Does character really matter?
A question that has garnered a lot of attention over the years in NFL war rooms around draft season -- when college prospects are being scrutinized beyond the playing field -- has become a big discussion point more recently, resulting in NFL teams taking a harder look at their player evaluation process.
While most of the attention has centered on Aaron Hernandez and the murder charges he faces in Massachusetts, a series of legal transgressions by some of college football's top players have raised eyebrows in draft rooms across the league.
This week alone saw three prominent players get suspended by their teams: Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison for barking at a police dog (charges were later dismissed, but it was his second arrest in five weeks that led to his two-game suspension), and a pair of Ohio State star players, running back Carlos Hyde and cornerback Bradley Roby, following various legal allegations.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday he doesn't anticipate making any changes to the team's draft evaluation process in the aftermath of the Hernandez situation, but "can it be improved, can it be modified?" he asked. "It certainly can, and we'll look at that."
And so will most teams I've talked to. An NFC scout I spoke to this week told me the decision-makers on his team understand that 18- to 22-year olds make "dumb decisions" that can be attributed to immaturity. But he added that teams no longer can take chances on guys who have established negative patterns of behavior.
Instead of focusing intently on what a player displays on film, scouts will spend more time acting as private investigators to assess the character and personality of players set to enter the NFL. While gathering background information is certainly a part of an evaluator's job, the emphasis on the research over film study could be the norm going forward. From what I'm hearing, it's a philosophical shift happening in NFL front offices that has three prongs:
1. Deeper character background checks
College scouts make at least two visits to every school in their area to evaluate film and conduct interviews with coaches and administrators. In the past, the majority of the time spent on campus was used to grade the film and evaluate a player on the practice field. However, teams are now starting to require their scouts to spend more time researching a prospect's background through extensive series of interviews with coaches, academic counselors and support staff.
Scouts pepper the pro liaison (the coach assigned to chat with scouts) with questions about the prospect's personality, behavior, family life and academic accomplishments to gauge his maturity. He will follow up with exhaustive interviews with the strength coach and athletic trainer to further assess his work habits and cooperation with teammates and team officials. Scouts will also visit academic advisers and counselors to get a better feel for a player's character and behavior away from the field. Although some coaches and administrators refuse to give intimate details on players, scouts hope the wider-ranging process results in an accurate character portrayal of a prospect.
I asked an AFC scout about some of the changes his team has instituted in their research process, and he mentioned passing on exhaustive questionnaires to coaches and consistent email contact with administrative officials to stay abreast of the behavior of selected prospects. Interestingly, he told me that the added administrative work conducted by scouts will no doubt detract from time previously devoted to film study, possibly leading to more mistakes in talent evaluation.
2. More exhaustive interview process at combine, private workouts
The limited contact between NFL teams and prospects during the pre-draft process makes it difficult for evaluators to accurately gauge the character of a player. This might come as a surprise to some, but scouts only engage in brief conversations with prospects on school visits. These encounters typically occur in passing in the locker room or on the practice field, which limits the depth of the discussion. If a prospect is invited to an all-star game, scouts have a few days to get around him to assess his personality, but with a handful of scouts from each of the 32 teams also in attendances, it is hard to get an extensive conversation with a prospect prior to the NFL Scouting Combine.
That's why general managers and scouts place great emphasis on the interview process in Indianapolis. The 15-minute scheduled meeting with a prospect is the first opportunity for coaches and evaluators to get most of their questions answered from a prospect. If a prospect has serious background issues or legal concerns, the meeting becomes an intense interrogation focused on those transgressions and how the prospect has taken steps to eradicate the mistakes. Of course, teams have the option of bringing in a troubled player for a 24-hour visit (teams are allowed a maximum 30 prospect visits) and setting up private workouts to get a better feel for a player, but it is still difficult to get a true feel for a player in a few staged meetings before the draft.
I talked to a former general manager about the dilemma created by the lack of contact between teams and prospects, and he cited the need for scouts to "find a way to get to know the player away from the field." He went on to suggest that the unofficial interviews conducted at the combine will carry more significance, with scouts and position coaches assigned to delve deeper into the background and potential character concerns. Although scouts extensively study each prospect's background, general managers will implore their scouts to take the extra step in interviews to uncover any hidden character flaws.
3. Harder line on types of transgressions
The fallout from this offseason, namely the Hernandez situation but also the recent spate of college issues, is already prompting NFL ownership and front offices to clearly establish standards for current players and prospects. The criterion will extensively spell out the types of legal transgressions that will disqualify prospects from consideration. Based on several conversations with NFL scouts over the past few days, I believe most teams will remove prospects from draft boards with a domestic disputes, sexual misconduct and serious gun charges. Additionally, I believe teams will think strongly about dismissing prospects with larceny, robbery or any theft charges in their background.
When I worked as a scout for the Carolina Panthers, then-head coach John Fox would frequently talk about the importance of establishing trust in the locker room. He believed a guy capable of stealing from his teammates or others is not trustworthy; he refused to bring in guys with those issues into his locker room.
Meanwhile, prospects with marijuana possession charges and DUIs will continue to be treated on a case-by-case basis, with the track record of the player taken into consideration. If those transgressions are a part of a pattern of addictive behavior, teams have been inclined to walk away from those prospects, regardless of their talent. However, if those incidents are considered one-time missteps, teams will forgive those transgressions and attach a character designation to the prospect's grade. This will remind decision-makers to have serious discussions with ownership about the prospect's mistakes. It is important for ownership to fully understand the pros and cons of a player, particular from a character standpoint, to avoid surprise questions from the media, and from being "duped," as Patriots owner Robert Kraft says he was with Hernandez.
Fortunately for players like Morrison, Hyde and Roby, who are hoping to salvage their draft stocks, there is time to rehabilitate their images. Obviously, it will be vitally important to avoid future missteps, while also displaying contrition for previous missteps. They must also be forthright in their discussions with team officials about their poor decisions and make a convincing case about their maturity and character.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.