On April 28 the Seattle Seahawks traded their 2016 first-round pick in the NFL draft to the Denver Broncos minutes before the choice, the 26th overall, was due. It was a funny moment, because Seattle had traded its top selection for the fourth year in a row, but also somewhat satisfying for Seahawks fans waiting with bated Twitter fingers since the swap after all still yielded a day-one pick, the 31st, the last choice of the (only slightly more deflated than usual) evening.
The now-Broncos’ selection became Paxton Lynch, their desired quarterback, and Seattle of course ended up with Germain Ifedi—the player it was targeting all along—in addition to Denver’s third-round pick, number 94 overall. It was a rare exchange that seemed almost immediately like a win-win, at least so far as draft-day execution can be considered. Except that among the four players taken off the board with the intervening selections was Robert Nkemdiche, chosen 29th overall by the Arizona Cardinals.
Nkemdiche, the son of successful Nigerian-born parents, one a cardiologist and the other a politician, had been projected as a top-10 talent—even as high as the number-two pick in a mock last October by none other than Seahawks Draft Blog’s Rob Staton. Nkemdiche’s athleticism and versatility as a penetrating defensive tackle made him a coveted commodity for NFL clubs, until a fall from a hotel balcony led to a suspension from Ole Miss’s bowl game, drug charges, and eventually a goofy ESPN Mag profile in which he admitted saxophone use and wishing to own a live panther. (The NFL stands for No ’Fone League, as everyone knows, and strictly limits possession of jungle cats to fantastical carvings and ownership circles.)
The hotel tumble in particular altered Nkemdiche’s draft status enough that several analysts saw the opportunity as a match for Seattle all the way at the end of the first round, especially after it let Brandon Mebane depart in free agency. However, drafting the offensive lineman Ifedi arguably served a bigger need for the Seahawks in 2016, and many fans were thrilled to address that position with a first-round pick. The problem came from ceding a prospect with so much upside and pedigree to the division-rival Cardinals.
Arizona had already spiced up its pass rush in the offseason by adding fellow synthetic analog club member Chandler Jones. Taking on such character risks can, for better or worse, sometimes turn picks into steals, especially in environments with a lot of depth. The Cardinals had proven adept at maximizing similar reclamation project Tyrann Mathieu, and the outlook of a motivated Nkemdiche tearing through Ifedi and the Seattle offensive line like so many pouches of bath salts for years to come offered itself like a dreaded fever vision.
So now that Seattle is finally poised to face Arizona for the first time in 2016, how has the Cardinals’ top pick, the man whose Pro-football-reference.com page says his nicknames are Hollywood, Pork Chop and Hulk, been doing in the NFL so far?
Not so well, it turns out.
Nkemdiche suffered a high ankle sprain in training camp and missed a lot of practice time. Reportedly, Bruce Arians was not pleased.
“It seems Nkemdiche has a rough road ahead of him if he intends on making an impact in 2016,” wrote USA Today’s Jess Root in September. “In limited work in week 1, Arians said he played poorly.”
That could be just the beginning of a rookie learning curve. He only played 15 defensive plays. But then Nkemdiche aggravated the ankle again during practice the following week. He missed the next four games before playing 10 snaps Monday night against the New York Jets. His first action didn’t come until the final series of the first half, basically a prevent situation when the Jets were down 14-3 with less than a minute and a half to try to score before intermission.
Here Nkemdiche (number 90, the left defensive tackle) gets utterly eaten up by New York guard Brian Winters.
The following down, Nkemdiche tried to bend outside Winters, who passed him off to left tackle Ben Ijalana and Nkemdiche ended up taking his own outside linebacker Markus Golden out of the play. One play later he got handled by Winters again, although to be fair Ryan Fitzpatrick’s quick throw gave little chance to penetrate.
Yes it was a no-huddle desperation drive, but the Jets had by now moved the ball 41 yards on three plays with Nkemdiche in the game after gaining just 89 on the previous 21 snaps.
Finally, on the fourth first down in a row, Nkemdiche finally got his hands on the quarterback.
As you can see, it’s not through penetration of his own: As simultaneous pressure from Jones and Golden forces Fitzpatrick up in the pocket, Fitzpatrick tries to fling the ball to Bilal Powell but knocks his arm against Nkemdiche’s arms. At first the loose ball gets ruled a fumble, which would have been a solid stat pickup for Nkemdiche although the Jets “recovered”, but then on review it was reversed as an incomplete forward pass. The rookie did register a pass defensed.
Afterward Nkemdiche was pulled from the game and New York proceeded to lose five yards on three plays before half. Nkemdiche played one more down in the third quarter, spelling Corey Peters, which resulted in a batted pass by Frostee Rucker—but Nkemdiche’s own rush was meager.
He got back in again with Arizona up 28-3 and Geno Smith now quarterbacking the Jets. Again, Nkemdiche made no difference in the rush on first down, then was seen asking second year tackle Rodney Gunter for direction right before the second snap. Nkemdiche finally achieved some push against a double team on second-and-6 that yielded an incomplete, but then was swallowed again on third down. On fourth-and-one, the rookie defensive tackle faced his first non-passing situation
Here you can see Nkemdiche doubled-teamed by Ijalana and Winters. Powell runs right at this block and gains three for the first down. It’s the last we see of Nkemdiche against New York.
I don’t take any pleasure in seeing Nkemdiche struggle. Maybe he will improve once he gets a chance to get fully healthy and gain some more reps. But in a game in which the Cardinals’ front was otherwise destroying the Jets’ offensive line, the young player did not look good. He also logged no special teams downs, after lining up for six in his NFL debut against the Patriots.
If Nkemdiche can’t find a way to add something more on special teams, Arizona’s first round pick may have a hard time locating his way out of the coach’s foul graces in time to be a factor this season. It will be interesting to see how much he plays against Seattle, with less garbage time likely to figure in the opportunities.
By comparison, Germain Ifedi also missed significant weeks with a high ankle sprain, but afterward immediately stepped in as a starter and played two full games. Ifedi has hardly been perfect in his two outings, but he appears on a considerably better course than the man taken two slots ahead of him.
Meanwhile, that 94th pick the Seahawks secured when they traded back from 26 became Nick Vannett, who also has been out with a high ankle sprain. But with Luke Willson having undergone arthroscopic surgery this week, Vannett now has a chance to get extended play at tight end against Arizona. Funny how things fall together sometimes.
Special thanks to Mike Bar for assembling video clips.