There’s no defending what Shane Ray did days before the NFL draft. The defensive end/linebacker from Missouri was arrested for possession of marijuana. The projected top 10 pick could take a tumble in the first round and cost himself millions.
Though he’s been described in publications like Sports Illustrated as a, “Freakish athlete. Moves pocket quickly with dynamic first step, excellent burst,” a drug issue is a tough thing to overlook. Redskins general manager Scott McCloughan has indicated he’s not looking to take a risk like that, so you can probably stop thinking about Shane Ray in burgundy and gold. But is that the right way to think?
Let’s go back 20 years ago. Coming out of the University of Miami, Warren Sapp was projected as high as number two in the mock drafts of the day. The Redskins held the fourth pick that year and I was really hopeful that Sapp would still be around at that spot. Defensive players like that are hard to come by.
As draft day neared, the New York Times reported that Sapp had tested positive for marijuana and cocaine at the combine the previous month in Indianapolis. The NFL quickly denied the cocaine part of the story, but the marijuana was still an issue. Sure enough, teams started backing away. But with Sapp still on the board, the Skins took wide receiver Michael Westbrook, who would go on to spend seven disappointing seasons in D.C., catching more than 50 balls in a season only twice over that span.
Down the board Sapp slid, with the shrewd Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking notice. Figuring they were one of only a few teams still sold on Sapp, they traded their first rounder, seventh overall, to Philadelphia for their spot at 12 plus two other draft picks. At 12 they got Sapp and then traded back into the first round for Dallas’ spot at number 28. They gave the Cowboys their own second round pick plus one of the two picks they got from the Eagles to draft Florida State linebacker Derrick Brooks. Seven years later Sapp and Brooks were cornerstones of a Bucs defense that propelled the team to a Super Bowl championship. Sapp and Brooks are now both in the Hall of Fame.
What did the Eagles do with the pick they got from the Bucs? They fell for what we now call a “workout warrior.” After his season ended at Boston College, linebacker Mike Mamula spent three months intensely training for the tested skills at the combine. His numbers were off the charts, but his career was a major disappointment. After five mediocre seasons, he was cut and never played another down.
A couple of months later, the NBA draft rolled around. The Bullets had the fourth pick. John Nash was the team’s general manager at the time and made no secret of the fact he liked Kevin Garnett, who had become the first high schooler in 20 years to declare for the draft. There were a couple of issues facing Nash at the time. One – he’d sent his first round picks for the following three years to Golden State in a deal for Chris Webber the previous fall. And two – there had been some big misses in recent drafts, including six years earlier when the Bullets took Tom Hammonds from Georgia Tech at nine, passing on the likes of Tim Hardaway and Shawn Kemp. Nash knew he couldn’t afford to miss. Rather than risk a high schooler who couldn’t make what was then considered a giant leap, Nash needed something safe.
He wound up taking North Carolina forward Rasheed Wallace, who had a fine career. Garnett was picked next by Minnesota and went on to a Hall of Fame career, including a championship in Boston. Had Nash gone with his gut, maybe D.C. wouldn’t be NBA title-less for the last 37 years.
And finally there is the cautionary tale of Dan Marino. After a great college career at Pitt, he seemed likely to be the second player picked in the 1983 draft behind John Elway. Somehow without anything to back it up, a rumor spread that Marino had a drug problem. As the draft got underway, that rumor apparently swayed so many teams that Marino dropped down the board like a stone.
Though the first round of that draft is regarded as the best in history with six Hall of Famers, Marino didn’t go until the second to last pick of the first round at 27 to Miami. Every team but the Redskins, who took a Hall of Famer themselves in Darrell Green with the final pick, passed on Marino. Five quarterbacks went ahead of him – Elway, Jim Kelley, who also made the Hall of Fame, plus Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O’Brien, who will have to take a bus to get to Canton.
More up to date, what about Redskins tackle Trent Williams? He was the fourth pick of the 2010 draft. After a strong rookie year, he finished his second season on a marijuana suspension. It led to instant second-guessing. But Williams has come back to be a Pro Bowler the last three years and was a big factor in the Skins drive to the NFC East title in 2012. Would you like a do-over on that? Russell Okung, who the Redskins also considered went sixth to Seattle. Both are good players, but Williams was still the right choice.
Moral of the story, go with your gut. Off the field or off the court issues matter, but talent rules the day. And if you think you’ve found that talent, go for it.