His pedigree and talent are undeniable. Robert Nkemdiche is a physical specimen for sure, measuring 6 feet 4 inches and 295 pounds. For someone so large, he also displays intriguing athleticism and quickness. His on-field skills tantalize NFL GMs, but his documented incidents and quirky attitude off-field cast a shadow of doubt.
Nkemdiche has been tabbed a can’t-miss prospect since high school. During his senior year at Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga., Nkemdiche was tabbed the top overall football recruit in the nation. Despite putting up modest numbers, notching only 16 tackles for loss and six sacks in his three-year college career, Nkemdiche proved to be a disruptive force. As evidence, he was named Second Team All-SEC and Second Team All-American Linemen this season while posting only three sacks. That suggests impact beyond the stat sheet.
Not to sound cynical, but similar to other prospects with so called character “red flags,” drafting Nkemdiche would present a high-risk, high-reward scenario. Placed alongside Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, Nkemdiche could elevate the Steelers defensive line into one of if not the top unit in the league.
Steve McLendon’s departure opens an obvious need at nose tackle. Nkemdiche might be a tad undersized to act as a true nose guard, playing strictly over center all game long. Though, listed about 300 pounds, he could probably hold his own in the middle if mixed in on some early downs. Asking him to regularly gobble up interior linemen ala Big Snack Casey Hampton wouldn’t be realistic. However, his quickness and agility could make him a menace as an interior pass rusher on obvious throwing downs. Think more Michael Bennett with the Seahawks than Hampton.
Nkemdiche’s speed and pass rushing ability would allow him to slide out to defensive end as well, rotating with Tuitt and Heyward when they need a rest. Those two options would open up plenty of snaps for Nkemdiche. A line combination of Heyward, Nkemdiche, and Tuitt would be extremely potent. Mixing him into the fold would present offenses with a pick-your-poison-type dilemma when deciding who to double team. His presence most likely means two of the Steelers linemen would require such treatment, enabling Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones to thrive against near constant one-on-one matchups.
The potential on-field rewards of Nkemdiche would be significant, but much of the reason he could be available when the Steelers select 25th has to do with off-field actions. In a December incident, Nkemdiche reportedly broke through a window and fell off a 15-foot ledge while staying in an Atlanta hotel, ending up in the hospital. When police arrived, they found marijuana cigarettes and Nkemdiche was later charged with possession despite his assertion that the drugs were not his, quite the “fall guy” indeed. He was subsequently suspended for Ole Miss’s Sugar Bowl appearance.
Along with the hotel incident, Nkemdiche admitted to sometimes applying less than full effort and failing to finish plays. No player is perfect in that regard no matter what they claim, but his open admission certainly raised some eyebrows. He also said thanks but no thanks when asked to participate in a shuttle run drill at both the combine and his school’s pro day. Not exactly what scouts loved to hear out of a man with perceived character issues. Oh, and by the way, he casually wants to buy a pet panther … an actual black panther, interesting choice in house cats.
Down to the question at hand, should Nkemdiche be on the Steelers draft board? The Steelers seem to be considering Nkemdiche. They brought him into their facilities for one of their 30 allotted prospect visits. At the very least, the Steelers are performing due diligence on a potential draft fit. In my opinion, Nkemdiche belongs on their draft board.
On one hand, taking on the risk of Nkemdiche might not be severe as it’s made out to be. Veteran presence in the locker room and guidance from Big Ben, hopefully a returning James Harrison, and especially within the defensive line group in Cam Heyward, could provide positive influence for Nkemdiche. On the other side, being recently snake bitten by the star crossed Martavis Bryant, and his year-long suspension, will probably make the Steelers more hesitant than usual to pull the trigger on a player with questionable character. For that reason, I highly doubt the Steelers would take Nkemdiche if he falls to them in the NFL Draft.