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The only thing standing between Robert Nkemdiche and NFL success? His family

Robert Nkemdiche's brothers have always been an outsized part of his football career, and that has plenty of NFL front offices concerned about the impact that relationship might have on the likely first-round pick's pro career.

He wasn't suicidal, ever. People who know Robert Nkemdiche want you to know that. The decision to jump out the window of an Atlanta hotel room rented in his name was pure fight-or-flight. With police officers entering a room registered in his name, with marijuana on the premises during a party in December, there was no choice.

Those same people who want you to know about Nkemdiche -- when they describe his personality and behavior, it's always in the context of family. The mother he obeyed, the brother he followed and the trouble that came after; even the people who would defend his character to the NFL cannot extract the athlete from his family.

"It's just a matter of [teams] separating those parts of him -- his personality, his brothers ... if they think that's possible to do," a league scout told SB Nation.

Nkemdiche has spent the past month visiting a growing number of NFL teams in person: Pittsburgh, San Diego, Baltimore, New Orleans, Oakland, Jacksonville and more -- over half the league, by some accounts.

"They're just trying to feel me as a person, and get used to me," Nkemdiche said at his Pro Day on campus at Ole Miss March 28. "I'm getting a lot of positivity from them. Things are where they should be right now."

"I think the last weeks have been good for him," a scout of a team interested in Nkemdiche told SB Nation. "I think you're seeing that by the number of teams curious. There's that level of interest because he is smart. He's a very intelligent guy and he's obviously an amazing athlete."

In NFL circles, Nkemdiche is considered the most confusing prospect of the 2016 NFL Draft. He originally agreed to speak with SB Nation at multiple points before the draft. After five weeks of communication, neither Nkemdiche nor his publicity team could confirm a location or time by deadline.

Multiple agents, scouts, former teammates and coaches spoke to SB Nation about Nkemdiche, each arriving at the same consensus: Nkemdiche has a high level of intelligence and physical talent that is offset, fairly or not, by "acidic" family ties and the nebulous label of "character concerns."

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On paper Nkemdiche is a Pro Bowl defensive tackle starter kit, especially at first glance.

"His body is the definition of God's gift. There's no fat on him and he's consistently in the 290s. He looks like a comic book superhero," a competing agent said.

He can accelerate a 6'3 frame of almost 300 pounds to a 4.87 40 time. Nkemdiche was a defensive end at Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga., when he was recruited as the consensus top prospect in the 2013 college football signing class. College coaches knew his size and technique would eventually move him to tackle, and by his second season in Oxford, single protection wasn't an option in man blocking schemes.

As a DT Nkemdiche could disrupt for his teammates. He could create for his coaches. His abilities against single man coverage are "violent," one scout said. Ole Miss coaches rationalize his quiet stat line (three sacks in 2015) by raving about his ability to shed blockers and command double-teams inside.

He frequently scored touchdowns as a running back at Grayson, both by shedding tackles and outrunning defenders at over 280 lbs. Otherworldly talents often play multiple positions in high school, where the talent level hasn't yet leveled to their ability, but Nkemdiche averaged 6.4 yards per carry when inserted as a power back.

In 2015 he scored three touchdowns -- one a 31-yard catch -- good for 10th in scoring on a team that averaged 40.8 points per game. His presence in the backfield became demanding enough for defenses that Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze's staff could plug him in purely as a decoy.

Scouts and coaches say he needs technique improvement on shedding double-teams and struggles with zone blocking, but not because of any capacity issues: his understanding of concepts is excellent.

SB Nation's Stephen White, a former NFL defensive tackle, pointed to lackluster effort on particular plays.

The whole time I watched him damn near walk on that play, I wondered to myself how hard is he going to work at being better with his hands? How much is he going to be willing to sacrifice to reach his potential?

Like I said, it didn't happen often, but I still didn't like seeing it at all.

"I think there are times when he looks like he's dragging and he's not finishing. And he has had plays where he could've finished stronger. That's an effort issue, but 'taking plays off' means he would've made the decision not to be involved before the snap. That's not the case, that's not what I see," a rival college assistant coach said.

Officially: Nkemdiche does not take plays off, at least per Freeze. Since the hotel incident in December, the coach has rallied to keep Nkemdiche's stock high. Freeze has been emphatic both publicly and privately that the perception that Nkemdiche has an effort issue is false.

"I've told all the NFL teams, the narrative out there that there might be some laziness to his game is totally inaccurate compared to my experience with him in three years. He's one of the hardest workers we have," Freeze said in March.

But football technique is not the point. Nkemdiche hasn't become a riddle because of anything that occurs when he's wearing a helmet.

"Nothing about [his play] is a deal breaker," a scout said. "He has the talent to be Top 10. Guys take plays off in college or they don't finish because a lot of times they don't have to. If that was his biggest concern he wouldn't be this questionable, but it isn't."

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Mississippi v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As the No. 1 overall prospect in 2013 Robert signed with Ole Miss, then an afterthought SEC program in Freeze's first season.

The coup of pulling the nation's best player away from the Alabamas of the world doesn't happen without Denzel Nkemdiche, a 5'11, 208-pound tweener linebacker/safety and grade risk out of high school in Loganville, Ga.

Denzel signed with the Rebels in the summer of 2011 under former head coach Houston Nutt. One of Nutt's assistants visited friends on the Grayson High School staff and recommended Denzel. There was no fanfare or hype -- big brother was a flier taken by a struggling program. Nutt needed bodies on defense, and in 2011 the talk out of Atlanta was that the kid's little brother at Grayson might become a star.

Hindsight has confabulated much of Robert Nkemdiche's recruitment, but there is one universally agreed-upon fact: mother Beverly Nkemdiche was determined to have her sons play together.

Many recruiting analysts still believe that Robert would've held to his initial 2012 verbal commitment to Clemson or signed to a power program like Alabama or Georgia had Denzel flamed out at Ole Miss -- which he came close to doing in his redshirt year under Nutt.

"Once it was clear that the brother wasn't transferring out, the race was really over," a rival SEC recruiter said.

This theory has become popular because of the "what if" ramifications of the 2016 season: it puts Nkemdiche on the defensive line for Clemson in the national championship game against Alabama instead of anchoring a three-year renaissance in Oxford (capped by consecutive wins against ... Alabama).

The disconnect between Robert's talent and Ole Miss' stature didn't escape Beverly. As Ole Miss scraped to a .500 regular season her mandate to Freeze was simple: Show improvement, and keep her boys together.

"And you can bet Denzel knew that," a source inside the football program said. "The Nkemdiches never put terms on the staff that Denzel was untouchable. They were focused on Robert. But looking at it from Denzel's perspective: 'You need my brother to change this whole thing around.'"

Whatever uncertainty existed about blue chip Robert's recruitment to pedestrian Ole Miss ended Oct. 6, 2012, when Texas A&M scored 13 points in the fourth quarter in a 30-27 comeback victory.

Visiting Oxford for the weekend, Robert entered the locker room after the game to see Denzel weeping uncontrollably. This was the height of Johnny Manziel mania, and the elder Nkemdiche had spent a long night helping spy the elusive QB.

"He saw his brother in pain, and he wanted to help," Freeze said. "We don't get Robert without Denzel, there's no doubt."

Robert wouldn't formally commit until the following Signing Day, but Freeze and his staff knew he was locked from that moment on. The recruitment was over. That night Robert made the decision that family would define his college football career.

We don't get Robert without Denzel, there's no doubt. -Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze

To Ole Miss, Nkemdiche was more than a blue chip defensive lineman -- the brand equity of landing the nation's best player was massive. In 2013 Nkemdiche signed alongside wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and left tackle Laremy Tunsil (both are expected first-round draft picks on Thursday night). Anchored by Nkemdiche's headlines, the trio's impact on recruiting future classes was "immediate," according to one assistant coach.

Freeze has no issue with attribution. "We're in debt to Robert and what he gave this program, no doubt," he told SB Nation in April.

After the Rebels' 2013 Birmingham Bowl win over Pittsburgh, a scheduling snafu put the team on the bus and out of the stadium before the mandatory postgame press conference. Sophomore Denzel Nkemdiche overheard team officials scrambling for bodies and volunteered -- he was catching a ride home with friends and could stay late.

"Back then he was the go-to. A real ambassador. He's the guy you would want representing the team publicly," a source in the program said.

The sophomore linebacker held court, answering every question with better character and brand messaging than the SIDs and coaches could've done themselves.

During the period of Robert's recruitment Denzel was a one-man PR campaign for Ole Miss football. Denzel finished the season as a freshman All-American. According to coaches, he played wild and fast, but often undisciplined. Coaches saw talent with a lack of focus, a problem that would plague Denzel throughout his career.

Big brother's play peaked as attention on Robert went supernova. The combination, according to multiple sources at Ole Miss, was toxic. Coaches and administrators became aware of his increasingly high profile in Oxford. He partied, "a lot, at that Manziel level, more than a SEC football player can get away with," one source said.

"The worst thing that could have happened to Denzel was making All-American while Robert was being recruited. That validated him. He was above consequences for decisions he made. That stopped him from growing as a player and it enabled his behavior," a source in the program said.

Denzel Nkemdiche was arrested in February 2014 on a disturbing the peace charge after his 21st birthday. That same month Denzel and Robert were sued by an Ole Miss student for their alleged participation in an assault at a campus party in 2013. The Nkemdiche family counter-sued. A month later, Denzel -- already suspended for Spring practice -- was videotaped in a verbal tirade on a beach in Florida, screaming obscenities to Mississippi State fans.

Denzel was suspended for the Rebels' 2014 opener against Boise State. The game was played in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Denzel's home. According to program sources, it was meant to be a specific message to the linebacker that his college career was hanging in the balance.

Instead, according to numerous sources, Denzel became a fixture in Oxford nightlife and a constant problem for the athletic department. Soon the eldest Nkemdiche brother Bryan arrived in Oxford, and local law enforcement became aware of the Nkemdiches -- as a group -- through frequent run-ins. Bryan never enrolled at Ole Miss nor had any kind of professional tie to the area.

"He was there specifically to leech off his brothers' fame," a source inside the program said.

Stories ran wild, and not just through campus, but through cops and lawyers, too. Denzel was the subject of multiple interventions and "in-house" discipline by the football staff. Boosters who were once charmed by Denzel at events and after games began to fret that he'd influence his younger, more talented brother.

According to law enforcement sources, Denzel was ubiquitous in the party scene before, during and after his little brother's recruitment and arrival, but on the occasions that bookworm Robert Nkemdiche was spotted at a party or bar, one of his outgoing brothers was close by.

"Denzel was everywhere. We didn't see Robert that much, but if you saw Robert out, you saw Denzel with him, or Bryan, or both."

Beverly was a continent away working as a politician in her native Nigeria, and parenting was left to the father, Sunday Nkemdiche. During 2014 through the end of the Nkemdiches' time with the program, multiple persons around Ole Miss football considered Sunday less a parent and more an enabler to his sons' behavior.

Ole Miss started 7-0 in 2014, becoming a national title contender before a 10-7 loss at LSU in October. Denzel broke his ankle in the first quarter of the game and was sidelined for the rest of the year.

By this point the talent level of the roster had changed dramatically, and losing an overachieving but undisciplined project like Denzel was far less impactful on the depth chart. His injury, as well as coaches feeling he was being outplayed at linebacker, caused him to withdraw from the team, according to one former teammate.

Before his senior season Denzel spoke to in August 2015 about his off-field trouble:

"It was injuries and mistakes that any other college student or young male may make," said. "Now I’m just more aware of others. I like doing selfless acts. I like being selfless now. I find my joy in that."

"I was feeding my ego, the things my ego liked - the publicity, the girls, all that," he said. "It was strictly for the ego. But now my ego has been put to rest. I can see it for what it is now. It’s nothing but fun. I’ve seen a change, I’ve seen a transformation."

Multiple accounts said that the start of the 2015 football season was Denzel Nkemdiche's cleanest stretch with the program, until it came crashing down. Denzel was hospitalized after being discovered as "non-responsive" Nov. 16, following Ole Miss' bye week. He was hospitalized in Oxford the following week. Ole Miss first announced his absence as a "personal matter" and stated that he would miss the following week's home game against LSU. Before his hospitalization Denzel Nkemdiche was the team's leading tackler. He would not play college football again.

Multiple sources have confirmed that Denzel had experimented with "a large variety of drugs" the night preceding his first hospitalization.

On Dec. 20, Sunday and Denzel accompanied Robert to a bar in Clarksdale, Miss., to watch him play saxophone. That night Robert confirmed to that he was suspended for Ole Miss' bowl game and that his college career was over.

Denzel Nkemdiche was again hospitalized on Dec. 23, this time after being found "non-responsive" in a house in the Jackson, Miss., suburb of Ridgeland. It's believed by team sources that Denzel was living with or visiting Sunday Nkemdiche during this time, but the family did not respond to attempts to confirm that information.

"Some players can handle stardom. Denzel couldn't handle the attention. He believed everything he was told and everything that he told himself, that he was in control of his brother, that he was larger than the team."

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NFL Combine - Day 5 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The NFL's pre-draft months are risk-assessment season. Since the party in Atlanta, Nkemdiche's psychological profile has been parsed as much as his stat line. Social media accounts littered with religious references, the headbands he wore under his helmet during games and even the books he reads add up to a personality that's hard to square for those whose job is to "protect the shield."

A headline like "jumps out of window" connotes mental illness on its own. Then there was the matter of "drugs present" just 28 days after Denzel's alleged overdose. The sum of these things is how the rumors around Oxford built, why a lot of people thought Robert Nkemdiche jumped because he is "crazy."

Sometime after his first season as a college football player Nkemdiche dove into his increasing interest in metaphysics and religion. There are conflicting accounts -- some say Denzel introduced it, some say that Robert sought spiritual enlightenment on his own. Some say he'd always been at odds with a traditional interpretation of life's big questions.

He found ... a lot of things. Various stems of Christianity, Jewish mysticism, Taoism, transcendentalism, brain chemistry, quantum physics, creation theory, astrology ... you name it, and all together. It's hard to say he's committed to a single ideology but that seems beside the point. His social media footprint builds to something familiar: just another college undergraduate in the throes of self-discovery.

It's hard to digest for some evaluators. Nkemdiche projects as a three-technique tackle, maybe a defensive end in a 3-4 or an under tackle in a 4-3. It doesn't matter -- wherever he ends up, he'll be tasked with one of the most violent jobs in the world's most violent game.

"Inevitably stuff like this hurts a kid, because there are football people who want you to be a football player, in the mold. Love football, talk about football," an agent said. "Somewhere, I think a lot of somewheres, all that stuff was being marked against him before he could meet with teams [in person]."

It is possible to pause here and, in a vacuum, condemn the NFL for this kind of logic. Had a football player of Robert Nkemdiche's talents wandered into any other program, earned the same All-American status and still gotten dogged by media and scouts for tweeting about telepathy and Tesla, that would certainly be an indictment of league policies.

Especially because, according to multiple sources in and around the Ole Miss program, there's a connection between those eccentric queries of the mind and a preference to stay home and away from trouble when possible.

His status wouldn't allow him to be a hermit, but former teammates said Nkemdiche's preferred location after an Ole Miss home game was in his apartment, without a party or crowd, sequestered with music. And if he was out for the night it was almost always with his brothers and a tight clique.

He began wearing headbands with his football uniform. According to people in the football program, it was part of his enlightenment. This spread to a few teammates. Coaches would joke with him about it and he would happily try to explain his current philosophical interests to them. Fans would shrug. If an SEC fan base saw a Southern, black, defensive end excited about sutras or Stephen Hawking as existing against type, the discrepancy didn't matter when he was talented enough to catch touchdown passes and tackle for a loss in the same game.

"He was the top signee, he was a star before he got here and he knew everyone was watching him. He found a way to keep sane and people think it's weird, so he's weird now. I don't think he could win," a former teammate said.

* * *

At Ole Miss' March 28 pro day Nkemdiche made an unannounced appearance with the media. At the first mention of Denzel, Nkemdiche clarified that he wouldn't be in the same city as his brother, who is currently living in the L.A. area. Following the Sugar Bowl Robert and Freeze reconciled after his bowl suspension, and the pair have spoken on a regular basis since December, according to the coach. Denzel has had no contact with anyone in Oxford.

"Me and Denzel and my family have made it to a point where we're going to be separated for the beginning of my career. We're going to keep football where football needs to be and I'm going to be handling that."

When SB Nation asked Nkemdiche how important it was to maintain a life that allowed for interests outside of football, Nkemdiche responded in a manner consistent with his PR campaign.

"It's not ... football is always going to be my bread and butter. Football is everything to me, football will always be everything to me, but as a person, my interests off the field, I just like to keep myself occupied, whether it's watching TV or going out. I like doing other things that keep me occupied, keep me balanced off the field."

He also acknowledged that he had his passion for football questioned by multiple team representatives.

"Yeah, and I'm confused as to where that came from. I don't really know where that came from. I guess they feel like that's going on, so ... I love football. After everything I've put into it."

Do you think the process punishes people who don't fit a particular football player stereotype? Do you think that's why you're being asked these questions?

"Yeah. That's exactly why. Because stereotypes aren't always ... I kind of break away from the stereotype of a football player so it's kind of you know of ... vague. I will never ever let anything get in the way of my football career. Football is my first, football is my everything, it's my purpose in this world."

Because of Denzel and Bryan, Robert's recruitment has become revisionist. Was the fact he followed his brother a sign that he lacked his own identity? Did he ever have a choice? And if that was the case then, what's to keep Denzel from showing up in Oakland, Denver or Buffalo?

"This is where everyone is concerned. This is why you'll talk about the effort or the headband stuff, because of his brothers. If you take away the brothers it's a completely different conversation," one scout said.

People who know and love Robert Nkemdiche will tell you that since he signed with Ole Miss three years ago, he's never had a chance to prove his worth or establish his character away from his family.

"It's the NFL. Guys have tough upbringings. Guys have bad pasts or they run with bad crews. A lot of times the league can 'fix' that, I think. There are good cultures and staffs that can help players elevate out of that. But in his case it's family, and not like a dad in jail or a cousin. The brother is preying upon his success. That's a lot harder to break up, or it may be impossible," an agent said.

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