Why Robert Nkemdiche ranks among buyer-beware D-line prospects
PFF’s team of draft analysts has spent the past weeks and months putting together their overall draft board and positional prospect rankings, in preparation for the 2016 NFL draft.
In doing so, PFF has identified players at each position who qualify as potential buyer-beware prospects, based on where these players are showing up on most evaluators’ draft boards.
Here are three buyer-beware prospects among this year’s defensive line class. This defensive line class is so strong that identifying buyer-beware prospects is difficult. We like all three of the players listed below, just not enough to take in the first round, as they are being touted.
1. Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss
Robert Nkemdiche is one of the most physically gifted players in this draft class, but comes with off-field baggage that may affect his draft stock. While those issues may be legitimate, the NFL will know more about them than is publicly available, and besides, at Pro Football Focus we focus on what players do on the field — and in that regard, we have some concerns with Nkemdiche.
Nkemdiche flashed as a pass-rusher in his first two seasons with the Rebels, but he was far more disruptive as a junior in 2015, generating four sacks, 37 total pressures, and only once grading negatively as a pass-rusher. Explosive and powerful, Nkemdiche is a difficult man to keep out of the backfield, and interior pressure is king in the NFL. The flip side of that is that he has struggled against the run, either selling out to get to the passer, or struggling to deal with double teams. That weakness may mean that Nkemdiche has to begin his NFL career as a rotational pass-rusher, or it may require some creative scheming to protect him on run downs, perhaps sliding Nkemdiche out to defensive end in the base defense.
At his best, Nkemdiche looks every bit the former consensus top college recruit in the nation, it’s just that he has yet to produce that on a consistent basis. The reward could be very high for the team that drafts him, but there is risk as well if a team takes him in the first round.
2. Kevin Dodd, DE, Clemson
Anyone who watched the College Football Playoff should remember Dodd, the Clemson defensive end who registered one sack and 12 total pressures against Oklahoma, then followed that up with three sacks and seven total pressures in the championship game against Alabama. It’s hardly a surprise that Dodd opted to go pro after that, as he will never have a better job audition than that two-game stretch.
The issue is that Dodd is the proverbial one-year wonder, a player who had barely made an impact prior to 2015. Dodd saw just 101 snaps in 2014 as a rotational player, and while his +4.9 grade was certainly credible, much of that came against Georgia State. Moreover, while Dodd’s body of work is less substantial than ideal, there are also issues within it. It wasn’t until the final five games of Clemson’s season that Dodd started to make a real impact as a pass-rusher — prior to that he was only notable for his run defense.
So, which Dodd is a team getting, the player who struggled to see the field until 2015, and was an average pass-rusher for half the year, or the one who was dominant in the playoff run? If a team is going to spend a first-round pick on him, they need to be confident in that answer.
3. A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama
It may be unfair to describe Robinson as a “buyer-beware” prospect. In truth, whichever team selects him will know exactly what they are getting: a stout run defender. However, in the modern NFL, being a stout run defender may not be enough to garner first-round selection, which is where he is projected to go. Huge and powerful, Robinson fits perfectly as a 3-4 defensive end, and graded very well in that role for the Crimson Tide, but he earned only the third-highest grade on that defensive line, behind Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen.
The hole in Robinson’s game is his impact as a pass-rusher. He saw plenty of pass-rush snaps without notable production, as demonstrated by his pass-rush productivity score ranking just 84th-best in this interior defensive line class. Scheme may play a role in that, but there is nothing obvious to suggest that he will be more productive if unleashed in a different role.
Robinson’s floor is that of a two-down run-stuffer on the defensive line, which has real value, but we’re not sure his ceiling is that much higher. That is why, in a loaded defensive line class, he is at No. 41 on the latest PFF draft board, and not a first-rounder.