Analysis  

 

Aaron Hernandez's NFL entry: What did scouts know back then?

Ted Fitzgerald/AP/Boston Herald
Former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez has been charged with murder in the death of Odin Lloyd.

It's been nearly four years since I wrote, for the Boston Globe, that a number of positive drug tests led to Aaron Hernandez's precipitous fall in the 2010 NFL Draft.

This isn't revisionist history. Personnel directors and execs said then, in the days immediately after that draft, that the Florida tight end likely would've been a low first- or high second-round pick otherwise.

But there were whispers at the time, too, that Hernandez was caught up in more serious things. The word "gang" was bandied about in conversation. Since team officials I talked to at the time said it never really went past the rumor stage, we decided, in print, to stay away from it. What was obvious was this was a guy, with drugs and otherwise, who had a way of getting himself into and then out of trouble.

So with the Patriots mum when it came to what they knew about Hernandez, either in 2010 or '13, and as I worked through my takeout piece on how college prospects are vetted by teams, an obvious question arose. And it's the same one I sought to answer early that May:

What, exactly, did clubs know?

"They couldn't pin a lot of stuff on him (at Florida)," said one AFC college scouting director, whose team had Hernandez off the board. "But people at the school would tell you, 'Every time there's an issue, he's around it.' If there was trouble, Hernandez's name would come up. ... He was a con guy. Very believable. Spoke well. A lot of things inside of you hoped you'd turn him around, but people that I talked to said they didn't trust him, that he'd burn you."

Those who were at Florida, working under Urban Meyer, confirm that much: Hernandez had a way of beating the system. Said one ex-Gator staffer, "He was really intelligent, and that's why he was such a pain in the ass. He knew how to beat the system on everything."

Hernandez has been in jail since June 26. He is facing a first-degree murder charge, as well as five gun charges, and also is being investigated in connection to a July 2012 double homicide in Boston. So yes, the system would seem to have caught up with him.

And by now, NFL teams have looked at how Hernandez got from Point A to Point B as they attempt to refine how they review and reject prospects based on off-field problems. It's a challenge, to be sure.

Hernandez won a national championship and earned All-America honors at Florida.
Hernandez won a national championship and earned All-America honors at Florida. (Phil Sandlin/Associated Press)

Meyer and his coaches privately told some clubs that, to be managed, it was crucial that Hernandez be surrounded by the right people. At Florida, the staff did its best to dissuade him from going home over breaks in the school calendar because of the element waiting in Connecticut, and even got nervous on game weekends, when that crowd typically would migrate south to Gainesville and roll with Hernandez.

The Gator coaches aligned Hernandez with Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, whom Hernandez roomed with off campus. The three grew close, and the staff generally considered the Pounceys a positive influence. (Since then, Mike has been named in Ted Wells' report as one of the players who contributed to the harassment of Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin.) Meyer also had Tim Tebow rooming with Hernandez for road games, in the hopes that being around the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner would show the standout tight end the right way to do things.

"The year before he came out, I was at their pro day, and I remember seeing the Pounceys, and then him," said a second AFC college director, whose club had Hernandez on the board, but not draftable where he went (No. 113 overall, in the fourth round). "It was very clear that (the Pounceys) were the leaders, that they were the influential guys, and he was behind them, a tagalong, a follower in that sense. He was always following them. And they were trying to bring him along."

An NFC personnel executive added, "He was very, very immature. Urban did him right by having him follow Tebow -- and he was such a follower. He could go in any direction. And everyone knew that if you didn't keep an eye on him, he was an easy guy to persuade to do the wrong thing."

The failed drug tests (Florida contends it was only one failed test) were, of course, central to the problem -- and it wasn't really the pot. At the college level, players are put in position to pass drug tests; thus, pro clubs look at multiple positives as a sign that an athlete either a) doesn't care or b) has a problem.

So Hernandez's ability to stay in line was automatically in question.

Just the same, and even with details remaining shadowy, questions lingered about that crowd around Hernandez and how its presence played into his mental health. The background several clubs gathered had Hernandez gravitating toward an unsavory element within his family after his father's death in 2006, which would wind up forming the baseline of the group that the Florida coaches, and later NFL teams, were so concerned about.

The tough part was, in football settings, he was mostly OK, showing only flashes of instability.

"He was considered a cool guy to be around," said an NFC personnel director whose club had Hernandez off the board. "But around the program, he was the one guy everyone knew not to mess with. They knew he'd fight. He had a temper. I don't think anyone would've predicted what's going on now. He was one of those where it was hard to determine whether to take him off the board. You didn't say, 'He's a murderer.' My feeling is, most people had him off their boards because of the (drug) tests."

And that's where some of the divide was: The question of whether someone who made you want to believe he was a good guy was actually a bad guy, or simply a college kid needing to grow up.

The second AFC college director said that one pre-draft meeting his club had with Hernandez got "emotional," with the prospective pick trying to convince the club that he wasn't the con man some portrayed him to be. In the process, he did more damage to his stock, making the officials in the room question if he was worth the trouble.

"He admitted to smoking, and basically that was the environment he was brought up in, how comfortable he was with smoking," said the personnel man. "It was the emotional state of this kid, the highs and lows, the overall stability that got you. You're not saying, 'OK, this guy may be a murderer.' It was just, 'He's not mentally ready.' "

In the same vein, the college director said what worried his club was what would happen once Hernandez left the Gainesville cocoon: "Urban's getting beat up, but Urban does have rules. I know the coaches. They stayed on him. Mickey Marotti and Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison, they were anchors. They weren't letting him get away."

As for the questions about gang affiliation, the rumors, again, were there. But according to these evaluators, that is hardly uncommon. Plenty of players who grow up in gang-ridden areas enter the draft every year, and it certainly can be challenging for scouts to separate a player who is tangentially connected from those who are truly involved.

In that sense, geography wound up contributing to the Patriots' issue. That year, prevailing opinion was that Dallas was the one place that Texas native Dez Bryant, also known for being impressionable and having questionable hangers-on, couldn't be drafted to. He, of course, landed there. The Cowboys have been proactive in monitoring and policing him, and it's worked out so far. Similarly, the Patriots provided Hernandez, through proximity, access to his past in Bristol, Conn. And obviously, that one went the other way.

"Geographically, the kid couldn't be closer to his hometown and his roots and his background," said an AFC personnel executive. "He couldn't have come to an NFL team closer to home. I thought about the prosecutor in the court room, and guys he needed to get up there, and you think about how he was always just a phone call away from bringing that element back. He can't make that call if he's playing for Denver or Arizona or Seattle."

Hernandez, who has been in jail since last June, still awaits trial.
Hernandez, who has been in jail since last June, still awaits trial. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Associated Press)

Add all the contributing factors up -- the drugs, the questionable characters around him, the need to be monitored and the geography -- and it's easy, in hindsight, to assemble the equation and say the sum result is logical.

But scan the landscape and a different picture pops up. Those in Gainesville concede Hernandez wasn't even the worst problem on those Gator teams. Scores of players come into the draft each year with checkered pasts to sort through. A few are so good that their issues can be perceived as providing an opportunity to buy low with potential for an enormous return, which is essentially what the Patriots did.

"There are three to six guys in the first few rounds every year that have a chance to go one way or the other," said the NFC personnel executive. "(In 2012), it was Janoris Jenkins. And he had a good (rookie) year. But Hernandez was pretty good at the start, too."

The information available back then is instructive to look back at now, without question.

But this much is just as apparent, four years later: If you're looking for concrete answers on what a prospect will become, the draft process is rarely the place to find them.

After all, if you'd told me, after writing that story in 2010, how this would all turn out, I'd be right there with everyone else: shocked that all this was possible.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop

NFL News
CONTENT
15