Questions of players' character hang over NFL Annual Meeting

PHOENIX -- The NFL Annual Meeting was dominated by anticipation of at least one team moving to Los Angeles, perhaps as soon as 2016. A significant change to the extra point might be coming in May, in time for the 2015 season. But in a meeting that seemed to finally move the NFL past its handling of the personal-conduct issues that consumed much of the 2014 season, the fates of three players with character questions remained the biggest source of personnel chatter and might indicate how the NFL will handle similar cases.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell provided some details of his meeting with Jameis Winston, the former Florida State quarterback who is widely considered the favorite to be chosen first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2015 NFL Draft despite a college career checked with behavior that suggests, at best, a lack of maturity.

During the meeting, which Winston requested, he met with several members of the league's staff. Such meetings are unusual, but the NFL took the opportunity to essentially put Winston on notice even before he arrives.

"I think we were incredibly clear about our expectations of anybody who enters the NFL, or is in the NFL," Goodell said. "What we expect of them as men, and how they represent not only their franchise, but the NFL; and the full insight into our personal conduct and the reasons for it, and our services. He met with several people. The conversation was very candid -- extremely candid. This is a young man who understands his responsibility, and now it's up to him to live up to that."

With the draft a little more than a month away, Winston's future -- and the potential risk of selecting him -- is almost certain to be the most prominent theme. Bucs coach Lovie Smith spent nearly an hour of the annual NFC coaches' breakfast answering questions about Winston and how deeply Tampa Bay has looked into his behavior. The Bucs have made no secret about their interest in Winston -- he is considered much more ready to immediately step into a pro offense than Marcus Mariota -- and also have been blunt about the significant work they say they are doing to assure themselves Winston will not become a discipline and public-relations problem.

While at FSU, Winston was investigated -- but never charged -- in connection with an alleged sexual assault. Last year, he was caught stealing crab legs from a supermarket and shouting obscenities in the school's student union. But Winston is also an electrifying player, and the Bucs are desperate for a quarterback.

"Everything checks out on him, too ... the guy can complete every throw," Smith said. "A lot has been said about his football intelligence. He's just a leader."

Smith was asked if a player's prodigious talent would make a team more likely to overlook off-field concerns in the draft.

"We don't overlook anything," Smith said. "Maybe if I was perfect and never made any mistakes, I'd want a perfect team."

Smith said that his experience with young people is that they will sometimes let you down, but "I believe in second chances after I do my own research."

The Bucs' decision would likely not draw quite as many questions had the NFL not just endured a season in which the off-field conduct of players -- and the NFL's reaction to that conduct -- sparked a national conversation about domestic violence. The NFL instituted a harsher personal-conduct policy, and upcoming decisions about Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy will likely provide a road map for what to expect from future cases, particularly in Hardy's case.

Hardy -- who was convicted by a judge in a domestic violence case, only for the charges to be dismissed when the alleged victim declined to testify again in Hardy's appeal to a jury trial -- was signed last week by the Dallas Cowboys. The NFL has gone to court to try to gain access to the evidence -- including pictures -- that was presented in the bench trial. A decision on the evidence could come by the end of the month.

This is the first significant investigation the NFL has undertaken since deciding it could not rely on how cases are handled by law enforcement and the courts before deciding its own discipline. Given the nature of the allegations, the NFL seems likely to give Hardy a lengthy suspension, even though the alleged incident happened before the new personal-conduct policy was put in place. One league official said this week that if the league gave Hardy just a two-game suspension -- which is what was called for under the old policy -- the NFL would be back to square one in its management of personal-conduct cases.

Dallas coach Jason Garrett said the Cowboys spent considerable time delving into Hardy's background before signing him, going as far back as high school. Garrett himself said he spent two or three hours talking with Hardy, asking him very specifically about what happened in the alleged incident. The Cowboys structured Hardy's contract to protect themselves in the case of a lengthy suspension. Garrett also made clear on Wednesday that if Hardy does not conform, to what the Cowboys want from him, they will move quickly to release him.

"Not everybody is a finished product," Garrett said.

And not everything about the NFL's crackdown has gone smoothly. Goodell said he wants to meet with Adrian Peterson before deciding when he will be reinstated following his suspension after he hit his 4-year-old son with a switch until the child was injured. Goodell also said that the NFL still considers April 15 a critical date for a decision on Peterson's reinstatement, despite Peterson's appeal of his suspension.

The future of Peterson, who is still on the Commissioner's Exempt List, might -- strangely -- be even murkier than that of Winston and Hardy. Peterson is under contract with the Vikings, who have indicated they want him back with the team. Coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday that a trade of Peterson was not in the Vikings' plans. But Peterson's agent, Ben Dogra, has said returning to the Vikings is not in Peterson's best interests, and he has also reportedly declined to meet some team officials for dinner. However, on Tuesday night, Dogra had a very public, and seemingly cordial, chat with Zimmer in front of dozens of reporters and other team officials at the resort where the league meeting was held.

Within the next six weeks, Winston, Hardy and Peterson will know their NFL futures. And everyone else will finally know just how much the NFL learned from last season.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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