Top 10 red-flag players heading into NFL scouting combine

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

A year ago, there were so many questions for the NFL draft class of 2015. Some were character-based that surrounded some of the elite talents in the draft, from quarterback Jameis Winston (sexual assault allegation) and edge rusher Randy Gregory (substance abuse), to defensive end Frank Clark (domestic violence arrest) and wideout Dorial Green-Beckham (too many questions to choose just one).

Other questions orbited around health. Running back Todd Gurley? Knee reconstruction. Linebacker Shane Ray? Bad toe. Offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings? A stress fracture.

The list went on and on.

So goes the NFL's talent-sifting process, where team personnel departments and coaching staffs slide players up and down draft boards – or drop them off altogether. That plunge for information intensifies next week at the scouting combine, the league's annual gathering of prospects in Indianapolis. For some players, it will be the first time they sit face-to-face and take rapid-fire questions from executives. For others, it will be only the latest round of grilling and testing. And for almost all of them, it will be the first time teams get to poke, prod and peer into medical charts dating back to high school.

With those realities in mind, here's a list of 10 players who will face pressing questions when they arrive in Indianapolis …

CHARACTER QUESTIONS

Noah Spence (AP)
Noah Spence (AP)

Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky: He has shown brilliant flashes as an edge rusher and popped out at the Senior Bowl. He'll most likely be a buzzy combine riser. But the one-time Ohio State standout will get grilled by teams after stunningly getting banned by the Big Ten for twice failing drug tests for Ecstasy (and also initially lying about his failures). He has since spoken openly to some media about his past drug use, sought treatment and has been climbing back up the draft boards after dominating at Eastern Kentucky and the Senior Bowl. Passing the combine drug test would be a good thing. While that sounds obvious, it's worth noting that it should have been clear to Nebraska star edge rusher Randy Gregory last year, yet Gregory still failed it. It's expected that Spence will do well in the athletic portion of the combine. It's off-field things that teams will arrive most concerned about.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: A physically imposing and productive athlete who was a five-star Rivals recruit and universally touted, Nkemdiche could project to either a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 end on the NFL level. But his fall from an Atlanta hotel room window remains an odd moment that will get picked apart in interviews. It also came with a marijuana possession charge that will lead to plenty of questions, as well as a report of synthetic marijuana use (which Nkemdiche has denied). There was also an allegation of an assault in 2014, which resulted in the filing of a lawsuit by an Ole Miss student … and then a countersuit by Nkemdiche and his bother. Add in Nkemdiche's quirky personality, and there will be plenty of interesting conversations with teams at the combine.

Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor: He's the Senior Bowl defensive MVP who walks into a room looking like a star NFL defensive end, but he has faced criticism about hit-or-miss performances. At the combine he'll continue to get questions about his dismissal from Penn State by then head coach Bill O'Brien (who is now the head coach of the Houston Texans) for a variety of team infractions, including grabbing the wrist of a cashier at an on-campus convenience store. He was also suspended for Baylor's season opener in 2015 for a violation of team rules. The Bears staff didn't specify Oakman's infraction, but it was later determined he had a bench warrant that had been issued for failing to appear in court in relation to a minor traffic citation (running a stop sign).

Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers: He's a physical wideout whose powerful, compact stature (5-foot-11 and 217 pounds) and aggressive play have drawn comparisons to NFL great Steve Smith. His medical history will get a bit of a look after he missed two games in 2015 with a high ankle sprain that was aggravated at the Senior Bowl. He'll also face more questions about an arrest and simple assault/domestic violence charge last season that was dismissed after the alleged victim declined to pursue the complaint. The event led to Carroo missing two games. Carroo has maintained his innocence, characterizing himself as a bystander who was trying to break up a fight between his girlfriend and another group of women. 

Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State: He's got the prototypical size and tools of an NFL quarterback, and his arm is (thus far) considered good enough to get it done on the next level. Some of his testing in other areas of athleticism could come into play. Cook also doesn't have any glaring character red flags. That said, he has drawn the "what do you hear about him?" question when it comes to NFL scouts. Almost all of this stems from him not being voted a team captain by teammates as a junior or senior, despite already being a successful quarterback. The junior year omission has some reasoning, as he wasn't in a pool of players eligible for the honor. His senior year omission was more eyebrow-raising. NFL teams aren't picking on Cook or treating him differently. It's an ironclad trigger when successful college quarterbacks don't attain captain status as upperclassmen. Teams want to know why. It's a league where teams want their quarterbacks to be clear-cut leaders, so captaincy is a big deal. Some NFL personnel departments were hoping to ask Cook about it during Senior Bowl week, but he declined an invite to the game. So those questions have gotten pushed to the combine.

MEDICAL QUESTIONS

Myles Jack, LB, UCLA: He's a wicked every-down athlete with skills that would dazzle at the combine if Jack was 100 percent. If. Jack is entering the final stretch of recovery from a torn meniscus in his left knee that was expected to take four-to-six months to heal. His medical evaluation at the combine will be extremely important, as teams attempt to discern where he's at on the timetable. Given his combination of skills and production on the field, Jack might be the best player in this draft. One personnel man told Yahoo Sports that Jack carries similarities to Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks when he was coming out of Florida State. With that kind of praise hanging so much on speed and athleticism, Jack's knee assessment will be important. 

Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame: Like Myles Jack, Smith is viewed as an explosive every-down linebacker. Unlike Jack, Smith's knee injury (a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee) is far more serious and will keep him off the field for at least a portion of the 2016 NFL season (or potentially all of it). That's where Smith shares another similarity with Jack. His medical progress is going to be paramount in his draft positioning. If his knee surgery appears to be as clean as it has been reported and Smith is healing as expected, that will go a long way in easing fears about making him a first-round pick. This process is still very early for Smith. What will be equally important beyond the combine is where his health projections are at in April, when the rehab process begins to pick up.

Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: He's the consensus No. 1 player at his position, though it's not clear that he's a slam dunk top-10 pick anymore. That's not necessarily Treadwell's fault since other positions have shown strength early in the sifting process and are climbing up the draft boards. That said, teams want to get a closer look at Treadwell's medical chart now that he's more than 15 months removed from a nasty fractured fibula and dislocated ankle. Treadwell looked stronger than ever in 2015, but teams will be looking to square away any lingering questions. They'll also want to see how fast he runs after a relatively short bounce-back period from the injury, which ended his 2014 season and required a rehabilitation process that stretched into the early summer of 2015.

Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor: He was a wildly productive player in the Baylor system despite some inconsistency at the quarterbacks spot in 2015. Yet opinions on his draft stock vary due to the Bears' pass-happy offense run and Coleman's size. The latter is a particular concern, especially if he comes in measuring in the 5-foot-9 range. Coleman also had sports hernia surgery in December, which caused him to miss Baylor's bowl game. That surgery date was expected to put him on track for a full recovery by the combine, and teams will need to see it. It's not so much that Coleman's overall medical is an issue (though his size could prompt questions about long-term durability). It's more that Coleman has a chance to elevate himself considerably at the combine if he shows up healthy and tests off the charts. Indeed, he might be the key to clearing up a wide receiver position that is muddled behind Mississippi's Laquon Treadwell. There is a fight for the No. 2 spot at that position, and Coleman could blow the doors off and solidify himself as a first-round pick. Much will depend on his health and how much training he got in following his December surgery.

PERFORMANCE QUESTIONS

Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State: He's got the prototypical quarterback size and physical tools that teams love. But there are evaluators who see a guy who overwhelmingly had his best season as a freshman and declined in ensuing seasons. He was coached by the Houston Texans' Bill O'Brien in his first year at Penn State, and the talent surrounding him (and protecting him) steadily faded as he advanced into his sophomore and junior seasons. But the most pressing questions are about his accuracy, including serious concerns about when he was missing open receivers. From this point on, every throwing performance for Hackenberg will be big. How Hackenberg reacts in interviews will be huge, too. Specifically, whether he puts the responsibility for shortcomings on himself or points fingers elsewhere.

 

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