As a high-ranking AFC personnel man went over the dynamics of September roster churn in the NFL, he noted a few impressive rookies he'd seen this preseason. Asked to handicap rookie of the year possibilities, he pounced on a name.
He paused to fully load his voice with sarcasm, then continued.
"I'm sure the [NFL] would be excited to hand a trophy to Frank right now."
The sarcasm was accurate. Clark has a red-flagged history that the NFL-at-large is not seeking to embody these days. Booted from the University of Michigan football team for an alleged domestic assault (which also featured a cringe-worthy police report), he was nonetheless plucked in the second round by the Seahawks. Some teams had removed him from their board for the incident. Others slid him down. Seattle? Well, the Seahawks have taken some character risks before, so Clark was in the franchise's draft wheelhouse. Seattle was hardly alone in rolling the dice.
A number of NFL teams prominently gambled on high-risk, high-reward talents in the draft. Whether the red flags were for violence, drugs, attitude problems – or a combination of all three – talent eventually trumped reluctance. And, well, the preseason has teased some very promising returns.
The preseason voiced a realistic message about the NFL: In the right spot, risking fallout or shame can work. Even in a year when the league seems more hell-bent than ever to avoid controversy and embarrassment. Teams willing to gamble know they could end up with Josh Gordon, Aldon Smith or Dion Jordan. But they could also land a Justin Houston, and that temptation can be too hard to ignore.
The last month showed why. Five red-flagged defenders became prominent NFL selections and have spent the preseason repaying the teams that took the risk. They are …
Frank Clark, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Clark's issues before the draft weren't solely limited to his domestic violence case. There was a guilty plea for a laptop theft and second-degree home invasion, too. One scout thought Clark's emotion and temper on the field was out of control at times. Already this preseason there was the donnybrook with the San Diego Chargers, in which Clark appeared to shove the head of quarterback Philip Rivers as he exited a sack pileup.
That said, Clark has drawn raves for his play this preseason, and the fan discontent over his drafting has faded – as it often does when a player performs well. It takes only a few snaps to notice his energy and power are going to cause problems immediately. His nine tackles and one forced fumble in his first preseason game instantly raised eyebrows. Bottom line: Clark is being tabbed as a perfect fit to produce bunches of sacks in Seattle's scheme. And his alpha personality should fit right in with a locker room that is not easy on rookies.
Randy Gregory, DE, Dallas Cowboys
His red flags were of the emotional variety. His failed drug test and admitted heavy marijuana use at Nebraska was well chronicled leading into the draft, and teams tied the issues to Gregory's anxiety. To his credit, he has been open about the problems and his desire to to resolve them, and that made his drafting a little easier. But he enters the season in the NFL's substance-abuse program, which is always a scary proposition.
Thus far, Gregory has been a revelation in Dallas. He has immersed himself in a mentoring relationship with Charles Haley and worked to add weight as well. He also appears to have been an instant hit inside the locker room. On the field? Four sacks in three preseason games (one was called back on an unrelated penalty) and two forced holding penalties. His speed and ability to get the proper bend has served him well. And Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is clearly happy.
"His exuberance, call it youthful, his passion, it's all out there in front of him," Jones said after Gregory gave fits to the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday. "The lights are bright, but they're not too bright for him. He's going to be a big part of our success this year."
Shane Ray, OLB, Denver Broncos
He landed himself in the NFL's drug-testing program in the run-up to the draft, and that caused him to slip down in the first round. The timing of his arrest was almost the worst part of it – only days before the draft. One scout said it could be perceived as "recklessness" to endanger a career at such a pivotal moment. It takes a lot to cause teams to turn their backs on elite pass-rushers, but Ray's last-minute mistake crossed that boundary with a few franchises.
In three preseason games, Ray managed eight tackles, 1½ sacks, one pass defended and a forced fumble – in fairly limited time. Pro Football Focus graded him as the best first-round pick of the preseason after three games. Perhaps most impressive, Ray has held up against both the run and pass, which has the Broncos really excited. If the defense is healthy, he's in a loaded group of linebackers, so the Broncos will have to be creative to get him opportunities. But he has been so good in the preseason, that seems assured at this point.
Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
A few harsh scouting reports tabbed Peters as either someone who had difficulty with authority or, worse yet, a guy who was uncoachable. He was suspended for one game at Washington following a sideline fit in 2014 and then dismissed altogether after clashes with coaches. Peters was tabbed as emotionally immature and likely to get burned on an NFL field because of his lack of discipline in taking coaching.
He hasn't been perfect for the Chiefs, but he is already showing signs of being a good starting cornerback in the NFL. He has been targeted nine times in the preseason but allowed only two catches for short yardage. In practice he has had moments where he struggled with balls thrown over his head. But he has also shown a penchant for being very competitive, confident and willing to tackle. Maybe most important, he hasn't had any issues with taking advice from teammates.
P.J. Dawson, OLB, Cincinnati Bengals
Some scouts panned him as immature. "Too confident for his own good," was the way one NFC North scout described him. Dawson's personality could grind on others. One report said he wasn't "beloved in the [TCU] program," which is usually a roundabout way of saying that some people simply didn't like him. His attention to responsibility also appeared to be lacking. Dawson admitted that he was late to a lot of meetings and the weight room, and once failed a drug test for Adderall, but later got a prescription. Combine those issues with an awful scouting combine performance, and a guy who some thought was a first-round pick slid all the way to the last pick of the third.
Injuries opened playing time far earlier than expected and Dawson has already shown a penchant for playmaking and being around the football. He had nine tackles in three games, but Pro Football Focus has graded him the best 4-3 linebacker to play this preseason. That's loaded praise considering the many realities of meaningless preseason games. But teammates have raved about his instincts at the position and the perceived lack of athleticism following his poor combine hasn't shown up. The Bengals think they hit it big with a player who others wouldn't touch.