PFW: Draft these guys at your own peril
The Way We Hear It — draft edition
Harvin headlines first round’s five most risky picks
By Nolan Nawrocki
April 9, 2009
When it comes to stacking talent, most teams abide by the belief that talent and character can be separated. They grade the talent for what it is, setting their draft boards based on who the best talent is, from top to bottom, and then massage grades to a point where they feel comfortable taking a chance on a player with great risk — if they feel comfortable taking him at all — and do not remove his card from their draft board altogether.
With Jay Cutler forcing his trade out of Denver after losing part of the locker room and completely losing ownership, Michael Vick currently serving time in prison for killing dogs, Plaxico Burress on the street after needlessly carrying a gun, and Adam Jones potentially not getting back into the league after far too many run-ins with the law, the importance of character in the decision-making process has come to the forefront, especially when major investments are required early in the first round, where all of the above-mentioned players were drafted.
“I don’t know what it is,” one NFL executive said. “I’m not sure if it is a societal thing, but everyone seems like they have hickeys nowadays. Maybe it’s the Internet and the access to more information than we ever had — I don’t know — but it’s difficult to find many players that do not have blemishes.”
PFW polled five high-level league executives, asking them to rank five players with suspect track records — (listed alphabetically) Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree, Illinois CB Vontae Davis, Florida WR Percy Harvin, USC ILB Rey Maualuga and Boston College DT B.J. Raji — in the order in which character is most likely to be a negative factor in the pros. All participants were granted anonymity in exchange for honesty.
One top-ranking official, who said he would not draft any of them, compared the exercise to trying to decide between whether he’d rather eat cow manure, drink monkey urine or ingest rabbit turds. None of the choices seemed attractive enough to place one over the other, and, it should be noted, not all felt strongly that character would be an issue that would prevent them from drafting the following players or affect their ability to succeed in the pros. Teams with strong locker rooms, veteran leadership and consistent, demanding coaches may be able to better tolerate concerns.
More specific details on these players are included in Pro Football Weekly’s 2009 Draft Preview than what is included below, and much is best left unsaid, but following are the results of how teams rated the greatest risk concerns.
1) WR Percy Harvin, Florida (Jr.)
The first player mentioned by all five executives, Harvin is the clear-cut favorite in this year’s draft class to find trouble after receiving a giant payday. He was very competitive at Florida, even battling through a broken bone in his foot that was publicly referred to as a sprained ankle, helping the Gators win two national championships the past three years. The mention of character concerns about Harvin drew outrage from ardent supporters of Gator Nation after PFW’s 2009 Draft Guide was released. Nonetheless, one executive said Harvin would have to slip to the fourth round for him to consider rolling the dice on Harvin's character. Two others said they would not entertain the idea of drafting him at any price. Coachability, a posse of hangers-on, his lack of respect for authority and drug usage made Harvin a unanimous selection to become a repeated problem in the pros.
2) WR Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech (Soph.)
Crabtree may not have a laundry list of arrests, but his ego is abnormally large to the point where he repeatedly demeaned training staff, his work ethic has been described as “marginal at best,” and his intelligence and ability to handle success remain major question marks. One thorough evaluator compared Crabtree’s mental makeup to that of former LSU and Buccaneers 2004 15th overall pick Michael Clayton, who made a big splash in the NFL as a rookie before going on to average 31 catches, 378 yards and a half-TD catch each of the past four years as he lost focus, bought into the hype and stopped working at his craft the way young receivers must do to be great. Crabtree's competitiveness noticeably stands out on tape, and he did play through injury last season. However, when the Red Raiders were getting whipped by better competition (Oklahoma and Mississippi) during the final two games of the season, Crabtree did not finish either game. After he gets a taste of success in the pros, evaluators are not confident he will be able to handle the trappings of the pro game.
3) ILB Rey Maualuga, USC
Football is clearly very important to him, and he has endearingly been described as a “war daddy” by evaluators, but questions remain about his maturity, accountability, trustworthiness, intelligence and ability to responsibly handle alcohol. His coaches publicly have contended that he has matured greatly, but some of his actions have continued to suggest otherwise. One executive said he had positioned Maualuga just far enough down in the first round so that he would not be considered with the team’s first pick, hoping he would be gone by the time the second pick came around. Another evaluator said he did not envision Maualuga’s position on his team’s draft board being altered based on his character but, when pressed as to whether he would draft Maualuga in the top 10, said the pick would be “too scary.”
4) CB Vontae Davis, Illinois (Jr.)
Outside of being demoted several times throughout his career, in the spring and in the fall, Davis may not seem like he has a lot of issues on the surface — with no noted arrests or incidents that scream “problem.” However, his team interviews have been received very poorly, raising questions about his mental instability, lack of maturity and intelligence issues that clearly show up on tape consistently. He was regularly in the coaches’ doghouse, is very difficult to manage, does not respond well to coaching and may never easily blend into a locker room, as he beats to his own drum.
5) DT B.J. Raji, Boston College
Defensive tackles may need to be held to a different standard, with the modern-day widebody not needed to play as many snaps in the pros as most are asked to play in college, where fewer schools rotate their defensive linemen the way NFL teams tend to do. In a league where extra mass is rewarded and girth is a big plus defending the run, not all teams even penalize their linemen for not being able to control their weight. However, Raji’s work habits, intelligence and overall maturity, including at least one verified failed drug test, were distractions in college, especially early on, and several executives said they would not be willing to invest a first-round pick in a player with so many questions. Among the aforementioned five players with concerns, however, Raji drew the least criticism because of the improved maturity he showed as a senior after a clerical error cost him his junior season.
Others who could be affected by character issues:
WR Brandon Tate, North Carolina
WR Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina
OT Michael Oher, Mississippi
TE Travis Beckum, Wisconsin
LB Dannell Ellerbe, Georgia