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Aaron Hernandez trial stands as lesson to NFL teams

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Steven Senne/Associated Press
Roughly three years after he was starring in the Super Bowl, Aaron Hernandez is facing multiple murder charges.

FALL RIVER, Mass. -- Aaron Hernandez arrived in Bristol County Superior Court on Thursday morning to face the first of three murder charges against him -- and the prospect of life behind bars.

Some 2,600 miles away, the team he played three seasons for -- and which awarded him a hefty payday in 2012 -- will be staging its second-to-last practice of the season, with another Super Bowl appearance looming.

The New England Patriots have successfully moved on without Hernandez and are as strong as they were before he was charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd in the summer of 2013, which is consistent with the way owner Robert Kraft's steady stewardship has gone. So it's easy to forget that just 24 months ago, Hernandez was perhaps the most formidable skill player at Tom Brady's disposal. Proof of how short America's memory can be lies in how DeflateGate has effectively eclipsed this most unusual circumstance: the murder trial of a former player on a Super Bowl team is opening 72 hours prior to kickoff.

But that's where we are. And the Hernandez affair is still reverberating through the rest of the NFL, as a constant reminder of the gray area every team tries to turn black-and-white through scouting.

"I'd say the biggest thing is, it makes you focus on digging into players, their background, looking at them from a personal standpoint," said one veteran scouting director, whose team had Hernandez on its board. "The league had been shifting that way independent of this. It's become necessary to talk to more and more sources. You run into lots of situations -- and this isn't specific to him -- where a guy you drafted isn't what he was sold to be. At least with Hernandez, at Florida, they were upfront and honest."

When I was working on a story two summers ago in the wake of Hernandez's initial arrest on how clubs vet players, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher told me his job is now 80 percent mentor and 20 percent football man, a reversal of what the ratio was when he first became a head coach two decades ago. To a man, the on-the-ground college scouts said their work in 2013 was half-evaluator, half-investigator.

A year-and-a-half after I first worked on that piece, with another college draft, another free-agency cycle and two more NFL seasons in the books, the challenge -- of separating the players who just need to grow up from those who are truly troubled -- hasn't gotten any less difficult.

"The easy answer is, you just always do the background checks," said one club's security director, whose team took Hernandez off its board. "The problem is, unless they get arrested, it's hard to know. He could be doing all that gang (stuff) for years. If they're good at it, you don't know until they're arrested and you have documentation. There can be lots of smoke, but if you can't find the fire ..."

That's where it comes down to feel. At Florida, Hernandez failed drug tests. As one college scouting director of an AFC team that had Hernandez off its board told me for a story last year: "They couldn't pin a lot of stuff on him (at Florida). 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."

Gator coaches told the Patriots -- and others -- it was important to stay on top of him, because he'd easily and deftly stray. Everyone could draw their own conclusions. But for those in the evaluation business, fair or not, there might be more of a tendency to dot-connect now than there was two years ago.

Thanks to a ramped-up personal conduct policy, teams have had to adjust, at least to some degree. But the power brokers in Sunday's game, Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, have shown a propensity for taking on risk and gambling on their own ability to manage talent. In the NFL, such risks seem unavoidable. Dice-rolls like that are a near necessity when it comes to assembling a championship-level team.

What the Hernandez case does, then, is make teams think about where they should draw the line, while emphasizing again the importance of every facet of evaluating the person as well as the player before him in.

"There were rumors of him being gang-affiliated, but you really never know," said one NFC assistant coach. "There are so many guys that try to act that way, but aren't really in that life. ... The more people you talk to that were really around him after it, it didn't even seem like they were all that surprised."

The last time the Patriots were on this stage, Hernandez led the team in catches and yards and scored one of New England's two touchdowns. Seven months later, he signed a $40 million deal that was hailed as a reward for a young man who'd grown out of his troubles.

Obviously now, it doesn't appear that ever really happened.

Hernandez will be in a jail cell on Sunday. And while the memory of his story is fading for many in our microwave society, when it comes to NFL decision-makers, the lessons learned won't soon be forgotten.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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