La'el Collins signed with the Dallas Cowboys Thursday, bringing to close one of the strangest sagas in recent NFL history. And that's saying something.
Once projected as a first-round pick at the 2015 NFL Draft, Collins' name wasn't called on day one, and he asked to be removed from the draft entirely (a request the league refused). Despite his prodigious talents – he was a former high school All-American and a first-team All-SEC offensive lineman at LSU – and Pro Bowl potential, Collins continued to plummet down draft boards, and ultimately wasn't one of the 256 players taken. Why? Because he's yet to be cleared by Baton Rouge police in connection with the shooting death of Brittney Mills, his ex-girlfriend.
That didn't stop several teams – including the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins – from unofficially courting him (teams are not permitted to meet with undrafted players at their school or residence), though ultimately, Collins signed with the Cowboys, a team with an already ferocious offensive line and a roster that includes troubled talent like Greg Hardy and Nebraska's Randy Gregory, who failed a drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Yet Collins' case is unique, and rather representative of the NFL in the post-Ray Rice era: His mere association with a murder case (police have never called him a suspect) not only impacted his stock, but cost him millions of dollars.
Were Collins to have been selected by his home state New Orleans Saints – who took offensive tackle Andrus Peat of Stanford with the 13th overall pick – he would have been in line for a contract worth more than $10 million over four years. As an undrafted free agent, he ended up settling for a tenth of that: three-years, $1.65 million with Dallas, plus a $21,000 signing bonus. You can understand why Collins and his agents told NFL teams not to draft him unless he was going to go in the first three rounds.
The story of Collins and Brittney Mills is one of horror and tragedy – played out against what was supposed to be the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice. Meanwhile, many more prospects experienced the joy of hearing their names called on television and being assigned to a team that would pay them a fat signing bonus soon after, including some who are not faring well under the microscope of the National Football League.
People like Frank Clark, who actually saw his draft stock go up in the months following an ugly domestic violence arrest last November. The Michigan defensive standout ended up going 63rd overall, to the Seattle Seahawks, who claim to have "an in-depth understanding of [his] situation."
And it's definitely a situation. On November 15, 2014, police arrived at a Sandusky, Ohio hotel after receiving of a disturbance in room 3202; the guests in room 3200 said it sounded like "a head was being bounced off a wall." Small children from room 3202 – brothers of alleged victim Diamond Hurt, it would turn out – had said "Frank is killing our sister." Pictures from the police report show an abrasion on her face, and despite officer Martin Curran stating that she should go to the hospital because of "how large the welt on her face was," she refused.
Hurt also didn't want to press charges on Clark, telling Curran she didn't want to interfere with what "Frank has going on," according to the officer's report.
He was arrested anyway and charged with misdemeanor assault and domestic violence and served three days in jail while he waited for court to open. However, it appears that Hurt's wish for Clark to continue to flourish as an NFL prospect was granted; Clark pleaded down his charge to disorderly conduct and paid a small fine, with time served.
Clark was also projected as a 4th or 5th round draft pick by CBS Sports just two days prior to his arrest for domestic violence, and then was almost immediately dismissed from the team by Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who said he had no tolerance for this sort of thing.
None of that deterred the NFL from inviting Clark to the Scouting Combine, where he tested as one of the most athletically gifted defensive ends in the entire draft. Even then, NFL.com noted that it would be "unlikely" Clark would get drafted due to his off-field concerns.
That didn't deter the Seahawks though, a team as notorious for their love as "athletes" as they are for their disdain for draft projections. After conducting their own investigation – one that seems flimsier by the day in the wake of the draft – Seattle cleared Clark of any wrongdoing, as far as they were concerned, and made the phone call at the end of the second round to inform him that he would become a member of the Seahawks.
It's a decision that has brought nothing but scrutiny to a front office that seemed to do no wrong over the last few years, but unless they make the unlikely move of not signing Clark to his rookie deal, it appears as though in less in six months he's gone from arrested, booted and out of chances, to fulfilling his NFL dream.
La'el Collins now gets to do the same, though the two cases do point out that, while the NFL has made strides in regards to dealing with the troubling issue of domestic violence, the process is far from perfect. Collins might still end up facing charges in the shooting of Mills – police won't clear him until a suspect is in custody – but in the mean time, the league continues to be ready to open its doors to young and talented players, regardless of legal complications. For better or worse.