Former Ole Miss defensive tackle ready for the next phase of his career

CHICAGO, Ill. — Robert Nkemdiche has enjoyed the NFL Draft process, believe it or not.

He’s been taken through the ringer. Every word and movement has been scrutinized. There was the public outcry for an ESPN article when he mentioned buying a panther with his first professional contract, a strange — if not honest — combine interview and countless NFL analysts and pundits picking apart his game. Inconsistency is a word bandied about, be it on the field or off.

Nkemdiche, for his part, hasn’t allowed all the outside noise to distract him. He’s a day away from realizing his lifelong dream of being selected by an NFL dream and walking across the draft stage. He’s here. Nothing else matters. 

“I’ve embraced it,” he said. “I’m glad to be here. This is a dream. I don’t get bothered by what people say or what media say because I know what’s real. I don’t play into it. I don’t even flinch.”

He’s inarguably one of the most talented players in his class, though there are questions about his production. Still, in his three years as a starter along the Ole Miss defensive line, he earned All-American distinction twice, and he became the first defensive lineman to ever be a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation’s most versatile player.

But where he ultimately lands is a mystery.

“He’s an enigma, man,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He’s so talented, and you want to see it. But you just don’t see it on a down-to-down basis. To me, it’s not the effort as much as it’s just awareness. He’s not block aware. He’ll get wiped down the line of scrimmage and he just didn’t see it. A lot of disruption, but he doesn’t finish. He doesn’t finish plays. It’s all there. All the ability is there, it’s just getting all that other stuff dialed in.”

“I’m conflicted on Nkemdiche because I recognize the talent,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “The inconsistency, and that hasn’t even started on the off the field stuff. You have to be aware of what you’re getting. I think different coaches have different reputations for getting the most out of talented players that have had character flaws. If you look at a Pete Carroll at 26 or Rex Ryan at 19, I think they’re logical landing points. Guys who aren’t afraid of players who have had off the field issues.”

Jeremiah believes Nkemdiche is going in the first round, despite being one of the draft’s most vexing prospects. “He’s too much of a freak,” he said, and Nkemdiche’s measurables bare that out.

Nkemdiche totaled just six career sacks and 16 tackles for loss in his career, but the 6-foot-3, 294-pound defensive tackle ran a 4.87-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and he also had a 35-inch vertical jump and 28 reps on the 225-pound bench press.

“Most times when a guy comes into a locker room, there is a clean slate,” NFL Network analyst and former St. Louis Rams, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said. “My relationship with you is not going to be based on anything but my relationship with you. I’m not going to let what the media says or some crazy incident that happened in college or maybe a bad decision by you that happened in your younger years influence how I look at you as a teammate. I’m going to let you prove that to me every day when you go to work, with what you do in the locker room and with how I interact with you. Prove to me what you’re going to be at this level. It doesn’t matter if you’re a top-10 draft pick or if you’re a guy who goes in the later rounds. We’re all here for a purpose and I want to see a guy who’s committed to that purpose. That means carrying yourself a certain way, how you’re going to represent our organization and how are you going to be on the field. How hard are you going to work? What are you going to do to help me accomplish my goal. I think a guy like that, wherever he goes, he’s going to get that clean slate when he walks in the locker room and he’s going to have an opportunity to excel.”

“I think every team has to blend (off the field versus the tape),” NFL Network analyst and former San Fransisco 49ers and Detroit Lions head coach Steve Mariucci said. “You have grades. You have an athletic grade, with the measurables from the combine and the pro days. Then you got the football grade -- how good does he play on Saturdays? Then you have a medical grade, right? And then you have a character grade. Every one of those is discussed very thoroughly. Not everybody in this draft is clean as a whistle in terms of character grade. Some of these kids have issues. Some of these kids are kids and they do kid things sometimes. You hope that the team -- there are a lot of teams that would love to have him -- it’s just a matter of do I have a strong locker room to handle these guys coming up? To say, ‘Hey there’s a certain way we do things around here. Don’t mess it up.’ Some locker rooms are more veteran than others in doing that. I’ve been around the kid when he was in high school and now that he’s coming out, and I like the kid. A lot. He’s really engaging, he’s a great personality and he’s a lot of fun to be around. When he wants to play he’s as good as anybody. He’s got to want to play every day, every snap, and he’s going to be a pro-bowler.”

Laremy Tunsil is projected to go in the top-10 Thursday night. He was long expected to be the pick for the Tennessee Titans at No. 1 overall, but the Los Angeles Rams moved up in pursuit of a quarterback, as did the Philadelphia Eagles at No. 2. So he, too, is facing some draft uncertainty.

But nothing close to that of Nkemdiche. And the former Rebel left tackle doesn’t understand where all the criticism is coming from.

“It bothers me a lot, man,” Tunsil said. “People coming at him, it makes me mad. They don’t understand how good of a person he is. They’re judging a book by it’s cover. He’s made mistakes. He’s not a good person? I don’t understand that. It’s a part of media. Some media tries to throw you under the bus. A lot of people don’t know what type of person he is. He’s a great person. His tape speaks for itself. Everybody makes mistakes. You live and you learn.”

“I’m an interesting guy in various ways, I guess,” Nkemdiche said. “I know myself. But it’s all positive, you know what I mean? There’s nothing interesting, negative, about me. Everything’s interesting only for the positive. Maybe some people don’t understand, some people haven’t gotten to talk to me. They hear all these media perceptions. Perception’s reality. Some people only get to read through the lines. When people get to know me, it’s always a positive and good encounter.”

Nkemdiche held pre-draft visits and private meetings with over 20 teams, including, among others, the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens.

The questions he’s facing center on his December arrest following a fall from an Atlanta hotel room, as well as his combine comments, when he admitted to taking plays off and “lazy” tendencies. He also never broke the 30-tackle mark despite starting 35 games over three years in Oxford.

“I kind of got to get in with these teams and people got to see the real guy, the true guy I really am, instead of this perception of a mistake and the repercussions from it,” Nkemdiche said. “It’s my mistake and it’s behind me. I’m moving forward, and I’m happy people got to get to know me and get me in their facilities. Even the people around the NFL getting to know me and the person I am and how genuine I am and how great I’m want to be and how great I’m going to be.

“For me, it wasn’t my athletic ability or what I can do on the field or in the future and my potential as a player. It was really one mistake that I did. A couple of people created this negative off-the-field issues. I don’t know where it rooted from, but it’s what happens. Negative media sells. Positive media doesn’t sell. I’m hopeful, I’m positive. Whatever happens is what’s meant to happen. I’m going to keep going from there.”

And as far as which team takes him, well, Nkemdiche is simply ready to move on.

“I can go anywhere from top-5, top-10, 20, 30. I don’t know,” he said. “I’m ready for the team that trusts in me as a person, I want to go to war for those people. I want to go to war for the people that trust me and are willing to fight.”

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