With a bong, a gas mask, a reportedly hacked Twitter account and a tumble down the first round, tackle Laremy Tunsil became the unintended story of Thursday night.
Little more than two weeks ago, the left tackle was arguably the best player in the draft and the presumed first overall selection until the Tennessee Titans traded the pick to the Los Angeles Rams. Instead, Tunsil supplanted the top quarterbacks, the run on Buckeyes that included running back Ezekiel Elliott to the Cowboys and the concern over Myles Jack‘s knee as the most compelling storyline of the first day of the 2016 NFL Draft. In the process, he emerged as the latest cautionary tale for the potentially destructive intersection of social media and a league populated by teams highly conscious about player availability, if not necessarily the seriousness of the offense that could threaten it.
After being saved by the Miami Dolphins with the 13th overall pick, Tunsil said he did not know about the video leak — Tunsil, wearing a gas mask, with an awful lot of smoke — that emerged less than 15 minutes before the draft began, until he got to the draft green room. The Dolphins said they had heard rumors about the video, believed it to be two years old and had done extensive background work on Tunsil. Tunsil had apparently not failed a drug test in college, but in the first few hours of the draft, it became clear teams were scared off by a potent combination of fear about his decision-making and the very public nature of mistakes made in the video age.
The NFL Network reported that the Baltimore Ravens, burned two years ago by a far more troubling video at the center of the Ray Rice scandal, took Tunsil completely off their board when they saw the video and they surely weren’t alone. Whatever the genesis of the video — and it remains unclear who might have posted the video, or a later series of damning texts that indicated Tunsil may have taken money from a college coach, which he later admitted to — the bizarre incident likely cost Tunsil millions of dollars from his rookie contract and turned Tunsil into this year’s version of the green room curiosity.
“We know the story behind (the video),” Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said, adding that Tunsil was the No. 2 player on the Dolphins‘ board. “We’d rather leave that for maybe the kid to address, but we know the story behind it and we’re comfortable with what it is.”
It is fair to wonder, as it was after the Rice incident, if teams are made more nervous, and more wary, by the video proof than they are by the transgressions themselves. That seemed to be the case with Rice. It was almost certainly the case with Tunsil, whose offense appeared to be nothing that could have surprised anybody who scouts college players. Without a positive test at the Combine — there were none this year — he will presumably not start his career in the NFL’s drug program and the revelation that a coach gave him money is a big problem with Ole Miss, but not for Tunsil. Whatever the sabotage was, it was telling that while Tunsil’s slide was relatively short — he is considered that much of a sure thing at one of the game’s most critical positions — he remained the talk of the draft hours after he was finally liberated from the particular hell of the green room.
Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch chose to stay away from the green room entirely — his draft party was at a bowling alley in central Florida — and as the quarterback-needy teams in the middle of the first round let him go by, it seemed like a good decision. The Saints, rumored to be interested in Lynch and the Jets — in desperate need of a future quarterback — passed on him in favor of filling defensive holes. But last week, Lynch’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, had said he would not shed any tears if Lynch dropped a few spots in the draft to end up with a stable team that already had a veteran quarterback and could offer good coaching to help develop the passer who is likely to need a season on the bench to learn the pro game.
If that is the case, Lynch could not have wound up in a better spot. The Denver Broncos, who lost their top two quarterbacks from their championship team, moved up to the 26th spot to grab Lynch, making him their quarterback of the future. That leaves Mark Sanchez to hold the fort until Lynch is ready and that could be awhile. He is considered a raw talent who is likely to need a season on the bench to learn to orchestrate an NFL offense. But in Denver, he has a head coach in Gary Kubiak who has a long track record of developing quarterbacks and a powerhouse defense to lean on. Lynch will obviously not be better than Brock Osweiler would have been this season. But for the duration of his rookie contract, Lynch will be considerably cheaper than Osweiler would have been and, fresh off a Super Bowl, John Elway and Kubiak have the standing to resist the inevitable calls to play a first-rounder soon.
The acquisition of Lynch ends Denver’s dalliance with trying to acquire Colin Kaepernick, leaving him in San Francisco to either hope for a trade elsewhere or become comfortable with a Chip Kelly offense that may benefit him. The league has been rife with unsettled quarterback situations this offseason, none of them as startling as the one in Denver after Peyton Manning retired and Osweiler left for the Houston Texans in free agency.
The Jets‘ situation remains murky, with general manager Mike Maccagnan saying Thursday night there was nothing new on the contract impasse with Ryan Fitzpatrick. It is hard to imagine that the Jets — who have drafted 10 quarterbacks since the 2000 draft — will not draft a quarterback at some point in this draft. Jerry Jones confirmed that the Cowboys tried to get back into the bottom of the first round to select Lynch, an indication that the Cowboys recognize it is time to find a viable backup and eventual successor to Tony Romo. And with the selection of Carson Wentz second overall, the Eagles have a mess to untangle with an angry Sam Bradford, who wants to be traded but whom the Eagles want to start until Wentz is ready to go.
Outside of Denver, none of those quandaries got any clearer Thursday night. But in a first round that was dominated by Tunsil’s questionable judgment amid a cloud of smoke, a bit of haziness about the future seemed a fitting theme.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.