It could very well be that the best pure runner may go completely undrafted, with the talented Isaiah Crowell of Alabama State entering the NFL draft after cutting short an otherwise promising beginning to his NFL career.
When it comes to the plurality of running back skills—patience, vision, power, etc.—Crowell checks off nearly every box on the list, but may still be looking for a team to provide him with an undrafted free agent contract come May.
Coming out of high school in 2011, he was one of the most sought after (if not the single most sought after) players in the country, and followed up on that promise as a freshman starter for the University of Georgia and earning the SEC Freshman of the Year title.
Unfortunately, he was shortly dismissed from the program after being charged with two misdemeanors and a felony related to the illegal possession of a firearm (after being stopped because his car smelled like marijuana). The charges were eventually dropped, but “character concerns” have dogged him throughout the rest of his college career, especially as he also happened to fail a drug test in Athens.
For Crowell, the fact that his charges were dropped may be legal exoneration, but is by no means clearance from red flags. The issue regarding Crowell’s case was not that he wasn’t found with illegal firearms (the serial number was filed off), but that the state lacked the proof to determine that the guns were definitively in his possession, splitting the difference between legal conviction and a clear concern.
There has been story after story on his growing maturity as a result of his abrupt career shift, but he hasn’t taken advantage of what some may consider to be a clean slate. His willingness to be a “good teammate” and reliable player for Alabama State has been under question, even by his own head coach.
Crowell has taken himself out of games where he’s suffered minor injuries and he gets frustrated easily when success doesn’t come early in games, both of which really bring into question the likelihood that he can take a role position as a nonstarter on an NFL team or take on the much more difficult grind of an NFL season.
Moreover, there have been reports that Crowell has been difficult to coach and hasn’t fully resolved the work ethic issues that had cropped up at Georgia. While some of these reports originate from the controversial Nolan Nawrocki, these aren’t exactly concerns that one can easily dismiss.
Nawrocki’s evaluations have become famous because of his bold statements about the character of prospective athletes. He did it again this year when he broke down the character concerns of some prospects, including Crowell.
Greg Gabriel, former personnel man with the Chicago Bears, has been critical of Nawrocki’s work, largely because his information comes not from personal investigation, but hearsay that carries with it the bias of scouts that are willing to blow smokescreens as the draft approaches. In fact, Gabriel found many of his character evaluations to be wrong (and potentially worthy of a lawsuit).
That said, Gabriel ultimately concludes that any general manager willing to draft Crowell would be “out of their mind.” Given that Nawrocki’s concerns have been echoed around the league, it may be worth listening to.
Small-school prospects come with a shorter leash in the NFL. Teams have different way of evaluating character concerns for players, but nearly all of them are less willing to take the risk on players that played against inferior competition. Moreover, the fact that he didn’t immediately clean up his issues and persisted in creating questions about his NFL readiness will take him off of a number of teams’ boards.
Second chances are big for personnel men and Crowell didn’t knock it out of the park in terms of his character when given a new opportunity, really killing his prospects as a draftable NFL player. In addition, some teams have different types of red flags related to character and Isaiah Crowell has more than one: work ethic, practice attitude, mental toughness, leadership, illicit substance use and questionable associations, nearly running the gamut. Even teams known to take big risks will look askance at his résumé.
The fact that Crowell didn’t consistently dominate his competition (more a result of the number of touches than his rate statistics) doesn’t mesh well with these concerns, and the increasing fungibility of NFL running backs makes things worse, especially in an incredibly deep draft.
There’s a very good chance that the best pure runner in the draft won’t hear his name called at all.