INDIANAPOLIS – Rex Ryan should start carrying a football around so he can spike it. Any chance he gets, the Buffalo Bills head coach scolds anyone who doubted his selection of Florida State cornerback Ronald Darby.
You bet Ryan was at it again at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“Even though we were much criticized for that move by a lot of people in here,” Ryan said, “it ended up working out.”
No coach revels in granting a second chance quite like Ryan. Where other coaches are repelled by an arrest, a red flag, a controversy … Ryan seems pulled in. Intrigued. Thrives off it. This is a roster built on second chances. Buffalo took a stream of gambles last offseason in shifting this team further into win-now mode.
Darby witnessed the alleged rape involving Jameis Winston, refused to testify and was then cleared of any wrongdoing. He fell to 50th overall and had 68 tackles with 21 pass break-ups. Karlos Williams was investigated by police in a domestic battery case (no charges were filed), fell to 155th overall and rushed for 517 yards (5.6 avg.) and seven touchdowns through four injuries.
Up front, Richie Incognito may be the best guard in the NFL.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out.
Less than 24 hours after he was released by the New York Jets for breaking his quarterback’s jaw, linebacker IK Enemkpali was claimed by the Bills. He had zero sacks. Percy Harvin lasted until October.
One subject of a high-stakes gamble – mercurial 27-year-old LeSean “Shady” McCoy, given a $40 million deal – faces potential arrest after a bar brawl in Philadelphia. Even if no charges are filed, he could face NFL suspension.
Where should a NFL team draw a line with second chances? At what point is Saint Rex taking too many risks? This year’s draft is loaded with character risks at positions of need.
A defensive end (Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche) who got drunk, fell out of a hotel window and had marijuana in his room. A pass rusher (Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence) who failed two drug tests. An inside linebacker (Florida’s Antonio Morrison) who allegedly barked at a police dog and resisted arrest.
Ryan and the Bills will face many tough decisions again.
“First off, I don’t think any of us would be here without a second chance,” Ryan said. “Certainly, that weighs into it. But you also want to know, is this a problem that’s going to be persistent or has been persistent in the young man’s life? You have to weigh those things obviously. It’s a huge investment that you make as a franchise.
“So not everybody comes in and you say, ‘Absolutely, this guy’s fine.’ Maybe he’s not fine. There’s things that you have to look at. Obviously, that’s part of the process.”
The question at No. 19 overall could become: Do you believe the stories Spence and Nkemdiche are selling? One, or both, could trickle to Ryan.
At the same podium where Johnny Manziel once charmed, vowed he was a changed man and charmed some more in Lucas Oil Stadium, stood Spence. He, too, sent media members to Twitter drooling in approval.
A force of nature on the field, Spence admitted he partied too much off it. He was around “a group of people I can’t hang with.” At Ohio State, he first failed a drug test at the 2013 Big Ten title game and was suspended three games. Spence told family and coaches then that someone slipped a substance into his drink.
Spence was doing it himself. He failed a second test in September 2014, testing positive for Ecstasy, and was banned from the Big Ten. On to Eastern Kentucky, Spence seemed to get his life in order in addition to totaling 13.5 sacks. The transfer was a “business trip,” he said. Spence now spends his free time with his girlfriend at home or the movies.
A far cry from the weekends at Ohio State where Spence would stay up nearly 48 hours straight on Ecstasy – though he claimed this week he was never addicted. Now, he gets drug tested every week.
“I’m blessed to be in this situation,” Spence said. “I didn’t think I’d be back here. Wherever I go is fine with me.”
Spence can at least point to his year of rehabilitation. There’s proof he has turned a corner. Nkemdiche’s transgression is fresh.
Last December, Nkemdiche fell four floors out of his Atlanta hotel room and, per the police, the room was found “in complete disarray” with “seven rolled marijuana cigarettes.” The Ole Miss end was arrested for marijuana possession and subsequently suspended from the Sugar Bowl.
He’s claims he was drunk, not on drugs.
“It’s the truth,” he said, “and it’s what I’m going to keep moving forward with. I’m going to stick to my story.
“That was rash. It was blunder. The people that know me know that’s not who I am. I don’t do those kind of things. The media’s done a tarnish to my name but I’ve just got to make them understand me as a person who I am.”
No, blaming the media might not be the best play. Later asked if the media tarnished his name or if he did it himself, Nkemdiche said “it was off my mistake.”
Surely, any team of interest has scouts dispatched to each player’s campus to uncover the truth.
Background checks are essential. Face-to-face time is a must. When Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht was in Arizona, a full-day visit with Tyrann Mathieu sealed the deal. Licht heard most teams removed the “Honey Badger” from their draft boards. The Cardinals were convinced he made “immature decisions” but wasn’t a bad person.
“We just did our work, did our due diligence,” Licht said. “Spending time with him. There’s a lot of value in looking at a guy in the eye.”
Los Angeles Rams GM Les Snead took a risk on a player kicked off a SEC team, too. He believed in cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who has 48 pass break-ups and 10 interceptions in his four pro seasons.
Snead doesn’t operate with one “standard line” on when or when not to give a player a second chance. To him, the key question is if a player owns up to a mistake, learns from it and applies the lesson.
Every player, he said, has “different DNA.” Every draft prospect has a chance to mature.
“A lot of kids make mistakes in college,” Snead said. “When you have a chance to take a kid out of the draft, you now have a chance to raise him. Versus let’s just say you’re so many years in the league and you’re needing a second chance, maybe it’s a little more difficult because you’re not now raising a young man. You’re kind of getting the man and he’s set in his ways.”
Therefore, teams are more willing to provide a second chance to a prospect than, say, abandoned veterans.
“You’re getting guys who are 20, 21, 22 years old,” Snead said. “They’re still five, four, three years away from being able to rent a car. So the rental companies have an algorithm for a reason. They know that when you get to 25 you’re a little more mature. Your frontal lobe’s probably a little more developed than when you were 20.”
Hit on 2 of 3, Snead added, and you might head to the Hall of Fame. Miss on the wrong player and it can backfire.
The Bills will sail or fail with such gambles. At No. 19, Ryan might instantly inject new life into his defense. Navigate his second chances just right and maybe Ryan can close that New England gap once and for all at some point.
Nobody questions the talent level of Nkemdiche, of Spence. They put together highlight reels of destruction.
Does Spence view himself as a risk? “No. Not at all.”
In April, it’d be no shock if Ryan lent a hand. And if a second chance – any second chance – pays off, count on a certain head coach pointing a finger at the naysayers next February.