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Matt Rhule: One elevator ride cost an NFL draft prospect a shot with Carolina Panthers

Eric Edholm
·3-min read

A note to NFL draft prospects: There is always someone watching.

With the 2021 NFL draft fast approaching, every prospective NFL player should listen to this story from Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule. He admitted that a very brief interaction with a player in last year’s class knocked him off the Panthers’ draft board a year ago.

“There was a player last year, and I won’t say who, but [he] was supposed to be drafted pretty highly,” Rhule said Tuesday, via “And I got in the elevator with him at the [NFL scouting] combine, and ... by the end of that elevator ride, I was like, ‘There’s no way that guy will be a fit with us.’ ”

We’re not sure if the prospect made a tasteless comment, chewed gum loudly, pushed the emergency button or what. But whatever happened during that brief window, it cost him a spot in Carolina.

Now, there’s no scouting combine this year, nor are there any private workouts or meetings. And though the Senior Bowl is happening now, with Rhule’s Panthers and the Brian Flores-coached Miami Dolphins dissecting more than 130 prospects, we’re still only talking about perhaps one-quarter of the possible draft picks and undrafted free-agent signings in the 2021 draft pool.

Still, teams have watched — and will continue to watch — players for every possible shred of evidence on their makeup and character.

“This would be a year when everyone across the NFL knows less about players than any other year,” Rhule added.

Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said he took a prospect off the team's 2020 NFL draft board following an elevator ride with him. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said he took a prospect off the team's 2020 NFL draft board following an elevator ride with him. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Character still matters to some teams

There’s a reason Chad Wheeler was undrafted in 2015, riddled with character red flags coming out of USC that year. But he still got a shot as a free-agent signing with the New York Giants that year, and he remained in the NFL until Tuesday — when the Seattle Seahawks cut Wheeler amid some stunning allegations against him that led to his arrest.

NFL teams don’t need an elevator ride with every prospect to know whether a player has good character or not. But the slightest misstep can change everything.

“We think we know these guys, and our scouts do a great job,” Rhule said. “But that’s only information from a third party. This is a chance for players to speak for themselves and say, ‘This is who I am. This is what my makeup is.’ Coaching them, being in meetings, just being in an elevator with them, you get a sense for the guys.

“We’re looking to find who's tough, hard-working and competitive, who’s smart, who loves the game. And who’s a good person. We spend six months a year together, so we want to be around people that we like and fit us.”

So to the NFL prospects out there, if you get in an elevator (or other enclosed space, we suppose) and there’s someone else in there with you, remember: That could be a general manager or head coach who could add or take your name off their teams’ draft boards.

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