The biggest fear for fans at the NFL Draft is that their favorite team will pick a player destined to become the next "bust". More and more fans are, to the best of their abilities, investigating every major and minor character flaw and red flag of top prospects, looking for reasons to scratch their names off of a list and move on to a surer investment. As a result, "potential" has become a dirty word to fans - and, perhaps unfortunately, the 2011 NFL Draft is full of high-potential players that could get picked in the first round.
Clearly, there are more than just five high-risk prospects that could be picked early this April. The five players that appear on this list of the draft's biggest gambles are all first-round talents capable of being selected very early, with off-field or developmental concerns eroding their immediate earning potential. If your team selects any of these players, understand that it's very likely that said team is gambling on that player's upside, and on their own skills in evaluating every angle of every prospect.
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
NFL teams don't like athletes that go about their business with a sense of entitlement. That is arguably the biggest concern surrounding Newton, who schedules media-only workouts frowned upon by league personnel men, signs record endorsement deals, and whose father allegedly sold his son's services to the SEC's highest bidder. Even if Newton truly is self-centered - I don't know the man, and therefore can't make a claim either way - there are some athletes that are perfectly equipped, mentally and physically, to overcome this perceived character flaw and become stars in their sport.
Despite the fact that Newton has only one year of major college experience running an offense that won't translate to the NFL, he has everything you look for in a franchise quarterback - immense physical ability, a flair for the dramatic, and excellent mental toughness. His lack of experience - both in playing against elite competition and operating out of a pro-style system - makes him risky enough. Deciding whether or not he'll be able to transcend his shaky off-field resume is the biggest risk NFL teams will have to take.
Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
Quinn was getting a lot of lip service as the best pass rusher in the nation heading into the 2010 college football season after showing remarkable polish and improvement while recording 11 sacks as a true sophomore. On the cusp of becoming a blue-chip prospect playing on a talent-loaded North Carolina defense, Quinn instead didn't play a down in 2010, as he was ruled permanently ineligible after the NCAA said he accepted $5,642 worth of jewelry and travel accommodations from an agent.
NFL teams will make their own rulings on Quinn's personality and character; the general feeling is that Quinn is a good guy who made a grievous mistake. Beyond that hurdle, however, we're still talking about a player that has the football experience of a true sophomore, and has been out of the game for a full year. He's a marvelous athlete, and hasn't lost any of his considerable upside, but teams will need to determine how quickly Quinn can develop after his voided junior season if they plan on taking him early.
Allen Bailey, DE, Miami (FL)
On the surface, there is an awful lot to like about Miami's senior defensive lineman, and it starts with his unique athletic ability. Bailey was a steady producer at UM, though his numbers never reflected his true talent level. He's got the size of a defensive tackle, is one of the strongest players you'll ever encounter, and has the speed and quickness to play almost anywhere along the defensive line. But should that lack of definition be chalked up to versatility, or to the fact that he doesn't really have a positional home?
Bailey struggled mightily during the 2011 Senior Bowl, and it's because he is extremely underdeveloped in the football skill department. There's not a lot this guy does well from a technical standpoint. Bailey is experienced and doesn't have the off-field red flags, but he's going to require a lot of coaching before he's a productive pro. The trick in steering clear of risk here is to avoid over-drafting him based on his fantastic athletic ability. That may prove difficult for teams to do.
Jake Locker, QB, Washington
Locker remains a possible - perhaps even likely - first-round pick despite the fact that his average senior season dropped him well out of the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick. At this point, it appears that teams are still willing to overlook his lack of development in favor of his excellent physical tools (arm strength, athleticism) and elite intangibles.
Locker has the ability to be much more than an effective starter at the NFL level, but there is one major factor working against him in realizing that potential: his lack of accuracy. He never completed higher than 58.2 percent of his passes in any of his four years as a collegiate starter, and actually regressed in that department as a senior. Coupled with his questionable ability to correctly read defenses, Locker's shortcomings - making on-the-mark throws to the correct receivers - are arguably riskier than the off-field issues surrounding a guy like Newton. It may take a creative coach that schemes around Locker's athletic ability to make him a successful NFL passer.
Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh
To close out this top five list, we're coming full circle to the area of attitude issues. Jon Baldwin has the physical talents to be a Top 15 pick. His size-to-speed ratio is outstanding to the point that it's rare, he was productive even in a down year at Pittsburgh featuring quarterback struggles, and he has the length, hands and route-running ability to eventually be a legitimate go-to receiver in the NFL. However, scouts question his effort play in and play out; he's been compared to Randy Moss in that regard.
That effort has not only been questioned as a blocker - plenty of receivers have had that weakness overlooked in the past - but he's also been lackadaisical in going up to get poorly-thrown balls from time to time. Baldwin has had off-field issues in the form of assault, harassment and disorderly conduct charges that were dropped in 2009. We've worked our way back to a prospect's sense of entitlement; teams will have to determine whether Baldwin is miscast in that department, or whether he's talented enough to overcome that weakness, if they decide to draft him early.