Except in rare circumstances, no prospect has a peaceful pre-draft period prior to joining the NFL for at least three reasons.
First, teams do extensive analysis before deciding which players to pick. That’s hard to believe about certain perennial poor-drafting franchises (Hello, Cleveland) but it’s true.
Second, diversity of opinion fuels the ever-expanding world of “draft analysts” and “draft experts,” a species whose population is projected to exceed the common house ant by 2030. Some are very good and some are not but if you are reading this, you are one of the good ones so don’t get upset, Draft Analyst.
Third, and this is important, the days leading up to the draft are a battlefield of diversion, disinformation, misinformation and downright fibs as teams try to bluff one another about their intentions. One form among many: leaking “bad” reports about a prospect designed to cause another team with a higher draft position to pass so that your team can scoop up that prospect with a later pick (and a smaller bonus.) Sports Illustrated, in a Tuesday story about FSU running back Dalvin Cook and his draft hopes, described the practice bluntly as “sabotage.”
That happens to several prospects, every year, but no one has seen their boat rocked more often than Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster. There aren’t many skeptics about his on-the-field ability. There have, however, been whispers about his health — a shoulder that required surgery — and concerns about incidents touching on character. One was a disagreement with personnel at a medical exam that led to Foster being sent home from the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Then came news that Foster had submitted a “dilute” sample in a pre-draft drug test. That doesn’t necessarily mean illegal drugs were detected, but the sample was so watered down that an accurate reading wasn’t impossible. For understandable reasons, the NFL counts that as a positive test.
By Tuesday, two days before the draft, there was even an “ESPN bulletin” that Foster wasn’t going to be in attendance at the draft (which was announced April 13) because of the “medical incident” (which happened on March 4.) If nothing else, that kept Foster’s name in the headlines even though nothing new — except perhaps an addition of two-plus-two — has occurred. The reporter was just doing her job. The point is that teams are putting such information out there.
Foster has dutifully made the media rounds in recent days, including Tuesday appearances on “NFL Live” and “The Paul Finebaum Show.” He’s told his side of all the above mentioned events. He explained the diluted sample was due to intravenous fluids after an illness-causes dehydration, adding that he “never failed a (drug) test at Alabama.” He told Finebaum that he’s still working on the shoulder. He called the Indianapolis incident “a mistake” for which he has apologized. Teams are going to have to weigh those versions between now and Thursday. Based largely on their opinion of Foster’s credibility, he could be drafted in the top 15 or he could, according to some outlier analysts, drop out of the first round.
Perhaps the most revealing comment from Foster came after Finebaum had moved away from the draft and was asking about Foster’s days as a five-star recruit.
The reason he chose Alabama over Auburn, Foster said, came down to one word: “structure.” He was quick to point out that wasn’t a slam at Auburn’s football program, but at the entire environment he found himself in after he moved from Georgia to play at Auburn High School. He never said it directly, but Foster implied that he needed a new environment away from some of the people around him.
Ultimately, that’s going to be the case in the NFL. Foster can go high and prosper, but he will flourish in an environment where he has solid support. A team is going to have to decide not just what Foster can do for them as a defensive destroyer. There also going to have to think about what they can do for him — not by baby-sitting an adult, but by creating an environment where he can succeed.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.