Watching Colt Lyerla’s game tape can be downright addicting.
To see someone that size move so quickly, with such power, against some of the top defenses in NCAA football is fantastic. He plays with fire. Time after time, you see him dragging would-be tacklers behind him, refusing to go down. He’s as versatile a weapon on the field as you’ll see.
And that’s what’s so frustrating about the former Oregon tight end. In October, Lyerla was informed that he was suspended for a game against Colorado. A day later, he left the team permanently, without any intention of transferring, instead deciding to focus on his NFL career. Oregon fans were stunned by the news, his teammates showed their disappointment in interviews. During his time at Oregon, coaches always said that Lyerla had yet to show his full potential, that one day it would all click: his effort and preparation would match his talent. To see his college career so rudely interrupted was truly sad.
Soon thereafter, Lyerla had his driver’s license suspended after four driving tickets in 24 months. Three weeks later, Lyerla was arrested for cocaine possession. The former first round certainty now seemed like he would never play in the NFL.
And now, what has already been a complicated story, was complicated ever further this past Sunday at the NFL Combine. First, Lyerla addressed his character issues in his press conference. As Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm said, “Lyerla fidgeted while he spoke and had a serious look on his face while he talked about his unclear future.”
But his remarks showed remorse and, I’d say, self awareness. Lyerla lamented the fact that he’d lost the personal connections that he found at Oregon and knew that he’d reached his bottom. But he said that his troubles were “the best thing that happened to me because they really put me at a point and place and gave me time to self-reflect and help me realize exactly what I want out of life and what I need to do to get it.”
Second, Lyerla cemented himself as an athletic freak. The 6’4, 242 lb tight end ran an official 4.61 40 (and an unofficial 4.47), with a 39-inch vertical and a 10-foot-8 broad jump. While his 15 bench press reps may seem disappointing, Colt Lyerla was never going to be your traditional in-line tight end. He’s someone who offenses can count on as a menace in space, fast enough to leave linebackers behind, and powerful enough to put the hurt on cornerbacks.
Amongst New England Patriots fans, the mantra surrounding Colt Lyerla has been “He’s the perfect 7th-round-UDFA kinda guy. If he works out, he’s a steal. If not, no harm no foul.”
The problem is, after his combine performance, the chances of Colt Lyerla going undrafted have plummeted. Someone will take a flyer on the 21-year-old, perhaps even on Day 2. But should it be the Patriots?
This is where things get tricky.
The Patriots need another tight end. With Gronkowski out for most of the season, Tom Brady lacked that big-bodied receiving threat that had been such a focal point of the offense. The free agent options range from probably no chance (Dennis Pitta), to solid-if-not-explosive options (Scott Chandler), to “No thank you” (Brandon Pettigrew).
Luckily, this is the deepest tight end class in years, with perhaps five being taken by the end of the second round.
If you asked me before the combine who the perfect tight end for this Patriots is, I’d say Eric Ebron out of North Carolina, but he’s a Top-10 pick at this point. I would have then said Jace Amaro out of Texas Tech is 2.
If Amaro is 2, Colt Lyerla is at least 2B.
The easy comparison for Lyerla’s on the field talent is Aaron Hernandez (hold your horses, readers, I’ll get there) who formed half of the most deadly tight end duo in football. Lyerla can line up all across the field: in the backfield, inline, as an H-back, slot option, etc. He has top speed, can hit the gas pedal with ease, and his ability to change direction is impressive for a man his side. Although he’s not the typical size of the bigger tight end, he’s a willing blocker with a high motor to sustain them. Indeed, Lyerla might be even more athletic than Hernandez was (Hernandez’ Pro Day results: 4.64 40, 33 in. vertical, 9-foot-3 broad). If we are talking purely about on-the-field fits across from Gronkowski, Lyerla hits all the things the Patriots are looking for.
That Aaron Hernandez comparison will most likely haunt Lyerla for a good part of his career. To compare Lyerla’s legal issues with Hernandez’ current ones is idiotic. But Hernandez also had red flags coming out of school, that saw his draft stock fall to the fourth round, where New England took a chance on him. I won’t get into a debate about whether cocaine is worse than marijuana, or if you can even compare Lyerla’s and Hernandez’ personal lives, but there’s enough there to give the Patriots’ front office some pause.
Do I think the Patriots will shy away from all players with perceived character issues from now on? Probably not. There have been plenty of players who had drug/maturity issues but have committed themselves at the pro level (Tyrann Mathieu, Da’Rick Rogers, Cordarelle Patterson, etc.). And, as we’ve seen, the Patriots are one of the best-run organizations in football. When it comes to within the walls of Patriots Place, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft have set up a structure that demands that every player do their job to the best of their ability. They have the winning percentage and rings to back their system up. While Lyerla’s best fit for a coach would be Chip Kelly (who Lyerla got along with quite well with at Oregon), Belichick wouldn’t be too far behind, as Kelly himself praises the Sith Lo- I mean New England coach effusively. There would be no coddling Lyerla (Brady will not hold back screaming at any receiver, no matter who he is), but the system is such that if you put in all your effort, the rewards are immense.
But, the Hernandez scandal, as unfair as it is to put on Lyerla, does complicate things. As much as the Patriots organization can help Lyerla within the locker room and on the field, in the outside world the Oregon tight end would be solely accountable for himself. I’d like to think the Patriots’ locker room culture is bulletproof (the Hernandez charges, even the Tim Tebow signing, proved that) and any media hubbub would soon be put to rest by the first Belichick press conference. But facing the trappings of an NFL player isn’t easy.
Lyerla does seem determined to redeem himself. On the field, he’s a warrior. Former teammates, such as Kyle Long, have supported him in his comeback attempt. Lyerla is a second round talent, easily. The question is, with not just the Hernandez issues, but with the heavy premium on locker room culture after the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin scandal, how much his off-the-field issues will drop his stock.
For the Patriots, it comes down to two things, neither of which us fans are privy to. One, you better bet that Bill Belichick will be talking to all of Lyerla’s former coaches to get a gauge on his locker room/on-the-field persona (though obviously Kelly may not be too forthcoming…). Two, the interview process. How candidly Lyerla addresses his troubles will be key. If the Pats’ front office feels comfortable about both, you can be he’ll stay on their board.
As a Pats fan, I’d definitely be comfortable taking Lyerla in the fifth round, which is a silly and arbitrary label, but there you go. Lyerla has All-Pro upside, and would be lethal next to Rob Gronkowski. I have faith in this Patriots locker room (this is the guy who wrote approximately 720 articles about the Red Sox clubhouse), and Belichick won’t think twice about cutting any player that causes too many issues. Again, I’m not privy to any interviews/discussions he’s had with the Pats’ front office, but if he’s sincere in his remorse, I’d strongly consider the former Duck.
But even if it’s not with the Patriots, I truly hope that Lyerla finds his way onto an NFL team. Everyone likes a feel-good story, and if Lyerla can successfully put his past behind him and put together a long NFL career, it would be a doozy. Undoubtedly, the next few months, when he won’t be able to prove himself on the field but will instead have to go through interview after interview asking him about his past issues, will be pretty rough. But if he can turn around his image, and be selected by a team in May, Lyerla could be a star.
As long as it’s not with the Jets. That would suck.
For more Patriots/Red Sox, follow Alex on twitter @isportsPeters or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.