The NFL draft was like a roll call of Alabama players.
Three former Crimson Tide standouts – cornerback Dee Milliner, guard Chance Warmack and offensive tackle D.J. Fluker – were the ninth, 10th and 11th overall picks.
Running back Eddie Lacy went in the second round on the second night, and five more Alabama players were selected on the final day of the draft. The nine Nick Saban-coached players represented a record haul for a school known for churning out NFL talent.
Then there was Robert Lester.
When Lester’s phone finally rang in Foley, Ala., on the last day of the April draft, it was teams calling to tell the Alabama safety that although they were not going to invest a pick in him, they wanted him as a priority free agent.
Lester and his agent, Pat Dye Jr., had about 45 minutes to sort through 11 or 12 free agent offers. They picked the Panthers.
If Lester’s showing at the team’s three-day minicamp is any indication, it was a decision that could prove to be mutually beneficial.
In the Panthers, Lester, who is 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, found a team looking for help at safety following the erratic play last season by Haruki Nakamura and the loss of Sherrod Martin, who was allowed to walk in free agency and has yet to sign with another team.
In Lester, the Panthers found a safety with good size, play-making instincts and a championship pedigree whose sub-par 40-yard dash time was the chief reason he wasn’t drafted.
“It worked out perfectly,” Dye said. “I told Robert once you get beyond the fifth round – everyone’s making the rookie minimum anyway – you’re almost better off being able to pick your team.”
Lester, part of three national championship teams at Alabama, worked a lot with the first-team defense during minicamp and is in the mix for the starting spot opposite veteran free safety Charles Godfrey. By the time Lester arrives in Spartanburg for his first training camp next month, the letdown of draft weekend will be a distant memory.
“It was disappointing. But that’s in the past now,” Lester said. “I’m focused on the present and the future.”
Facing Julio Jones
Lester was a high school teammate of Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones at Foley, a school outside of Mobile in south Alabama. Jones, a five-star recruit, was bigger, stronger and faster than Foley’s defensive backs.
But Lester, who gave up 2 inches to the 6-3 Jones, would challenge him during 1-on-1 drills at practice, according to Foley coach Todd Watson.
“He didn’t do bad. Robert really was more of a safety than a corner,” Watson said. “But we had as much fun as coaches watching them go against each other and get after it.”
While Jones had nearly every major program in the country recruiting him, Lester drew just a handful of scholarship offers. He ended up joining Jones at Alabama, despite questions from Saban’s staff about Lester’s speed.
“That was a concern for them too,” Watson said. “And his second or third year there, he’s second in the country in interceptions.”
After redshirting as a freshman in 2008 and coming off the bench during Alabama’s 2009 Bowl Championship Series title season, Lester became a starter in 2010. His eight interceptions that season led the SEC, were second nationally and tied for the second-most in school history.
While Jones turned pro after the 2010 season, Lester stayed in school and was a mainstay on the 2011 and 2012 title teams. He was the unheralded member of a secondary that featured three first-round picks in safety Mark Barron and corners Dre Kirkpatrick and Milliner.
Lester started 40 games at Alabama, finishing with 139 tackles, 14 interceptions and 10 pass breakups. But the number most scouts focused on was Lester’s 4.66-second clocking in the 40 at the scouting combine. Lester’s time was not far behind those of the first two safeties drafted – Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro (4.63 seconds) and Florida’s Matt Elam (4.54) – and was faster than the 4.67 run by Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien, the third safety taken.
Watson said what Lester lacks in straightaway speed he makes up for with his football IQ and ability to anticipate where a quarterback is throwing the ball.
“I think sometimes they look at the clock too much. You’re talking about a guy who started in Saban’s secondary for (three) years,” Watson said. “I think his football speed is comparable to anyone he’s going to go against.”
Lester was inconsistent at times during his senior season. He had multiple coverage breakdowns in a 29-24 loss to Texas A&M, including one on a touchdown pass by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
A pre-draft scouting analysis on NFL.com claimed Lester was “not a quick-twitch athlete” and played “high and stiff in his backpedal.” While stating Lester “won’t catch faster receivers in trail coverage over the middle,” the NFL.com analysis concluded by projecting Lester as a middle-round draft pick.
But Dye, Lester’s agent, said a deep safety class – the 21 safeties drafted were five more than in 2012 – also might have hurt Lester.
Dye said the Panthers were the only team to request a formal interview with Lester at the combine. According to Dye, Carolina’s scouts and coaches were impressed with his knowledge of the game.
“They told me that in that interview he absolutely blew them away in terms of understanding the game, understanding schemes and knowing what everyone’s doing,” Dye said. “They said that was so important in their defense, that the safety be knowledgeable.”
Lester sensed a genuine interest from the Panthers throughout the draft process.
“It was a team that always stayed in the back of my head,” Lester said.
Lester also knew the Panthers had a need at safety. He’s competing with Nakamura, free agent acquisition Mike Mitchell and D.J. Campbell, a starter at the end of last season, for the strong safety spot.
“The main thing I’m doing is getting out there and trying to compete and make sure I get down what I need to know. Being able to work with anybody I’m out there with,” Lester said. “I think it’s great work for us to build team chemistry. I’ve never played with any of these guys. And being out there with different guys, it gives you a chance to get a feel for how they play.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Lester’s experience with the country’s preeminent college program should help him.
“It means that he’s been in big situations before,” Rivera said. “You know that his transition should not be as hard. It should be a relatively easy transition for him.”
Dye, the son of former Auburn and East Carolina coach Pat Dye, represents three other Alabama players from this year’s draft class – Lacy, linebacker Nico Johnson and Milliner, who hired Dye after firing agent Tony Fleming following the draft.
“The great thing about those Alabama kids is there’s nothing too big for them. They’re used to playing in stadiums bigger than the NFL,” Dye said. “Is there anybody better prepared for the NFL than guys who played for Nick Saban – physically, mentally, emotionally and just football intellect?”
Nothing could have prepared Lester for those three days he spent at home in April, watching nine teammates get drafted and 21 safeties get picked and never seeing his name on the ESPN or NFL Network scroll.
He’ll get a chance next month to begin making a name for himself.
“I’m here now,” Lester said following the Panthers’ final minicamp practice on June 13. “I have a chance to go out and prove that I can play, and that’s what I’m (doing).”