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Will NFL's ugly month change player evaluation across league?

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» How NFL folks view Jameis Winston's latest transgression.
» The key to Dallas' defensive success.
» The Redskins' potential quarterback controversy.
And much more, beginning with the potential fallout from an upsetting month in the NFL. ...

It's not like these guys aren't trying.

No one wants to land in the situation the Ravens or Panthers or Vikings, or even the Cardinals, found themselves in during this most embarrassing of NFL months. Beyond losing the player, or the brand damage, there's the matter of doing the right thing, too.

The result has been a lot of people looking absolutely awful.

For those four teams and the other 28, the next question is how you prevent it the next time, which is hard, because it's not like everyone responsible for signing and drafting players was looking to get here in the first place.

"I don't think you'll find an NFL team that has not put an emphasis on character, and gathering the background to understand the full picture of a player," one AFC personnel executive said on Wednesday night. "You may have risk guys. You're gonna measure risk to a degree. But you're also gonna have values and principles that, in some cases, will be unwavering. ... I just don't think there's a blanket response (in how this will change things)."

What we do have is an idea on when this could change things. By the time we get to next March for free agency and April/May for the draft, the noise will have quieted. It's easy to put a moratorium on taking risks in September and October, when rosters are fully assembled and functional. It's harder to implement organizational change in the heat of the team-building season.

And therein lies the greater question: Will the lessons of mid-September resonate then?

"I'll be honest, it will not change anything we do," one veteran general manager said. "I hate to say it, but it's not like we're saying, 'OK, from now on, we can't have domestic violence.' I think the players come into the league, they're younger, and we have to develop them from boys to men. And so we spend a lot of energy here doing that."

His larger point is that most teams only acquire risk that they feel is manageable in the first place, and the investment is made to mitigate those risks. He added that he sees a team being somewhere between a family and a business, with elements of both blended together.

There's a competitive element that hovers over all of it, too, and it's not unlike the one that players face.

The same way a guy in the locker room might be tempted to dabble in performance-enhancing drugs, based on the assumption others are, a team could look at its rivals, see open doors for questionable characters, and make the leap that narrowing the field of prospective employees will hurt the product in the long run.

"It depends on your organization," an NFC personnel executive said. "If you feel like that's the case, you'd want to cast a wide net, and say to yourself, 'I can develop people with talent.' So much of it depends on timing. If I'm a coach with my job on the line, I may be more willing to take risky dudes. Seattle has had a bunch of guys in (trouble), with risky stuff in their background, but they've proven the system can handle it. And they're winning. You have to be aware of that risk, though."

I touched on this last week, and it's worth mentioning again: Through the research for my February piece on how teams vet players, I found that one of the most common lines that teams drew on what was or wasn't acceptable related to violence against women.

It's fair to guess that owners who already set such guidelines might become more heavy-handed about those, and others who might have been more permissive could change course.

Part of it is simply the new rules. The six-game suspension for a first offense and lifetime ban for a second offense can be an effective deterrent, as can the fact that players will have offenses that happened in college or high school considered (akin to entering the NFL in the drug program, as some players do) if there's another one in the pros.

Another part of it should come in simple reflection over the last couple weeks: Whether it's cementing right-and-wrong principles, or looking at how serious the general public came down on everyone involved.

One thing that it certainly does nail down is the belief that, no matter how much work you do, there will still be blind spots. Greg Hardy's name might not be a stunner to see in this mix, considering he's struggled with character issues going back to his days at Ole Miss, but those of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are. Similarly, among players I've been around, that Aaron Hernandez would be in trouble isn't a shocker (though the degree of the trouble clearly is), but Sam Hurd is about the last guy on the Cowboys teams I covered seven years ago that I'd have pegged as a drug trafficker.

"You really don't know," the NFC exec said. "You really, really don't know. You gotta do your homework, but there's no telling exactly what you're getting."

And that leaves the guys who put the teams together in the same boat as many others that are directly involved: bothered by what's gone on, and still trying to figure out how to fix it.

"The shield is important to the veteran people in this league who have something invested in the product," the AFC exec said. "That's No. 1. No. 2, there are a lot of great people in the NFL. Great people. This issue certainly doesn't reflect well on us, but I do believe there are a lot great people in our league. So certainly, it's disappointing."

Four downs

1) Is Jameis Winston's stock falling? The Heisman Trophy winner was in trouble again this week. And while Winston's half-game suspension for yelling an obscenity in public pales in comparison to the prior situations he's been wrapped up in, NFL scouts are watching. "It'll hurt him significantly," said one area scout assigned to Florida State. "Especially with all the stuff going on in the league. This may force him to stay another year to clean up his image. He's a fraud. You can't believe anything he says, because he keeps doing the same things over and over. In my mind, there are night-and-day differences between (Johnny) Manziel's and his character concerns. Winston has some serious issues." Added an AFC college scouting director, "It just adds to his issues, and he's only been in college two years and a month. Lots of maturity issues, but also criminal." The bottom line is the NFL people I talk to believe the image that Winston has put forward is manufactured. That'll be tough to overcome.

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2) Matthew Stafford's struggles. The Detroit Lions seemed to take step after step forward two Mondays ago ... and then reverted almost completely in Charlotte this past Sunday. This stat line said everything: At the half, Detroit had 197 yards and zero points. By game's end, the Lions wound up with 323 and seven in those departments. The larger point stood, in that this looked like the old Detroit teams that flashed enviable talent but never quite got to the point where the total was equal to the sum of the parts. Stafford is at the center of this dichotomy. He was terrific against the Giants, and frustrating to watch against the Panthers. Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi have preached high-percentage passing to Stafford, telling him to take completions where he can get them. So it was that Stafford's one big misstep on Sunday was a shot downfield to a covered Calvin Johnson that was picked off. One of Stafford's veteran linemen, Rob Sims, told me he can see a burgeoning comfort level between Lombardi and Stafford. But it might have been a bad idea to take one solid week as a sign that all the inconsistent tendencies of a player, or a whole team, were gone completely.

3) Dallas Cowboys' plan working. How many people predicted the Dallas defense would be flirting with a top-10 ranking in total D through two weeks? The zero people out there can put their hands down now. Rod Marinelli has spun some magic, to be sure, in squeezing what he has out of an injury-riddled group that was patched together amid a salary-cap purge. But the Cowboys privately believe this is, as much as anything, about their identity now flowing through an offensive line that they invested a ton of capital in. With first-round picks from three of the last four drafts dotting the front -- and one of those players (Tyron Smith) having already earned a monster second contract -- the Cowboys have the league's second-most prolific running game and are averaging a gaudy 5.3 yards per carry. That, of course, is fantastic for Tony Romo, coming off of back surgery. But it also works to protect a defense that is still adjusting to new personnel and the losses of Sean Lee and DeMarcus Ware. How? Well, the 72:35-47:25 edge that the Cowboys have compiled in time of possession through two games is one way.

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4) Buffalo Bills getting what they need from EJ Manuel. As a personnel man, Bills GM Doug Whaley's standard for a franchise quarterback was set in his Steeler years by Ben Roethlisberger. And coming into this year, he was looking for some Big Ben from Manuel, but maybe not in the way you'd think. When I asked the GM back in camp what he wanted from his second-year signal-caller, he said he was looking for him to "distribute. ... I lean on what it was like when I was with Pittsburgh. That's what happened with Ben Roethlisberger. His first year, if you look at his stats, I think we threw over 22 times maybe twice, but we had a strong running game and we had a good defense. And that's what we got here." Thus far, Manuel has completed 66.7 percent of his passes with a QB rating topping 95. He's averaging less than 200 yards per game, and that's just fine, because he's done enough to let C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson do their thing out of the backfield (4.5 yards per carry each), and set up receivers Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods to blossom. For the sake of the comparison, Roethlisberger only cracked 300 yards once -- in a Week 13 loss to the Bengals -- during his second season. And the Steelers won it all.

Three checkdowns

1) It's worth watching how the Steelers approach dealing with the Panthers' defensive front this week. Going into last week, Lions coaches had game-planned for Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, adjusting on the fly after Hardy was deactivated Sunday morning. Johnson's effectiveness now -- he has just two tackles and no sacks through two weeks -- becomes even more vital for Carolina.

2) In a similar vein, it's worth monitoring the offenses of Kansas City and New England, and how the health of Jamaal Charles and Rob Gronkowski tie to their respective performances. Gronkowski's still working his way back from ACL surgery, and Charles is dealing with a high ankle sprain. In each case, said player is the one who draws defensive attention and makes teammates better as a result.

3) I've been a proponent of the Indianapolis Colts building a balanced, tough team around Andrew Luck, which is the plan of GM Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano. But right now, it doesn't seem like that approach plays to their strength, which is at the skill positions. At least for the time being, the right thing might be to open it up, which would go against the way Pep Hamilton normally runs an offense.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Alabama WR Amari Cooper (vs. Florida, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): Since stepping foot on campus two years ago, Cooper has looked pro-ready. He came into this, his true junior season with 104 catches for 1,736 yards and 15 touchdowns. And through three games this year, he's raised the bar, with 33 catches for 454 yards and two touchdowns. So what's left to prove? That he can do it consistently against top competition, something he'll encounter Saturday afternoon, with Gators sophomore phenom Vernon Hargreaves III likely to cover him. "Hargreaves is the best young CB in the country," an AFC college scouting director said. "(It's a) step up in competition." He added that while Cooper's early-season explosion has been impressive, "these are the games we evaluate, not the ones against lower-level competition." The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Cooper projects as a bigger, stronger Odell Beckham, and could be a top-15 draft pick.

2) Florida State OT Cam Erving (vs. Clemson, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): The matchup between the Seminoles' line and the Tigers' defensive front should be an intriguing one across the board, especially now that Winston is out for the first half and FSU figures to run the ball early. The individual battle on the marquee is between Erving and Clemson All-American rush end Vic Beasley. Erving has been a fascinating one for scouts to evaluate for a couple years now -- a former defensive tackle who converted to left tackle and has flashed elite raw ability for the position. "Clemson has multiple pass rushers; can he shut them down and show physicality in the run game?" another AFC college director said. "It'll be fun to watch all the Florida State OLs against the Clemson DLs." The main issue with Erving in the past has been consistency. That's one reason why a week like this one could be the difference between going in the first round, or the second/third.

Extra point

I don't know if Robert Griffin III is going to get his job back in Washington.

What I am sure of is that his teammates see Kirk Cousins as plenty capable of carrying the torch for the time being.

"He wants to be the starter, he prepares to be the starter, just in case we end up in a situation like this," veteran Brian Orakpo told me. Orakpo was careful to add, "This is still Griff's team."

But with coach Jay Gruden leaving the possibility open that he'll stick with a hot hand when the leaves turn in D.C., this story is going nowhere.

Let's say, hypothetically, Griffin is out until the team's Week 10 bye. Between now and then, the Redskins play the Eagles, Giants, Seahawks, Cardinals, Titans, Cowboys and Vikings. So that's three division games, and a shot at the defending champs.

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Bottom line: If Cousins succeeds, it won't be by smoke and mirrors. And his teammates won't be surprised. "We expect it from Kirk," Ryan Kerrigan said. "More so than being surprised by any success he has."

After hearing that, I asked Kerrigan if this was still, like Orakpo said, Griffin's team. He responded, "I mean, that's what Kirk said, so I guess so. We're just focused on what we've got to do defensively. Hopefully Kirk can do well Sunday."

More than anything, Kerrigan seemed like he wasn't wrapped up in labeling one player this or another player that. And that's all fine.

Right now, yes, Griffin is still the guy for the future in Washington. But it's pretty easy to see where this situation could get pretty complicated pretty fast.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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