointed back in the right direction if he's able to take accountability for his actions.
Over at NFL.com, where Nkemdiche's draft pick is averaging in the low twenties, Chase Goodbread lists Rob's hotel fall as the first question he wants answered -- from any prospect -- come media days at the Combine:
It's unlikely any player will be less comfortable walking to the microphone than the Ole Miss defensive tackle, who's a first-round talent but one that comes with character concerns. Nkemdiche put himself in that position when he broke a hotel window and fell some 15 feet in Atlanta, resulting in a police response and a discovery of seven marijuana cigarettes in the hotel room. He was suspended from the Sugar Bowl for that incident. What happened that day? And what will happen if NFL clubs don't buy his explanation? That's not the only character question Nkemdiche faces, but it's the one foremost on our minds for one of the draft's elite defensive talents.
Nkemdiche is a top-10 talent in this draft class, but not a top-10 football player. Aside from the effort and motivation questions, he also had a few run-ins with the law off the field and NFL teams need to figure out if Nkemdiche is trustworthy to not only reach his full potential, but also stay out of trouble.
This, then, is the sort of draftspeak Nkemdiche is facing as the weekend's proceedings commence in Indianapolis, and it's fair to assume that he's rehearsed the most politick of responses to every variety of question about the hotel room incident.
Such worries are not altogether unfounded, of course: blasting out of a fourth-floor window followed by an immediate disavowal of having used synthetic marijuana makes for an outsized media firestorm, an albatross against which NFL owners and draft hacks are singularly united. That those gatekeepers have reason for concern about Big Rob's off-field life makes understandable sense, but their hesitations about, and reasons for scrutiny of his extracurricular doings are slightly askew. Their party line is one of scandal avoidance.
Rather than grilling Nkemdiche about one night in Atlanta, a more forgiving league and team front office might ask what external factors contributed to this man's episode and seek out the appropriate apparatus with which to forestall any dangerous happenstances in the future. As it is, however, Robert Nkemdiche's cross is his and his alone to bear in league eyes, and whichever team's investment in his football future will certainly come loaded with all manner of contingencies should Big Rob again go skating off the deep end.