Commentary

Jets take big gamble on third-round pick

Hampton NT Kenrick Ellis has lots of talent. but he's also facing up to 20 years in prison

Updated: April 30, 2011, 2:56 AM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum made a cameo appearance as themselves Friday night on a taped episode of "CSI: NY." Turns out the New York Jets have been conducting their own crime-scene investigation.

[+] EnlargeKenrick Ellis
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKenrick Ellis represents a big risk for Rex Ryan and the Jets.

About 30 minutes after the TV show aired on CBS, the Jets used their third-round draft pick on massive nose tackle Kenrick Ellis, who is facing up to 20 years in prison on a felony assault charge. Ellis, who allegedly broke the jaw and nose of a man last April in an altercation on the Hampton (Va.) University campus, is scheduled to stand trial on July 12, according to an April 27 story in the Daily Press of Newport News, Va.

Most players are worried about a lockout keeping them from training camp. Ellis could be doomed by a lock-in.

You can't make this stuff up.

The Jets aren't bashful about taking chances on players with off-the-field issues -- Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie, Braylon Edwards, et al -- but this is an extreme case, a shot-in-the-dark gamble. In theory, they could lose their third-round pick before he steps on the field -- and that would be a blow, considering they had no second-round choice (traded last offseason for Antonio Cromartie).

Aside from the assault charge, Ellis was booted off the South Carolina team because of "multiple" failed drug tests, a league source told ESPNewYork.com. Dismissed by Steve Spurrier, who is more lenient than most coaches in college football, Ellis surfaced at Hampton, where he was a productive, three-year starter.

But this isn't about Ellis, the football player. It's about the person and the Jets' penchant for acquiring players with checkered pasts. After all the off-the-field shenanigans from last season, you'd think they'd be trying to clean up their image.

Defending the pick, Tannenbaum kept throwing out his oft-used company lines, including the always popular, "Based on all the information we have, we're comfortable taking him." This time, there was a new line: "pending legal matter." He used that a few times, refusing to comment on Ellis' upcoming trial or any aspect of the charge.

Most times, team officials wear out the "best-available athlete" explanation when defending a controversial draft pick. The Jets are different; they go with "pending legal matter." Pressed, Tannenbaum finally admitted there's risk involved.

"Maybe his risk is more than others, but if we didn't feel he'd be successful here, we wouldn't have taken him," said the GM, adding, "It was appropriate to take him where we took him."

Tannenbaum said they performed a "rigorous" background check, going deep into his past. That included an interview with his high school coach in West Palm Beach, Fla., according to Ellis.

Team officials also met several times with the Jamaican-born Ellis and found him to be "very transparent, very honest and very accountable," according to the GM. Tannenbaum believes the organization has a support system that will provide structure for Ellis, allowing him to succeed.

Oh, and did we mention he was the 36th-rated player on their draft board? That, no doubt, explains why they were willing to pull the trigger. They love the idea of teaming Ellis with first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson on their rebuilt defensive line.

Ellis is 6-foot-5, 333 pounds. Wilkerson is 6-foot-4, 315. On paper, it looks terrific. But there's the matter of a jury trial in July. Tannenbaum sounded confident it will have a positive outcome. Ellis refused to comment on it, saying -- you guessed it -- it's a "pending legal matter."

"The stuff I got into, it's in the past," he said on a conference call with reporters. "I was young when I did those things. I've been praying and wishing, hoping to show everybody I'm beyond those issues and that I've learned from my mistakes."

As for his transgressions at South Carolina, Ellis said, "I thought I was somebody that I wasn't. I was very young and immature. I was hanging out with a bad crowd. I made some decisions that dramatically affected the rest of my life, and I've learned from them."

Details of the alleged assault are sketchy, but his college coach hinted that Ellis may have been defending a woman.

"The one incident he had this past year, I think anybody in that circumstance would have done that," Donovan Rose told the Daily Press. "Someone kind of approached him over a young lady. Besides that, since he's been at Hampton, he's a kid that's been a 'yes sir, no sir' guy. ... He has been -- I'm not going to say a model guy, but he's been accountable."

Ellis got drafted because he's a massive human being with rare gifts, but football has been the easy part for him.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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