TEMPE, Ariz. — The Cardinals expanded their evaluation process before this year’s NFL Draft, assigning football character grades to their prospects to differentiate them from regular character grades.
The new process came into play on Day 1 of the Draft on Thursday, and it helped convince the Cardinals to select Mississippi defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche with their first-round pick (29th overall), despite some well-publicized issues off the field.
“He was dinged on the personal character because of the incident, which is how we’ve taught our scouts to grade it,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. “From a football character standpoint, we thought he was very good.”
The “incident” came in December when Atlanta police found seven rolled marijuana cigarettes in a hotel room tied to Nkemdiche. He fell 15 feet and suffered mild injuries after breaking a window in a room at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, according to a police report.
Nkemdiche was suspended for Ole Miss’s Sugar Bowl matchup with Oklahoma State, and the incident impacted his draft status. He was originally projected as a top-10 pick.
To get a read on him, the Cardinals spent time with him at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, spent time with him on the Ole Miss campus and brought him to Tempe for a visit. Both Keim and team president Michael Bidwill flew to Los Angeles on Monday to meet with him again.
“We spent more time with him personally than anybody else in this draft process,” Keim said. “When you hear about an incident you have a perception and when he came and spent a significant amount of time with us it changed our perception. He’s actually an artistic guy; plays the saxophone. I think he’s very well rounded; reads a lot of books.
“More than anything, he’s remorseful. That incident happened and he’s paid for it. He paid for it today. Hopefully, we’re the beneficiaries of that.”
Nkemdiche (6-foot-4, 296 pounds) was prepared for the possibility that he could slip in the draft due to the baggage.
“It was a true accident that happened. It was a blunder and it’s not who I am,” he said. “Over time, they will see that I’m a great person. I’m a competitor; I’m a hard worker. I’m a persistent person. I’m everything the Cardinals want and I’m everything they need.”
Despite the inconsistent production, most scouts were in love with Nkemdiche’s toolbox. Keim said he has a vertical leap of 35 inches and he ran a 4.8 in the 40. The Cardinals love his penetration, his quickness and his violent play that demands double teams.
By investing time with him, and by talking to his prep coaches, college coaches and current trainers, they were able to move past the other concerns.
“I would be willing to say that 50 percent of the draft choices have issues this year — and last year and the year before,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Each one is so different. You take them one at a time. You don’t lump them.”
The obvious comparison is Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, whose issues with marijuana precipitated a drop to the third round of the 2013 draft. Mathieu was in on the meetings with Nkemdiche, and will no doubt be a key mentor for the rookie, along with cornerback Patrick Peterson and defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker.
“I think the culture of our locker room speaks for itself; we’ve got great leadership, young and old,” Arians said. “When those guys meet with players we bring in, they know what they’re getting into. This guy comes from a great family. He had a really bad night one time, but the rest of his career has been really solid.”
Nkemdiche understands that the hotel incident will be part of his story for a long while, but he insists he is ready to move on.
“It’s what you have to face when you’re in this position; it comes with pros and cons,” he said. “You just kind of have to shake it off and have a comfortably numb shield on you and move forward and keep your eye on the prize.”
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