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Monday, April 17, 2006
Updated: April 19, 9:06 PM ET
Wroten tackling character issues

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Written by LSU defensive tackle Claude Wroten, the letter arrived in the personnel offices of all 32 NFL teams last week with purposely impeccable timing, as general managers and scouts were about to convene for the final round of evaluation sessions that would help determine the shape of their draft boards.

Filled with sincerity and simple, declarative sentences, it is a missive with a message, authored by a young man with concerns for his future and contrition over some elements of his past. And it represented one final visit to the confessional by a highly regarded draft prospect for whom the past two months have principally been an exercise in full disclosure.

Claude Wroten
Scouts Inc. ranks Claude Wroten as the fifth-best DT in the upcoming draft.
"My approach has been to put all the cards on the table, spill my guts, just give them all of the details," Wroten said of his past problems with marijuana. "Hide nothing, you know? The whole truth and nothing but the truth, or however they say it. I bring the stuff up before scouts even have a chance to ask about it. I look them right in the eye and tell them everything that happened."

The truth may set some people free and it will, on occasion, send many others into a perilous free fall. The honesty of Wroten, it seems, has helped the former LSU star avoid the latter situation. While there remains a chance Wroten will slide out of the first round, depending on how some of the other tackles come off the board in the early stages of the draft, his candor helped guarantee he will not spiral out of the first day.

That isn't the case with every draft prospect whose résumé includes character-related issues.

A lot of players are naive in believing that past indiscretions might somehow escape the notice of league researchers or the close scrutiny of team decision makers, and some try to figuratively nudge such incidents under the rug. Some are outright duplicitous or disingenuous and others deal in half-truths.

At the NFL combine sessions in February, and at subsequent interviews with individual teams, former Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick, dismissed from the team after a series of off-field incidents, is said to have been fairly open with scouts who have questioned him. Under public cross-examination, however, Vick has been perceived as a prospect only partially willing to accept culpability for some of the events that have probably pushed him into the second day of the draft.

Of course, teams don't juggle their draft boards or make determinations on a prospect's viability based on the public's perception of a player. And in the case of Vick, it is difficult to assess the impact on his draft status, since no one ever had a very good read on the former Hokies star. But some scouts acknowledged that if a player comes across as less than forthright, even in his dealings with the media, it could have some trickle-down effect on his draft status. One NFC director of scouting assessed Vick as "a guy who will take responsibility … but only to a point. There's always, in his mind, it seems, an [extenuating] circumstance. He's a little bit of an excuse-maker."

And making excuses usually makes scouts take pause in evaluating a prospect's off-field issues.

Longtime personnel director Ken Herock, who is now retired from the league, operates ProPrep, a service via which he counsels draft prospects on the interview process. Herock advises players to be candid when they meet with teams. From firsthand experience, Herock knows the level of examination to which teams now go in examining a player's background, and the sometimes bulky dossiers assembled on prospects. His simple advice: Hide nothing.

"Some guys listen," Herock said, "and some guys don't."

Wroten apparently was not only a good listener but also an even better talker, scouts agree.

At the combine, Wroten began most interviews by conceding to scouts that, while the incident never went public and didn't draw a suspension, he tested positive for marijuana during his junior season. Then, even more painfully, Wroten, a country kid from Bastrop, La., with zero pretense about him, detailed the events of Jan. 4. That's when Wroten was pulled over for speeding near Sterlington, La., and police discovered a cache of marijuana and $4,000 in his car.

Arrested and charged with possession of marijuana and intent to distribute, Wroten spent several hours in the Ouachita Correctional Center before making bail. A month later, prosecutors decided not to pursue the charges because of a lack of evidence and some questions over the legality of the search. The technicalities aside, though, Wroten knew he had the marijuana, although he says it was for personal consumption, and he knew how close he came to having his football career go up in smoke.

"My approach has been to put all the cards on the table, spill my guts, just give them all of the details. Hide nothing, you know? The whole truth and nothing but the truth, or however they say it. I bring the stuff up before scouts even have a chance to ask about it. I look them right in the eye and tell them everything that happened."
Claude Wroten, former LSU DT

"You see the red lights [from the police car] in your [rearview] mirror and it's a sickening feeling," recalled Wroten, clocked at 77 mph in a 65 mph zone. "And then you remember the marijuana and it's like, 'Oh, no, man, this is bad.' You know how people say there are times they can see their whole lives flashing in front of them? Well, that's how it was. But I saw the future, too, not just the past. And I knew that the future could be disappearing for me. It's something I'll never forget. [It's] scary, way too scary to ever have happen again."

And so Wroten, a two-year starter at LSU after transferring into the Tigers program from Mississippi Delta Community College, has vowed to himself it won't ever happen again. And he's made the same promise to scouts and coaches who have interviewed him. Whether they buy into his story remains to be seen. What has clearly aided his cause, though, is that it's a story Wroten volunteers to repeat every time he meets with a team official.

A prototype three-technique tackle, a quick defender who can get through the gaps and penetrate and who uses his hands extremely well, Wroten is an intriguing prospect. There are scouts, in fact, who insist he is the most physically talented of the prospects who comprise a fairly impressive class of tackles in the 2006 draft. They mention him in the same elite subset as Haloti Ngata (Oregon), Brodrick Bunkley (Florida State), John McCargo (North Carolina State), Orien Harris (Miami), Gabe Watson (Michigan) and Rodrique Wright (Texas).

With good reason, too, because Wroten possesses undeniable tools and seems to have the kind of natural feel for the game -- including the ability to disengage and narrow his shoulders to allow him to penetrate into the backfield -- that can't be coached. At 295 pounds, he isn't as big as some of the wide-body run stuffers a few teams prefer, but he is stout enough against the run and plays with an attacking attitude when motivated.

Right now, with his dreams so close to reality that he said last week he feels like he can "reach out and grab them," Wroten is motivated. He desperately wants a career in the NFL and is moved enough to want to make one more impression on general managers and personnel directors -- and thus, the letter, just to remind them one last time of his resolve. In a league that has the toughest drug-testing program of any pro sport, Wroten figures he's going to be under scrutiny. But he also insisted he's kicked his marijuana habit and is now ready to kick some butt.

"To me," Wroten said, "I'm the best defensive tackle in the draft. That's not bragging -- honest, it's just how I feel. I can't even imagine not being able to play at the next level. So I'm ready to do whatever it takes, on and off the field. People in the NFL have made it clear to me there's no place in the league for [marijuana]. That means if I'm using the stuff, there's no place for me. And I'm not going to let that happen."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.