A leading candidate for biggest draft fall: Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche

·NFL columnist

INDIANAPOLIS – Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who one year ago was touted by analysts as the potential No. 1 pick in this 2016 NFL draft, may be the biggest name to face a significant draft day slide, evaluators from four teams surveyed at the NFL scouting combine told Yahoo Sports.

The reasons given for the potential fall were varied, from a strong defensive line group to on-field performances that didn't always match up with Nkemdiche's athleticism. All of the evaluators gave Nkemdiche positive reviews for how he tested athletically at the combine, but also said there is validity to the criticism that his testing numbers don't consistently show on tape. Perhaps more important, all shared a common concern: whether Nkemdiche can be trusted off the field, and whether he will distance himself from individuals who have negatively influenced him in the past.

Robert Nkemdiche (Getty Images)
Robert Nkemdiche (Getty Images)

"That's a guy that I could see having a little bit of a plummet," one evaluator said. "He's not in a weak class [at defensive tackle], and there is a lot of [off-field] stuff there to get through. … He may not end up being a first-round pick."

Interestingly, by Sunday morning all of the evaluators had taken note of Nkemdiche's media session during combine week. It was an eventful period, including an admission that he occasionally was "lazy" on plays, leading to some of his mediocre stats (6½ total sacks in three seasons, average tackle totals and never forced a fumble). Ultimately, the Q&A session was punctuated by Nkemdiche's allegation that Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (the favorite to be the No. 1 pick) was present when Nkemdiche fell out of an Atlanta hotel window in December. Tunsil's camp denied that allegation to several NFL teams, further raising NFL eyebrows. Nkemdiche also insisted he was drunk – and not under the influence of drugs – when the fall occurred. He added that ensuing marijuana possession charges were a case of other people in the room not wanting "to take the fall" after police found the substance in the hotel room.

Asked how NFL teams had received his explanation of the hotel room incident, Nkemdiche said the reaction was positive.

"They believe me," he said. "It's the truth and it's what I'm going to keep moving forward with. I'm going to stick to my story. That's what it is. I'm going to keep moving forward, keep being in the moment and get ready to show out on Sunday."

Nkemdiche ultimately posted numbers that placed him near the top of the interior defensive linemen, and teased why his pass rush potential is so high at the tackle spot. At 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds, his 40-yard dash (4.87 seconds), bench reps (28 at 225 pounds), vertical (35 inches) and broad jump (9 feet, 8 inches) were all in or near the top percentile for defensive tackles. That will be enough to keep teams engaged, and has already resulted in nearly half the league setting up individual visits. Whether that translates into a first-round lock remains to be seen.

Other combine notes on defensive linemen

• The class of edge rushers seems to have lost some steam in Indianapolis. The class lacks a surefire game-changing player who is considered "can't-miss" status in the top five, multiple evaluators told Yahoo Sports. Good (but not jaw-dropping) workouts from Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence seemed to back that up. Oregon's DeForest Buckner has apparently fallen into that camp as well. The interior defensive line has seemed to excite teams much more.

• One scout whose team isn't in the market for a first-round defensive tackle said Louisville's Sheldon Rankins could end up being the best defensive lineman taken in this draft, and could end up as a top-10 surprise on draft day. The scout said Rankins' ascent will largely depend on how much bigger and stronger teams think the 299-pounder can get without losing his fluidity in pursuit.