MOBILE, Ala. – The New Orleans Saints will meet with every player here at the Senior Bowl this week in some fashion. All teams will.
But there is a reason why the Saints kicked off the week Monday with an extensive lunch meeting with Eastern Kentucky pass rusher Noah Spence that included a large contingent of the Saints' coaches, scouts and front office.
Actually, there are two reasons.
For one, the Saints desperately need defensive help, and Spence is one of the most dynamic defensive talents in this year’s NFL draft class -- something he has continued to flash throughout this week of practices.
Spence also demands extra attention from teams off the field because he was kicked off of the Ohio State football team in 2014 following two failed drug tests.
Spence, who later admitted to an addiction to the drug Ecstasy before reviving his career, knows he will spend most of this week and the next three months trying to convince teams they can trust him.
“That’s life. I mean, shoot, I’ve been through some things, and I’ve got to answer to ‘em,” said Spence, who said he had already faced some intense probing from at least half of the NFL teams before the start of his first practice Tuesday.
“Yeah, but it’s all good,” Spence said. “Nothing I haven’t answered before, so it’s fine.”
Spence, who opened up about his addiction to ESPN’s Brian Bennett last August, also got arrested at Eastern Kentucky for public intoxication last May after he said he threw a wine bottle toward a garbage can and missed, shattering it on the sidewalk.
Spence insisted his transgressions are more about being young and dumb than being the kind of character concern that should scare teams away.
“I made a couple mistakes. Dumb, young, immature mistakes. But it was never part of my full-on character,” Spence said. “It’s not the person I am, and it’s definitely not who I’m trying to portray to be now.”
Spence credited his parents and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer among the supporters who helped him get on track. Meyer hooked him up with former Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood.
The biggest motivator of all for Spence, though, was watching the Buckeyes win a national championship without him.
“That was a huge turning point for me,” Spence said.
The fear of failure is another big motivator.
“Fear definitely played a big part in (my comeback). Still is,” Spence said. “It was a fear of, like, failing, a fear of putting myself in that situation again and disappointing everybody and disappointing my family and stuff.”
Spence, who had eight sacks as a sophomore at Ohio State in 2013, was a first-team All-Big Ten selection that year -- ahead of teammate and top draft prospect Joey Bosa. Spence picked up right where he left off two years later at Eastern Kentucky with 11.5 sacks, earning co-Defensive Player of the Year honors in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Spence said he started to realize his NFL dream was still a strong possibility when NFL folks started coning to practice. It felt a little bit like being back at Ohio State.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I think this can still happen,’” Spence said.
Spence could possibly work his way into the first round -- though he doesn’t seem likely for New Orleans unless he falls to Round 2. The Saints, who pick 12th in Round 1, are especially cautious about character in the locker room after working so hard to clean that up last year.
The Saints’ extensive meeting with Spence doesn’t signify any guaranteed interest. General manager Mickey Loomis downplayed it as being part of the normal scouting process.
“I don’t know that I’d single him out or any one person out, because we’re gonna have a chance to visit with every single player here, whether that’s collectively as a group or with a couple scouts and a position coach,” Loomis said. “Every guy you have questions about, and obviously there’s things that they have to answer in terms of an event that may have happened. But the process I think is the same for each player.”
Spence, who measured 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds this week, played a hybrid DE/OLB role at Ohio State, then more of a traditional defensive end role at Eastern Kentucky. He said he could do either in the NFL, though he would likely add about 10 pounds to play DE in a 4-3 like the Saints run.
Spence has turned heads throughout two days of practices, showing his obvious speed and athleticism but also impressing as a run defender -- which he admits is the area he needs to shore up the most.
ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen praised both aspects of Spence's game after watching practices. Bowen also said he thinks scouts will like the competitive fire they saw when Spence had to be separated from Georgia offensive lineman John Theus on Tuesday.
Bowen said the key for Spence on the field will be showing he has more than just athletic ability. So far, so good.
“He has some real talent, but can he win with power and counter moves?” Bowen said. “All young edge rushers have to develop their overall game to get home to the QB in the NFL. And I think he can.”