Draft is ultimate character study

Teams going to greater lengths than ever to test prospects' personalities

Originally Published: March 27, 2013
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

K

en Herock heard the commotion, then peered down a narrow hallway in that busy Indianapolis hotel to see a disturbing sight.

One NFL scout tugged at a player's arm and directed him toward a nearby room. Another scout balked and demanded the prospect come with him. Herock knew the NFL combine could be intense, but this bordered on the outrageous. His eyes widened even more as he watched what happened next: punches flying, the prospect staring aghast, fellow coaches racing to intervene.

It's been nearly three decades since Herock -- a former executive with the Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons -- witnessed that fight, and he still believes two important things went through his mind at that moment. One was that the interview process at the combine had to become more structured, which has been the case for years. The other was that the question-and-answer session was becoming a more vital part of evaluating future NFL players.

If those two men could come to blows over who had first rights to an interview in those days, then it was only a matter of time before that process became more critical to teams making multimillion-dollar gambles on young men.

Granted, the interview wasn't as sexy as the 40-yard dash. It also wasn't as controversial as the Wonderlic test. It was simply the best opportunity for teams to address the potential issues that are even more critical today.

"There's no question that pre-draft interviews have become more important," Herock said. "That's because the character of a kid has become more important. We used to be able to hide a lot of problems that players ran into. Now you can't hide anything. So teams have to know what's going to come along with drafting a kid."

That sentiment has never been more apparent than it is this offseason. Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree could cement his status as a first-round pick by explaining to teams a DUI arrest just before the combine and a positive drug test in college.

LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu also has been conducting a high-speed image makeover after being kicked off his team last season amid rumors of a drug problem. As Mathieu said, "My best friend right now is honesty."

Then there's Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o. When he arrived at this year's combine, he knew every team he met would want to know about his fake online relationship.

Manti Te'oRobin Alam/Icon SMIFollowing a well-documented hoax, Manti Te'o's pre-draft interviews took on heightened importance.

Said Te'o: "They want to be able to trust their player. You don't want to invest in somebody you can't trust. They're just trying to get to know you, get to know you as a person and as a football player. I understand where they're coming from."

"We're a very big believer in the interview process," said Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. "Down at the Senior Bowl, we have our coaching staff interview everybody at their position. All our scouts, [head coach] Leslie Frazier and myself will try to hone in on as many guys as we can. [It's] to make sure we're bringing in that type of quality person, not only as a football player but also as a fit in the locker room and what we're looking for off the field."

The problem, however, is that a couple franchises recently have become a bit too aggressive in their pursuit of details. After this year's combine, Colorado tight end Nick Kasa told CNN that an unnamed team representative had challenged his sexual orientation with the question, "Do you like girls?"

Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland also created headlines after his interview with current Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant before the 2010 draft. In a long conversation about Bryant's past, Ireland asked the player whether his mother was a prostitute. Bryant later told Yahoo! Sports that he remained calm -- "I got a lot of questions like that: Does she still do drugs? I sat and answered all of them," he told the website -- but the news struck a nerve.

When Ireland apologized for his lack of sensitivity, he justified his approach by saying, "My job is to find out as much information as possible about a player that I'm considering drafting. Sometimes that leads to asking in-depth questions."

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesDez Bryant had to answer some tough questions regarding his family before the 2010 draft.

What Ireland didn't discuss is how complicated the interview process has become for both players and teams. It used to be a formality decades ago. Now it literally can be the difference in millions of dollars for players, and years of frustration for a club that ends up with the next JaMarcus Russell.

Said Spielman: "We put everybody through the arsenal."

Because teams expect drafted players to contribute earlier, they need to know how mature they are sooner. Some clubs spend so much time investigating prospects that Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider said, "You'd be shocked. Our security guy does a Twitter and Facebook count. It goes both ways, though. There are some guys on Twitter, and it's like they're trying to be Eddie Haskell. They're putting out, 'Oh, I'm going to work out and it's 3:30 in the morning.' That's kind of weird."

"I remember being with the New York Jets when MySpace became a big thing and we would check out players on that," said former NFL head coach and current ESPN analyst Eric Mangini. "We'd find things that concerned us -- whether they were pictures or details about certain experiences -- and we'd print them out. When we met the kid, we would pull that stuff out and tell him to explain it. It's not so much that you're looking at a guy and saying this is who he is. You're trying to determine patterns of behavior."

Teams also aren't afraid to use specialists to find critical information that can be used in interviews. The Cleveland Browns used a former Secret Service member, Lew Merletti, to do their probing for years. The New York Jets' vice president of security, Steve Yarnell, is a former FBI agent. The Raiders didn't use such tactics when former owner Al Davis was alive, but Davis routinely had a front-office staffer pretend to be a Sports Illustrated reporter when calling college stars for interviews. The impostor would use those conversations to ask the young men for information on teammates the team was considering in the draft.

When he was running the Indianapolis Colts, current ESPN analyst Bill Polian had his own reliable methods of procuring information before interviews. His security people conducted background checks, the area scouts worked the college coaches and scoured media guides for important details, and other team representatives chatted with high school connections, including coaches, principals and guidance counselors. Polian saw the interview as the final step in a yearlong evaluation process, and he also was among the first executives to advocate psychological testing.

Polian first introduced such methods while running the Buffalo Bills from 1986 to 1993. "I didn't feel that a college recruiter was qualified to determine how a guy would perform in a high-stress job," Polian said. "And that's what [NFL coaches and executives] were. We weren't psychologists or detectives. I've heard some people say 'I can look into a kid's eyes and see what I need to know.' I didn't believe in that approach."

"When I do draft reports, I try to give recommendations," said Robert Troutwine, a former psychology professor who created a testing method that Polian used during his career and six NFL teams still administer today. "I say things like, 'This is a how a guy reacts under pressure' or 'This person is more of a visual learner.' You want teams to be prepared to do certain things if they take a certain player. And if those teams are honest with themselves, they'll say when they can't help somebody."

Given the emphasis on getting inside a player's head, Herock started his own business coaching draft picks on handling pre-draft interviews after leaving the NFL in 2003. As a front-office executive in the 1980s and 1990s, he remembered the days when teams grabbed players at the combine or an all-star game, sat them down for a few minutes and charted where that impromptu grilling led.

That approach had all the sophistication of an online survey. It also didn't seem to carry as much weight as the physical testing. Basically, if a productive kid could run a 4.3 40-yard dash, he'd have to be a serial killer to blow a shot at being an early-round pick.

That attitude still exists today, but most players understand that their presentation off the field means just as much. Herock tells all his clients that it starts with the basics: a firm handshake, looking people directly in the eyes, understanding how to articulate points. If a player has off-the-field issues, Herock tells him to keep his explanations simple. Along with providing details, Herock said, it's critical for players to be concise and show remorse for misdeeds.

That may sound obvious, but as Herock said, "It's communication. If a guy stumbles over words or doesn't project confidence in that room, how is he going to do that on the field?" Added Ron Freeman, who is both an agent and the father of Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman: "They'll ask some bizarre questions just to see how a person responds when he's uncomfortable. At some point in your professional career, they know you're going to be in an uncomfortable situation. They need to see how you deal with it."

That pressure first intensifies at the combine, where teams have 15 minutes to visit with players. Ogletree said he met with 25 teams in Indianapolis and nearly half the questions he faced focused on his arrest, according to NFL.com.

When Alabama running back Eddie Lacy -- a player with no off-the-field baggage -- went through his interview gantlet at the combine, he met with eight teams in one evening. They all started with similar questions about his upbringing before launching into inquiries about his football intelligence.

"They wanted to know about my family, where I grew up, and then it was on to football plays," Lacy said.

Russell WilsonAP Photo/Ted S. WarrenRussell Wilson earned rave reviews for his pre-draft interviews a year ago.

The common perception is that everything in those sessions revolves around how much knowledge the players display when asked to break down plays and defenses. But some players can elevate their stock just by being ready to impress. Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said he was blown away by his conversation with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson at last year's combine. Though Wilson was so undersized that he became a third-round selection, his combination of maturity, smarts and poise made him the most memorable interviewee Dorsey, an executive with the Green Bay Packers at the time, had met in 25 years.

The flip side of such stories is what happens when teams end up valuing a player too much because of his interview. That mistake led former Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels to take quarterback Tim Tebow in the first round of the 2010 draft, mainly off the strength of a seven-hour meeting with the former Florida star. Despite leading the Broncos to the AFC West title a year later, Tebow was traded to the Jets, and his future as an NFL quarterback is very much in question.

Every top prospect in this year's draft will have ample opportunities to make similar impressions on franchises in the next few weeks. Each franchise can have as many as 30 players visit before the draft, and that time is precious for evaluations. The smart prospect understands that everything he says can affect his future. Prospects even realize that what they wear can reveal plenty about their maturity.

Said Troutwine: "We're reaching a point where teams can tell us to go find a Wes Welker-type guy [an undrafted player who finds success in the NFL] and you can look at certain variables in his football makeup and do that. It would be like looking through a telescope and saying he's like a Jupiter or a Saturn. We're trying to stay one step ahead."

That is a reality Herock constantly relays to his pupils. As he learned during his days as a talent evaluator, every little detail matters. "You always draft off talent, but there's a lot to be said for how you present yourself," he said. "If it comes down to a team deciding between two guys for a first-round pick, who are they going to take? Ultimately, you take the guy who impressed you the most."