Shawn Oakman faces long odds of getting into NFL after acquittal in rape trial

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports
Former Baylor defensive lineman Shawn Oakman fell off NFL draft boards in 2016 after he was investigated and later charged with rape. He was found not guilty in February and is attempting to play pro football. (Getty Images)
Former Baylor defensive lineman Shawn Oakman fell off NFL draft boards in 2016 after he was investigated and later charged with rape. He was found not guilty in February and is attempting to play pro football. (Getty Images)

Once again, Shawn Oakman is trying to get his football career back on track. And like Johnny Manziel before him, he’s willing to go anywhere and do anything to make it happen.

In recent weeks, the former Baylor football star – whose gargantuan, chiseled physique went viral during the 2015 Cotton Bowl – has been searching for an NFL agent and attempting to generate any look he can get from professional football leagues. That included popping up as a late addition in the Spring League, an Austin, Texas, scouting event that has featured Manziel and a few other former college and NFL players trying to regain traction in their careers.

By all accounts, Oakman has his work cut out for him. He was once considered a project player with immense physical gifts but a litany of character questions heading into a 2016 NFL draft process that had him pegged as a potential second- or third-round pick. That abruptly ended when a rape investigation surfaced only weeks before the draft, leading Oakman to be dropped off every team’s board. He ultimately went unselected and his career was cast into doubt when he was indicted on a rape charge. Oakman faced the charges in the judicial process and refused a plea offer along the way before eventually winning an acquittal in February that saw jurors deliberate for only two hours before a decision.

Oakman’s NFL evaluation restarts

That acquittal opened the door for him to pursue an NFL career, but the near three-year pause in his pursuit has created an uphill climb that appears vastly more difficult than the one Oakman faced in 2016, when he was largely facing questions from teams about his dismissal from Penn State as a freshman and a rough upbringing that had been catalogued throughout his career.

Teams are basically beginning at square one with Oakman.

Yahoo Sports reached out to a handful of personnel men over the past week – most of whom saw Oakman’s path to pro football as more of a curiosity than a certainty. As of last week, a few still hadn’t realized that Oakman had been acquitted on the rape charge. Others recalled vague questions about his evaluations prior to the 2016 draft. All universally agreed on one point: at 27 years old and more than three years removed from playing in a high-level football game, his odds at an NFL career are now extremely long. Even having been considered a potential high pick in a draft just a few years ago.

He’s eligible to be signed by anyone at any time after being bypassed completely in the 2016 draft.

“He’s probably going to have a hard time making it to the [Canadian Football League] at this point,” one scout said. “Probably the worst thing for him was the [Alliance of American Football] folding. He’s starting from scratch, even with what he is physically – or what he was, physically.”

Whatever the journey, Oakman officially started it in the Spring League last week and will wrap his practices in front of scouts in the next few days. It’s an event that boasted having brought 18 NFL scouts and nine from the CFL last year, while having nearly 33 percent of participants in 2018 invited to a camp in the NFL or CFL. Such an invite would be a humble restart for Oakman – who was a defensive MVP of the Senior Bowl in 2016 – but like Manziel in 2017, he appears to be looking for any opportunity he can get.

“It feels great to be out here – it’s truly a blessing,” Oakman told the Austin American-Statesman. “A lot of people take [football] for granted. A lot of people would’ve retired already. To me, it was just a blessing, a blessing to be back out here to do what I love. … I think the [Spring League] game will put my name out there. My game will speak for itself.”

Shawn Oakman began playing in the Spring League this month. (Getty Images)
Shawn Oakman began playing in the Spring League this month. (Getty Images)

On-field issues with Oakman

Oakman has had a significantly winding path over the past three years, as his trial wound through the legal system. He had jobs that included working at a carnival and pouring concrete in construction. He also spent time with two indoor football teams in 2018 – the Triangle Torch and Bismarck Bucks. Since his acquittal in February, he has been working to get back the immense physical frame that once made him stick out at football events, including the 2016 NFL scouting combine, where he stood side-by-side with other top tier prospects and physically looked like an imposing All-Pro.

Of course, that has always been a part of the Oakman story. During the league’s draft process in 2016, nearly every NFL team took time to speak with him at the Senior Bowl or combine. Largely because of the untapped talent, but also because there was so much work to do on Oakman off the field. He was dismissed from Penn State for team infractions, including a confrontation with a cashier for allegedly attempting to steal a sandwich. There were other alleged physical confrontations he was asked about, along with a childhood that included being homeless at one point.

But aside from questions teams raised about him off the field, Oakman was already presenting a challenging evaluation heading into the 2016 draft. He was on the NFL radar for several years, essentially from his first season at Baylor in 2013, as a rotational redshirt sophomore following a transfer from Penn State. As Bears coaches were raving about his talent ceiling that season, it didn’t take long before NFL eyes started to wander in the direction of Oakman’s chiseled 6-foot-8, 270-pound frame.

By the time Oakman was heading into his senior season, some had remarkably high expectations of him. So much so, the National Football Scouting service – which is used by some NFL teams as a loose reference to guide evaluations – put the second highest grade of the 2015 senior prospectus on Oakman. The only player rated higher than Oakman: Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, who ended up being selected No. 7 overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2016 draft.

That’s not to suggest Oakman was a top-10 talent heading into his senior season at Baylor, nor in the ensuing 2016 draft. In truth, NFL evaluators often pan the National Football Scouting grades as being nothing more than a glorified “watch list.” But it’s a reminder that some had him pegged as a potential high first-round pick.

Where he settled after his senior year, the NFL combine and the early portions of the draft’s sifting process was another matter. His evaluations were uneven, with criticism typically landing on Oakman looking like an All-Pro defensive end but often playing maddeningly inconsistent. The physical gifts? They were so jaw-dropping that even years later the Cotton Bowl photo continues to circulate on social media of Oakman towering over Michigan State’s players.

But consistent results matter for potential first-round picks, and Oakman’s raised some questions after his senior season. Despite registering 19 1/2 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks as a junior in 2014 (and likely being a first-round pick in the 2015 draft), Oakman surprisingly returned to Baylor for his senior year. His production dipped to 14 1/2 tackles for a loss and only 4 1/2 sacks as a senior, opening up some on-field questions to go with some of the character questions off it.

It wasn’t long before assessments of Oakman were all over the place. Some scouts looked at him as an ex-basketball player with elite athleticism but a lack of feel for the game. Others thought he was too stiff to be a high-level NFL producer. Some saw him as a player who didn’t always give consistent effort and often seemed blockable at times. And of course, there were questions about character flags off the field, which Oakman was trying to answer through the process. Some believed he would be a second-round pick with some first-round ability. Others thought he would slide into the third round. But everyone agreed: He was a player who had traits that couldn’t be ignored – and if a team could develop him to his physical gifts, he had star potential worth the investment.

In many ways, his assessment was similar to that of Michigan State defensive end Malik McDowell in 2017, who was seen as overflowing with physical gifts and scattered brilliance on tape – but inconsistent and with some questions about his attitude and effort. Interestingly, McDowell’s draft position unfolded the way many thought Oakman’s could have if it hadn’t been for the rape trial that derailed him. Ultimately, McDowell was taken 35th overall by the Seattle Seahawks, higher than some thought was warranted largely based on his upside and physical traits. To be fair, McDowell’s evaluations were better than Oakman’s. He was seen as a better overall athlete and safer bet off the field. But the propensity for NFL teams to lean into project pass rushers who cut the kind of figure that Oakman once did certainly could have enticed a pick higher than anticipated.

He unquestionably had no shortage of interested teams going into that 2016 draft. Now? He may very well go a while with no interest at all. He’s still an enigma. Unquestionably, he’s still a difficult evaluation. Where that takes him next is anyone’s guess. But that process has started, in more humble surroundings than ever before.

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