One year ago, Reuben Foster's draft stock was tumbling, and not just because of a banged-up shoulder and a failed drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine, from which Foster was sent home after a confrontation with a hospital worker. Foster's reputation coming out of Alabama was concerning enough to NFL teams that one scout who'd done extensive work on him told me prior to the 2017 NFL Draft that in order for the linebacker to keep his life on track as a pro, he would need a "Dez Bryant-like infrastructure" -- a reference to how the Cowboys coddled the receiver early in his Dallas days.
The San Francisco 49ers stopped Foster's draft slide at No. 31 overall, betting they could give him those resources, unlock the potential that the uber-talented linebacker flashed in 10 games as a rookie and end up with a bargain. Instead, Foster's future is in doubt as he faces three felony charges stemming from an alleged attack on his girlfriend in February (not to mention a separate arrest for marijuana possession a month before) at a time attention has turned to figuring out if there's a Reuben Foster this year: a first-round talent who will be drafted much later than expected next week because of concerns outside the lines.
The consensus among NFL coaches, scouts and executives I've spoken to in recent weeks is that there's no case as extreme as Foster's in the elite class of this prospect pool -- those top 12 to 15 talents are considered mostly clean. And when it comes to the players who do have red flags, it's worth mentioning that it only takes one team to stop a guy's fall. Sometimes that bet backfires, as it may have for the 49ers with Foster. Sometimes it pays off -- just ask the Minnesota Vikings, who surely feel they got a steal when they nabbed running back Dalvin Cook in the second round last year.
In every draft, there are prospects who require extra homework, whether that's on past legal issues, drug use, etc., or less grave subjects, such as a player's work habits, coachability, reliability, reputation as a teammate and other factors that could negatively affect the team. It's all part of the puzzle NFL scouts crisscross the country year-round to put together. And even now, in the final days before the 2018 NFL Draft, pieces of that puzzle remain unassembled.
Much has been written on teams' deep examination of quarterback prospects Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield. I explored the questions surrounding all of the top signal-callers in this year's draft prior to the combine, and I'll write on that position again in full next week. For now, though, here are four talented prospects at other positions who are being scrutinized heavily:
Arden Key, Edge, LSU
There's no doubt about Key's ability. But his diminished play last season -- a drop-off that followed offseason shoulder surgery and a "leave of absence" that Key has revealed to NFL teams was a voluntary stint in rehab to get a handle on his marijuana use -- has left him as a long shot to go in Round 1.
"He was a shell of what he was," an AFC scout said. "His actions have proven to be habitual, and I don't know that he can kick it."
Generally speaking, marijuana use isn't much of a red flag for teams. "For him, it is a big deal because it's affected his playing career at LSU," an NFC personnel director said. "The kid needs a lot of support and a lot of help. He needs to not smoke."
Several team sources brought up the name Randy Gregory -- considered one of the top pass rushers in the 2015 draft class before a positive test for marijuana at the combine set the stage for a slide to No. 60 overall and three ensuing suspensions, including a ban for all of 2017 -- in discussing their projections for Key. Key's supporters strongly reject the comparison, for a variety of reasons, and say the LSU product has made great progress on his wellness. Speaking to reporters at the combine, Key wouldn't get into specifics on his leave of absence, but said: "I tell [teams] the real. I tell them that was my biggest adversity. I went through it and I passed it, and I'm looking forward."
That Key was upwards of 270 pounds at times last season is another reason he looked nothing like the player who had 12 sacks in a breakout sophomore year, which he finished at around 235.
"This guy was the best player they had on defense," an NFC executive said, "and then this year, God, he looked slow and sluggish, and then they explained why -- he couldn't train."
Key is off at least two draft boards, but a run of recent visits shows many are continuing to do their due diligence. Going in the second round wouldn't surprise NFL people.
"He's definitely played himself out of the first round," a college scouting director said. "But in a year where there's not many pass rushers available, someone's going to make a pretty decent investment into this guy and cross their fingers and hope he can keep it together."
Mike Hughes, CB, UCF
Hughes' interviews with NFL teams have brought to light the reason he left the North Carolina football program two years ago: a sexual assault allegation that did not yield criminal charges.
Scouts who have dug deep into the matter roundly say they believe Hughes' version of events. But NFL teams understand the seriousness of such an allegation, particularly given the increased sensitivity to the issue of violence against women across society, and Hughes has told teams he wouldn't be surprised if his accuser speaks publicly or files a civil lawsuit after he is drafted.
Speaking to me by phone Thursday during his stop at NFL Network, Hughes confirmed what NFL teams say he has told them: He has text messages and a female witness to corroborate his story, the district attorney declined to file charges because of insufficient evidence, and he decided to move on from UNC after an initial hearing in a Title IX proceeding made him feel he wouldn't get a fair opportunity to defend himself there.
Asked what he has tried to convey to teams about the allegation, Hughes told me: "Obviously, I have to tell them everything that happened and everything that went into why I left and also what I've learned from it. What I tell teams is that they won't have any issues with me if they draft me. I haven't had any problems with the law or anything since I was at North Carolina."
Hughes had a prior, one-game suspension in 2015 for an incident at a frat party that yielded a misdemeanor assault charge, which was dropped after Hughes completed community service. But one college scouting director pointed to an effort to get Hughes to return to UNC after he'd begun the process of transferring (to Garden City Community College, then to UCF) as evidence that even at the school, there was belief in his innocence on the sexual assault allegation. Hughes confirmed Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora "tried to do some things to get me back, and my mind was already made up and my family thought it was best for me to move on and try to do something new."
Said an AFC scout: "Everyone at UNC and everyone at UCF, everyone vouches for the kid."
Oakland selected Gareon Conley 24th overall last year in spite of an open sexual assault investigation that surfaced days before the draft. The Raiders believed, based on their research, he was innocent -- and Conley was ultimately cleared.
The consensus among executives I've spoken to is that Hughes will still be drafted right about where he would've anyway: late in the first round or high in the second.
"I don't have a concern about the kid, about the person. But [the allegation] is definitely going to come up," a college scouting director said. "He's one of the guys you have to go to the owner with before the draft and say, 'Hey, this is the issue, this is what we believe, are you OK with this?' "
Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
Some have Guice ranked as the draft's No. 2 back despite an injury-plagued junior season in 2017. He never has had legal trouble and isn't known as a partier -- unlike other prospects in this story, no one thinks he's a significant risk in those ways. But officials from six teams who have researched and spent time with Guice say there are concerns about immaturity, how he handles his emotions and how well he'll adapt, conform and fit into an NFL program.
As one NFC executive put it: "He's a high-maintenance kid." An executive with another team that has done a lot of work on Guice made clear "he's not a bad kid at heart, at all," but will need structure and mentorship to help him grow up and learn how to be a pro.
"There's a lot of personality stuff there that I'll be interested to see if somebody takes a shot on him in the first round," an AFC scout said.
The pre-draft process hasn't been entirely smooth for Guice, who has switched agents. One issue teams had to dig into: Guice seemed to claim in a SiriusXM NFL Radio interview that teams asked him in combine interviews "do I like men" and whether his mom was a prostitute, sparking controversy and an NFL investigation that is still ongoing, per a league spokesman. But Guice has since indicated privately and to teams those questions weren't really asked by NFL teams.
"His explanation was that it was taken out of context," one executive said. "There's just a lot going on with him."
Guice's hard upbringing is an important piece of understanding him. His father was murdered when Guice was a child. His mother raised him in an impoverished area of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He has earned everything and runs with passion. I bumped into Guice at the combine and found him friendly, engaging, chatty. He came across the same way during his appearance on NFL Network's "Good Morning Football" on Wednesday.
"Is he talented? Yep. Do you have to have a handle on how to deal with him? Absolutely," an offensive coordinator said. "He's not a bad person -- he's just immature, silly. If he wasn't all that other stuff, he'd be drafted in the top 20 picks. And he still might be in the top 20 picks."
Guice already issued a warning to the 31 teams that don't end up with him, telling reporters at the combine with a smile: "If you don't draft me, I'm going to give your defense hell."
Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida
One scout who has done a lot of work on Callaway predicted he would've been a top-20 pick if he were clean off the field. But his various legal entanglements -- a sexual assault allegation he was cleared of after a Title IX hearing in which Callaway said he was "so stoned" on marijuana he didn't want to have sex with anyone, a misdemeanor marijuana citation, a credit card scam for which he was charged with two third-degree felonies and suspended all of last season -- are well-documented.
Some teams didn't even bother interviewing Callaway; he's off at least three draft boards and probably a lot more. Whoever selects Callaway, even on Day 3, will be rolling the dice.
"He is super talented. The tape from his sophomore season's really good," the scout said of Callaway, who had 89 catches for 1,399 yards and scored eight touchdowns over two years with the Gators. "But he is a train wreck when it comes to some of that off-field stuff. Poor decision-making at every turn."
Said an NFC scout: "Honestly, I think the credit card thing is the least of his transgressions. The drug issues that he's had are higher on the list." An AFC scout said Callaway admitted in a combine interview to smoking marijuana about six weeks earlier -- which wouldn't be a big deal except that it follows the pattern that has taken him here.
"He's not a bad kid, either. He's just been around a lot of trouble," the AFC scout said. "And he admits to the fact that trouble finds him. He just hangs with the wrong people. It's a shame, because he's ridiculously talented."
After his suspension last year, Callaway went home to Miami, rather than sticking around with other implicated teammates to fulfill his end of an agreement about what it would take to return to the team. He did return to campus for pro day, but "didn't look like he was in shape or ready," said one NFL team official who attended. "He's not a player I would trust long-term."
School officials privately have told southeastern teams not to draft Callaway because he needs to get as far from the South Florida area as possible -- similar to what teams heard about fellow Miami native Dalvin Cook a year ago. Last month, Callaway fired his initial agents, including one who'd moved in with him, and hired the agents who represent Reuben Foster. In terms of the legal fallout from the credit card scam, Callaway agreed to a pre-trial intervention that could result in the eventual dismissal of the felony charges.
"I was young (and) made a mistake that cost me my season," Callaway told reporters at the combine. "But I learned from it. I grew. I matured. I'm past it."
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.