In every draft, there are a handful of players that earn the "risk-reward" designation on draft boards across the league. These guys exhibit tremendous athletic potential on the field but are beset with character flaws and behavioral issues that lead evaluators to pause when determining whether to pull the trigger on draft day.
In the 2014 class, one of the players destined to fall into that category is former Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla. The ultra-talented junior was touted as one of the top tight ends in college football before his mysterious departure from the Ducks' football program earlier this month. Although quitting is viewed as the ultimate sin in football, NFL scouts and coaches remained high on his prospects because of his immense talent and potential. However, a recent arrest on cocaine possession not only threatens to torpedo his draft status, but it could put an NFL career in jeopardy because of the severity of the charges.
We've seen troubled athletes make their way to the NFL despite a litany of character issues in previous years, but the changing mentality of executives, coaches and scouts, coupled with a looming high-profile murder case involving former Pro Bowl tight end Aaron Hernandez, puts Lyerla's plight in a different light.
Measuring 6-foot-4 and weighing 246 pounds with speed reportedly in the 4.5-second range (in the 40-yard dash), Lyerla is one of the hybrid tight-end-types that are currently taking the NFL by storm. He has the speed to blow past defenders on vertical routes and displays the short-area quickness and burst to run away from linebackers out of breaks. Additionally, Lyerla is an overpowering athlete capable of muscling smaller defensive backs at the top of routes to create separation. Factor in his strong hands and wide catching radius, and Lyerla is the kind of threat offensive coordinators love to feature in the game plan, especially on third down or in the red zone.
Looking at coaches' footage from the 2012 season (Arizona, Cal, Stanford and Kansas State), I was impressed with Lyerla's athleticism, ball skills and running ability. He is a rare playmaker at the position, with the potential to turn short passes into big gains in the open field. Although he isn't necessarily explosive or dynamic with the ball in his hands, Lyerla runs with so much force and power that defenders struggle bringing him down in one-on-one situations. In fact, his rough running style is so effective that the Ducks routinely used him as an inside runner on a variety of option plays. This is not only a testament to his toughness, it is indicative of the kind of athleticism and versatility that he brings to the table as a hybrid player.
As a blocker, Lyerla is feisty and tenacious at the point of attack. He locks onto defenders on the edge and uses his superior strength to seal the corner. Although his blocks are always technically sound, the combination of strength, power, effort and finish jumps off the screen. Coaches and scouts will probably view Lyerla as such an effective blocker that he could play as a traditional tight end or H-Back in double tight end sets. This not only enhances his value on game day, but it makes him a highly desirable prospect in the draft process.
That's where the mounting character concerns threaten to alter his standing on draft boards across the league. Every NFL team sets character thresholds for prospective players, but the list of parameters varies by club. Additionally, the coaching staff and front office must consider how each prospect's personality will play out in the locker room. To gain a deeper perspective on what teams could be inheriting in Lyerla, I asked a few scouts about some background perspective on the talented pass catcher to determine if his recent transgression was a one-time incident or part of a trend that could be emerging with the young standout. Here's the feedback I received:
NFC South scout:
"He's a big-time player. ... Strong, athletic with good hands. ... He's a plyometric freak (running and jumping) with remarkable athletic ability. ... If he puts it all together, he could be a monster at the next level."
"He's going to be a problem. He reportedly has some issues with alcohol, fights and other stuff at school. ... Bad dude. ... Nothing malicious, but the kind of stuff that makes you worry about how he will handle the pro lifestyle. ... He has a tendency to go off the rails when he leaves a structured environment."
"Not as smooth as Tony Gonzalez, but stronger and more explosive. Not quite the quick-twitch athlete like Aaron Hernandez, but stronger and more fluid. ... Lacks the 'wow' factor of those guys, but his strength, body control, hands and RAC (running-after-the-catch ability) is legit."
NFC North scout:
"The kid comes from a tough background and is a bit of a problem child. ... He really struggles when he gets away from a structured environment. In fact, the coaching staff constantly worried about his whereabouts and dealings whenever he was away from campus on extended breaks. Now, I would worry about bringing him into my building, but he is definitely a big-time talent with the potential to become a special player as a pro, if it comes together."
Although the full evaluation and character assessment has not been fully completed on Lyerla due to his status as an underclassman, we can already see the dilemma that his talent, potential and behavior poses to general managers and scouts around the league. The guy is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent with the kind of ability coaches drool over. However, the character concerns are so overwhelming that it is hard to determine if he can handle the trappings of the pro lifestyle without incident. Sure, the NFL isn't full of choir boys, but the prospect of gambling on a player with serious red flags will make it tough on a general manager to pull the trigger early on draft day.