Commentary

Character issue remains complicated

Drafting players with baggage has inherent risks, but talent often sways decisions

Originally Published: April 29, 2014
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

This time of year, teams can say they care about a draft prospect's character. They can say it matters to them whether a player has a history of arrests, whether his college team suspended him, whether he smoked pot or got in a fight or smacked his girlfriend.

They can say it matters, and for the rare few it does, but this is the reality in the National Football League:

"Talent always trumps character," one AFC general manager said.

Said an NFC general manager: "Understand the sliding scale of all of this when you're dealing with some of the top talent in the nation. That's the contradiction of this. If you have a very, very talented individual who has a character issue, you're a lot more apt to accept them than someone who is more of a midline talent. That's just the way it is."

It shouldn't be.

In the draft, teams rarely miss when it comes to talent. Everything is quantifiable, from the basics of height, weight, wingspan and hand size to 40-yard dash time, vertical jump and bench press to Wonderlic score. There are statistics and measurables. It is hard to miss on skill.

No, teams make mistakes on character. It happens all the time. Character is more than an arrest record. It is more than work ethic. It is more than any psychological test can reveal, because you can't test a player's heart. You can't test his will. And you can't test how he will react to suddenly having more money in his pocket than he ever imagined.

Character is what teams miss on. Some accept the risk of taking a player with a questionable background, either because the head coach has ultimate power and wants to win now or because the organization believes it has the structure and the locker room to handle it. Others simply won't.

What is true is that Aaron Hernandez got everyone's attention. There were ample questions about Hernandez coming out of Florida, and when he slid to the fourth round of the 2010 draft, New England made the calculated decision that the risk would be worth the reward. They could not have been more wrong.

No one in the NFL wants to make that mistake again.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
AP Photo/Josh ReynoldsThe Aaron Hernandez situation might make teams less inclined to take character risks.

While Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly told reporters on Monday that his decision to cut DeSean Jackson was purely a football decision, there are questions about Jackson's character, too. And it is true that former coach Andy Reid's way of managing Jackson -- by essentially putting his arms around the player -- was different from Kelly's way. Jackson is only 27 and had a career year in 2013, so it's hard to believe the Eagles cut him solely because Kelly didn't think the wide receiver was a good fit in the offense.

"Obviously, no one knew the severity of the issues with Aaron, but I think we all have to be very mindful of the information we do have on these individuals," said the NFC general manager. "Yes, there's always going to be a fear of something catastrophic happening to someone in the NFL, but hopefully if you've done as much work as you've done, you feel comfortable with your decision.

"It's an interesting discussion point. I will tell you, in no way am I worried about a similar situation. I feel very strongly about the research we do. Some teams are more open and light or more accepting than other teams. ... It is a lot easier to put together a team of talent when you're not concerned about character issues and putting together a very character-sound locker room."

Therein lies the rub. In a league where coaches must win now, talent is intoxicating. Talent helps you win. Character should matter more, but for some teams, it simply doesn't.

And some teams feel they have the infrastructure, the locker room and the leadership to handle players with character issues.

St. Louis has taken fliers on players with character issues since Jeff Fisher became the head coach three years ago, in large part because the team believes it has the structure to support such players. In 2012, Fisher's first with the Rams, the Rams selected cornerback Janoris Jenkins with the 39th overall pick. Jenkins was a first-round talent but slipped in the draft in part because he had a series of arrests while at Florida, including two for marijuana possession within a three-month span that led to his dismissal from the team. He finished his collegiate career at North Alabama.

Also in the 2012 draft, the Rams took Montana cornerback Trumaine Johnson 65th overall. In 2011, while still at Montana, Johnson pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct after police used a Taser him while breaking up a party at Johnson's apartment.

Last year, St. Louis drafted Georgia outside linebacker Alec Ogletree 30th overall. While at Georgia, Ogletree was suspended twice, once after getting arrested and charged with misdemeanor theft and another time for violating team rules. In 2013, Ogletree was arrested and charged with DUI in Arizona just days before the NFL scouting combine.

[+] EnlargeJanoris Jenkins
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceThe Rams grabbed Janoris Jenkins in the 2012 draft after off-field concerns caused the CB to slip.

Rams general manager Les Snead said that a player's makeup and intangibles are "a major part of the equation," as is a player's physical talent.

"If the intangibles are going to hinder the player from maximizing his physical talent as well as hinder the player's evolution to becoming a 'real pro,' then we will press the brakes," Snead said. "The key to all of this is normal, immature behavior and/or incidents in college that many college students are guilty of but naturally evolve out of as they get older, mature and get into the real world.

"And yes, not all 'incidents' are created equally. Some are worse than others and might be a sign of issues at the core that are not correctable."

Snead listed several intangibles that would prompt the Rams to pump the brakes:

Someone who is a bad teammate. Someone who consistently underachieves or rarely overachieves. Someone who isn't passionate about the game. Someone who is not willing to work on the mental part of the game. Someone with a consistent history of getting in trouble with the law that usually dates back to high school. Someone who shows no remorse.

Where did that leave Jenkins, as an example?

"He loved football," Snead said. "He works hard to improve his trade. He works hard at the mental aspects of the game. He is a good teammate and has an engaging personality. He had some incidents in college, which he paid a price for, but considering the grit he displayed fighting adversity growing up to being excused from Florida to finishing at North Alabama, we felt he could thrive in the culture we were establishing in terms of player development."

But not every team is willing to take that chance.

"I look at character first," one head coach said. "If I'm leaning toward a guy that is borderline character, then I look at the strength of my leaders that will be returning to the team that particular year. Bad character guys off the field I normally would take off my board."

Borderline character, in this coach's opinion, includes poor work habits and poor discipline on and off the field, but not law enforcement issues.

For that type of player, the coach said, "strong leadership helps a bunch with coaching up guys that are swayed by peer pressure."

Said another head coach: "Character is the foundational part of the evaluation. Most guys are very solid. You have to be to make it this far and be in the ultimate team sport. Many very talented [players] have already washed out at every level. If at this stage we determine character as an underminer, then we rule him out. There is a sliding scale beyond that [where] character is problematic but not fatal."

Some players with character issues coming out of college, like Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant, have panned out. Others didn't have character issues in college, like Denver's Von Miller, and still ran into problems.

It is an imperfect science, for sure, because it involves people who are developing not only as players but as men.

Character should be part of the equation regardless of the player's talent. In most cases, it isn't. That's when talent trumps character, even though it should not.

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