Florida State outside linebacker A.J. Nicholson, 22, is a classic example of how character concerns can cause a player to slide on draft day. Though very talented, Nicholson's path to success in the National Football League will be a made much more difficult because of off-the-field problems and immaturity.
One of the nation's top linebackers out of Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, N.C., Nicholson chose to attend Florida State University over Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Nicholson entered the Seminoles program after a senior year in which he had 147 tackles.
As a true freshman in 2002, Nicholson played in all 13 games, primarily on special teams and as a backup outside linebacker. One of eight true freshman to play for the Seminoles that year, he racked up 23 tackles and a sack.
In 2003, the sophomore Nicholson once again backed up weakside linebacker Kendyll Pope for the majority of the season. He appeared in every game - starting three - and more than doubled his tackle total from the previous season with 55 stops. Nicholson also added two passes defensed, four quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. His best game of the year came against Duke, in which he had seven tackles and two fumble recoveries, returning one for a touchdown.
With Kendyll Pope going to the Indianapolis Colts in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft, starting weakside linebacker was Nicholson's job. He did not disappoint, compiling a team-high 88 tackles, four sacks and two fumble recoveries - also a team high. Nicholson capped off the season by helping Florida State to a 30-18 Gator Bowl win over West Virginia with 12 tackles and an interception.
In 2005, Nicholson was a Butkus Award semifinalist and a second team All-ACC selection for his performance in 12 regular season games. The senior led the team in tackles for the second straight season, this time with 100 stops. He also added two interceptions on the season, returning one for a touchdown against Boston College.
There is no denying the pure talent Nicholson possesses. He is the type of player that is always around the ball, and this is due to great football instincts. Not only is he often in good position, but he is often making the tackle - something he's very good at doing.
Physically, Nicholson has a positive for every negative. Although he's a little on the short side (6-foot-0 7/8), he has a solid build at 242 pounds and has good strength. Despite his unimpressive speed (his best 40-yard dash time at Florida State's Pro Day was 4.74 seconds), he has good agility, quickness and burst.
Nicholson doesn't really have many glaring issues in his game. He is a little undersized and doesn't have great top speed, but he's been able to overcome both of those things thus far, possessing the ability to do so in the NFL.
As far as durability is concerned, the only major injury he has suffered is a torn medial collateral ligament (MCL) in 2003. However, he's played his best football after the injury, and it doesn't seem to be an issue at this point.
The matter with Nicholson that will negatively affect his draft stock the most is his character. In February 2005, he was arrested on driving under the influence of alcohol charges. June of the same year, he was subdued with a taser by police after failing to comply with the officer's orders.
Apparently the incident didn't "shock" some sense into the immature linebacker. Nicholson was suspended from the team following allegations of sexually assaulting a woman at the team hotel and missed the team's appearance in the Orange Bowl against Penn State. No charges have been files as of yet, but the incident certainly did further damage to his reputation among the NFL decision-makers.
You don't have to leave the state of Florida to find a comparable draft prospect. Last year, Florida outside linebacker Channing Crowder was a first-round talent that fell to the Miami Dolphins in Round 3 due to off-the-field issues. Nicholson will likely suffer the same fate. His talent says that he should be drafted in the first two rounds. It also happens to be the reason he could go as high as the third round and likely won't last past the fourth.
Teams that could use help at outside linebacker include the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Each of those teams has at least one pick in the third round, and Minnesota has two picks. Once the first few rounds have past, and we've seen the directions teams have gone, it will become clearer which teams are the most likely destinations for Nicholson.
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