|Tom Hauck/Associated Press|
|Nick Fairley, the Lions' first-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, has been arrested twice this offseason.|
To at least one talent evaluator, sitting in a draft room a year ago, the list stuck out. Others later acknowledged that, yes, what the Detroit Lions had done was unusual.
Those on the outside of the league lauded the Lions for the landing three first-round-type talents in the first 57 picks of the 2011 draft. Inside the NFL, though, the drumbeat was decidedly different.
Thirteen months later, the risks have come to roost in Detroit.
Fairley was busted for a DUI in Alabama over the weekend, less than two months after being picked up on marijuana possession charges. Young, regarded by scouts as a high-maintenance player coming out of Boise State, has been kept out of organized team activities after sucker punching teammate Louis Delmas and, according to the Detroit Free Press, rubbing others the wrong way with his attitude. Leshoure, who failed at least one drug test in college, has been busted twice for possession this offseason.
Be assured, plenty of folks are hardly shocked it's gone down like this for the Lions -- a team that, simultaneously, has an enviable young core of talent and seemingly combustible mix of personalities.
"For those three, the signs and the flags were there -- it's not like they didn't have issues," one AFC personnel executive said. "It shouldn't be a huge surprise that these guys are having decision-making problems. Off the field, on the field, the flags were there. And it goes back to this: 'What's your philosophy on character risk? How do you approach the risk? Will it need to be significantly policed?' Those are the questions you need to answer."
Before taking on risks, organizations must assess the current state of the locker room and overall power structure.
"A lot of it is that -- your locker room and your organization and how you fix those problems," said an NFC club executive. "(Ravens CB) Jimmy Smith was as widely criticized as anyone last year. Baltimore takes him, and you don't hear anything about him anymore. Is that the locker room? A little bit. Is it Ozzie (Newsome) and (John) Harbaugh? Yup. The Pittsburghs, the Baltimores, the New Englands -- they take chances, too. (Patriots TE) Aaron Hernandez was off how many draft boards? Sergio Kindle wasn't considered a great kid. Courtney Upshaw had questions. They're comfortable because they have veteran leaders."
When I was reporting on the Lions' risks last year, my understanding was that the Lions felt comfortable with their 2011 class because of Jim Schwartz's experience with problematic personalities (he had Albert Haynesworth and Pacman Jones, among others, in Tennessee), and the coach's feeling that the locker room had grown and could help shepherd the youngsters. A year later, the Lions, are understandably keeping quiet on the topic of that group -- outside of Schwartz's comments on Tuesday morning -- with some of the legalities pending.
But with so much information out there now on college kids -- and their missteps -- Detroit's problems raise a larger question: How do clubs navigate this minefield properly?
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Decision makers will tell you NFL teams have two questions to answer when a player's character issues are raised. First, it's whether or not they can see the player in question fitting into their locker room without incident. And if the answer to that one is yes, the second question is at what point would the club feel comfortable taking him? (Something that can play into how the player fits into the team and how difficult it will be for the club to cut bait with him.)
"The GM has to be on the same page with the head coach, the coordinator, the position coach -- it has to be an understanding that, 'Hey, we're taking a chance here,' " an NFC personnel executive said. "In the second round, is it worth doing that? I always felt like the fourth round is when you start taking shots -- maybe a guy's a second-round talent, but he's there. Every team is different. Some teams get cocky. Then you have six, then you have eight on your team. And most of the time that bites you in the ass."
That's where the Lions' 2011 draft class stuck out immediately to rival clubs I spoke with last spring.
It wasn't that they took Fairley. It wasn't that they took Young. It wasn't that they took Leshoure. It was that they took them consecutively, and did it atop the draft.
"You start making exceptions, and it's the old Ron Wolf theory, all of the sudden, you've got a team full of exceptions," the AFC personnel executive said. "Are you trying to build a program or a team? If you're building a program, then you're sending a message to the team that these are the kinds of guys you're gonna start making exceptions for. They might ask what you're trying to accomplish. Is it a team or a program? If you make too many exceptions, I'd be concerned about sending the wrong message."
All 32 teams have to answer these questions every year; whether a kid can be fixed, whether the talent outweighs the risk. But everyone takes chances. New England rolled the dice twice, with Hernandez and Brandon Spikes, in 2010, and again with Ryan Mallett in 2011. Smith, Kindle and Upshaw were gambles for Baltimore. The Giants just gave a guy once considered a huge character concern -- Ahmad Bradshaw -- a second contract. The Steelers took a leap of faith on Ohio State OT Mike Adams last month. Even the risk-adverse Packers had Johnny Jolly.
What most NFL executives will tell you is the coaches, believing by nature they can change people, will want to take these risks, while personnel folks, more reliant on research, will be more careful. But in the end, if they don't work out, both pay the price.
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So how do you figure out who can be fixed and who can't? Who's gonna grow into a leader five or 10 years down the line, and who's gonna land in custody way before that?
"The easiest line to draw is how much they love football," the NFC club executive said. "Ultimately, most guys who care will figure it out when they're at risk of losing football. That's always, with every group, one of the elements. If the idea that they could lose football doesn't stop them, look elsewhere. Let's face it: We're all way more concerned with football character than real character. Does he treat his teammates well, his trainers well? Does he practice hard? Will he influence others around him?
"If people have isolated incidents, we have to learn to live with them. Most guys grow up. You're dealing with privileged 21-, 22-year-old kids."
The world, too, is changing. Where a college player getting in a bar fight 15 years ago may have walked away scot free, today, there could be 10 cellphone cameras on him as it's happening, and pictures of the altercation could well be on Twitter seconds after that. There's more information and fewer places to hide for high-profile athletes, and that's not a problem that goes away as they go to the NFL.
And if they didn't learn the lesson while they were collegians, they'll likely need someone to drill it into their heads as pros. That's where environment can be crucial.
"Detroit is so young, they don't have the vets to tell the young guys to knock it off," the NFC personnel executive said. "In Pittsburgh or Baltimore, they can take guys because there, in those places, they can't act up. They're put in that brotherhood, and they know if they do it, Ray Lewis is gonna come after their ass. When you're young and stupid, and there's no leadership, it can be a problem."
That problem can be compounded by peers inside a class.
"I know this: The more you have, the more trouble you're gonna have," the NFC personnel executive said in reference to Detroit's current plight. "And it's not just off the field -- the discipline issue can seep on the field with inconsistent play."
The exec then said his answer would be to cut someone: "You gotta show them you're not gonna stand for it."
Maybe the Lions get rid of seventh-round pick Johnny Culbreath, a fourth 2011 draftee who's run afoul of the law this offseason, and one less significant than the other three. Maybe they find another way to address the problem.
But Detroit isn't the only team that has faced these questions on what are reasonable risks, and what aren't. With the aforementioned scrutiny college players are under, and Commissioner Roger Goodell's policies creating real penalties for players gone awry, more prospects are tumbling on draft day. And thus, more opportunities are there for clubs to put together talented-but-troubled classes like the Lions did.
"At the end of the day, when you select a player with issues, he better be in the minority, a small minority, on your team," the AFC personnel executive said. "Get too many players like that, with those issues, and those elements can emerge in your locker room, your weight room, your training room, your practice field and outside the building."
The Lions have a lot going for them these days. Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh headline an impressive core of a team that's changed the identity of its franchise and now has a playoff trip under its belt.
It's too early to call this series of incidents a threat to tear down all that promise.
But the Lions knew the chances they took in April of 2011. And unfortunately for them, now everyone else does, too.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer