Character nearly as important as talent these days

In its meticulously written and exhaustively researched weekend series examining the recent rash of arrests among players and coaches, the San Diego Union-Tribune twice cosmetically altered the NFL logo to graphically illustrate the off-field indiscretions which have recently plagued the league.

One day, The Shield, as commissioner Roger Goodell suddenly has taken to calling sport's most powerful and recognizable trademark, featured handcuffs superimposed over it. The next day, the pair of manacles was replaced by a magnifying glass.

Point made. And when it comes to this weekend's draft, and how the teams approach the issue of character among the lottery's nearly 300 prospects, point taken.

And taken seriously.

"There has always been pressure to weed out at-risk (prospects) in the draft, and when the money began to get so big, the pressure increased because there was so much more financial exposure," said Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. "But now, with the new player conduct policy and some of the things that (Goodell) has enacted, everyone seems to feel the heat even more. We're really under the gun."

Indeed, with the unprecedented penalties Goodell levied earlier this month on Tennessee cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones and Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Henry, and the implementation of a policy that could sanction individual franchises which habitually choose to bring players of dubious character into the league, this year's draft will be one in which teams are also under the microscope.

"Every little thing you do," said Miami Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller, "is going to be magnified right now."

In announcing the new and more stringent policy, Goodell never detailed what penalties he might bring to bear on teams like the Cincinnati Bengals, who had nine players arrested in the past year, if such a track record was repeated. Implicit, though, is that the action could range from fines to forfeiture of draft choices.

Another factor is that in extending the collecting bargaining agreement last year, it became more difficult for teams to recover signing bonus money from players who experienced off-field problems. So while making a mistake in projecting a player's football abilities carries a huge price tag, so does whiffing on a prospect's character.

"Making bad picks, for skill or character, is costly," said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome. "But you might be able to better (reconcile) the first. Because on the character stuff, well, if a kid's had problems in college, he's probably going to continue to have some similar problems. You don't want to miss on anybody, for any reason. But you really don't want to miss on the character stuff."

With such hurtful penalties, financial and otherwise, for striking out on a prospect, it seems imperative that teams clean up their acts.

And that starts with tidying up their draft boards.

It's a good bet, for instance, that the Bengals, who have historically been risk-takers in the draft, have paid closer attention this year to players with character issues. A player like linebacker A.J. Nicholson, the Bengals' fifth-round choice in the 2006 draft and a prospect whose off-field problems while at Florida State had been well documented by league and team security personnel, probably wouldn't make it onto the Cincinnati board this year.

"There's a tendency to buy the bargain," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis acknowledged at the annual league meetings last month. "To believe in a guy's willingness to turn a corner in his life. To believe that he'll know and understand that it's a privilege to play in the NFL. But we're not in a position to do that anymore.

"Maybe you lose some players if character questions are going to take guys off your board. But it's not a bad choice. There are a lot of good players (with problems), but there are too many other good guys, too. You're spending too much time trying to change habits instead of coaching the good guys."

"Everybody knows who the bad apples are. But not every (team) judges the rottenness of the apple the same way. I mean, we always talk about guys having red flags next to their names on the draft board. Well, sometimes, those red flags have been more like pink flags. Other times, they're, like, fire-engine red. But with what's gone on lately, I think most teams now see red as red. No matter how tempting a guy might be, in the long run, you're probably better off not biting into that apple"
-- Kansas City coach Herm Edwards

One of the points emphasized in the Union-Tribune series, which painstakingly detailed 308 NFL player incidents dating back to 2000, is that the league's arrest rate in that stretch is actually lower than that of the general population of males aged 22-34. Some of the media has portrayed the NFL as a league rife with felons and incorrigibles and has painted the picture as dire and out of control. That's clearly hyperbole.

It's not as if the inmates are in control of the asylum -- or that DUIs outnumber INTs.

Still, in both perception and reality, the rate of arrests in the league since the beginning of 2006 has been alarmingly high.

And as Goodell has noted, even one arrest is "one too many."

Certainly, the new commissioner, who has elevated player conduct and player and franchise accountability to high priority status in nine months on the job, appears to enjoy the support of his owner constituents and of the NFL Players Association. There has been nary a word of criticism since Goodell banished Jones for the entire '07 season and Henry for the first eight games of the campaign.

In fact, Goodell was lauded by Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall, one of several veteran players who convened with the commissioner at the predraft combine session in Indianapolis two months ago to discuss the need for a get-tough crackdown as "the new sheriff in town."

Said New England owner Bob Kraft, echoing the consensus view: "I think the American people are fed up with overindulged athletes who are making very high incomes, and can lead a certain style of life, and don't respect the responsibilities they have to conduct themselves in a certain manner. It's just good business to have good people connected with your brand name."

The NFL is the most preeminent sports entity of this or any time, with revenues exceeding $6 billion annually, and an economic standing for virtually everyone involved that would be envied by any big business. No one wants to kill the golden goose. And ensuring the stability and integrity of that goose might begin by guaranteeing that the NFL hatches even fewer problems with a process that begins at conception, with the draft.

"We want people in our league who not only contribute on the field but also contribute in the community," said Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney. "That might be a little (idealistic) and, hey, I know you can't have a bunch of choirboys. But I don't think it's too much to expect your guys to behave themselves, to obey the law, to have some 'role-modeling' to them. It's still an achievable thing, having a team that plays well and behaves well. And it all starts with taking the right kind of people."

Draft diligence, of course, is hardly a new or novel concept. Teams historically have taken into account a prospect's off-field history when stacking their boards. Some have been a lot more arduous than others in their background checks, and security measures can vary from one club to another, but are certain to be stepped up at every level this year.

"Everybody knows who the bad apples are. But not every (team) judges the rottenness of the apple the same way," allowed Kansas City coach Herm Edwards. "I mean, we always talk about guys having red flags next to their names on the draft board. Well, sometimes, those red flags have been more like pink flags. Other times, they're, like, fire-engine red. But with what's gone on lately, I think most teams now see red as red. No matter how tempting a guy might be, in the long run, you're probably better off not biting into that apple."

How many bad apples, though, have been removed altogether from draft boards this year? Probably not quite a bushel's worth, but likely more than a peck. The general feeling is that teams will take fewer gambles over the weekend, and, thus, there will be less potential for down-the-road disaster.

That said, sitting in judgement on a player's character is still a subjective exercise, one in which the tolerance quotient varies from team to team. And there has been considerable discussion about what standards should be employed by franchises in eliminating a prospect from consideration or in moving a player significantly down the board.

Most general managers and personnel directors surveyed over the past few weeks, as they have prepared for the 2007 draft, acknowledged they have been a bit harsher in stacking their boards. But few have a hard-and-fast rule about where they draw the line, because the determinations are still made on a case-by-case basis. And most franchises still separate a player's character on the field from his behavior off it.

"You can't absolutely kill a guy in the draft because he went out and had a beer at a party and got into a scuffle or something," New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese told the Florida Times-Union. Dallas owner Jerry Jones allowed that, in evaluating the character backgrounds of draft prospects, the "human frailty factor" had to be taken into account.

And so care and caution clearly are prerequisites in making character calls on players.

One of the players who acknowledged to NFL officials at the combine that he experimented with marijuana, but not one of the three cited by Pro Football Weekly last week in its much publicized report, emphasized that the incident occurred when he was just 14 years old. The player has never tested positive in college for drugs, has never been arrested, and never had any run-ins with his coaches. Outside of an admittedly poor judgement eight years ago, he has a pristine résumé, according to officials from several teams. So how far should a team move that prospect down its board, if at all?

"I think we get mixed up sometimes on character," Dallas coach Wade Phillips said. "We tend to say that because a guy got a DUI, he's not a high-character person. I know a lot of young people who have made mistakes that are really high-class people."

Said Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli: "Some guys are going to be off the edge a little bit. They say, 'I'm not going to get into trouble because football is too important to me.' Those guys will do anything to play this game. That's football character. Warren Sapp was that way. His football character was phenomenal."

Sapp, who famously tested positive for drugs during his college career, has never missed a game in the NFL because of a suspension. And while some might say his demeanor has at times been excessive in some areas, he has never been viewed as a player who required a babysitter, the kind of high maintenance guy that teams loathe. A dozen years ago, when Sapp slipped to the 12th slot in the 1995 draft because of drug rumors, few in the league might have predicted he'd toe the line so carefully.

With the scrutiny so much tighter these days, with the reports from the NFL's security personnel often backed up by those gleaned from investigators hired by individual teams, it should be easier to project deviant behavior. Certainly it's become a more critical factor now in the draft evaluation process.

"I don't want to say it's like a Big Brother type of thing," said former University of Miami safety Brandon Meriweather, a first-round prospect whose character has been examined by teams because of a gun-wielding incident in which he was protecting his apartment and the infamous on-field imbroglio in which he stomped on a Florida International player during a melee. "But you do get the sense now that teams have a big file with everything you've ever done in your life, and they're going over it with a fine-tooth comb."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.