Character matters at NFL draft time
By JIM JENKINS
April 26, 2006
Every NFL scout dreams of finding players with the big-play ability of a Terrell Owens, the power-rushing skills of a Ricky Williams or the untapped potential of an Onterrio Smith.
What they don't want are the nightmares that these three players - and other past and current players - have brought to their teams.
"More and more, I think you'll see teams become more careful about the kind of player they draft and sign as free agents," Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said at last month's annual league meetings in Orlando, Fla. "No one wants a disruptive situation on his roster. There is too much at stake. Without naming names, we've seen too much of it recently. Teams are getting tired of it."
Increasingly, pro teams are weeding out prospects on character issues, particularly after a 2005 season that included Owens' soap opera in Philadelphia and developments this week that the young careers of running backs Smith and Williams remain at risk because of drug-related suspensions.
Repeat offenders of the league's substance-abuse policies, Smith, Minnesota's 2003 fourth-round pick, and Williams, New Orleans' 1999 top pick given a second chance by Miami last year, probably will not be welcomed back if and when their penalties are lifted.
Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said he's not sure his peers are necessarily cracking down on behavioral issues any more than usual, yet puts it high on his agenda in screening players.
"I don't know that we are doing anything different this year than we've ever done," Gibbs said, "because that's always been an important issue."
It apparently is a major topic with Bill Parcells in Dallas, too.
Parcells' attendance at the annual meetings has been sporadic no matter where he has coached, but it was rumored at the NFL meetings that his absence was linked to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones signing Owens to an apparent unconditional contract.
It was during his introductory news conference without Parcells present that Owens vowed his allegiance to the Cowboys, downplaying rifts with the 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles. Then, a few weeks later, he raised some eyebrows by not showing up for voluntary workouts deemed important by the coaching staff.
Now comes the draft class of 2006.
At the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, players had physical examinations and measurements, their time in the 40-yard dash clocked and backgrounds checked for red flags. To some players, it came across as an indication of just how jittery talent evaluators have become probing for character flaws.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick won three Super Bowls in four years by mining for players willing to put individual honors aside for team goals. The Pittsburgh Steelers pretty much preach the same concept as the new champions.
Tackles perceived to be the two best offensive linemen in this year's draft are D'Brickashaw Ferguson of Virginia and Winston Justice of USC.
Justice has had brushes with the law (he pointed a toy gun at a moving car) and was suspended for the 2004 season. This could cause him to drop in the first round once selections begin Saturday.
"I think it was very, very important to show people that I have good character and to come back to school and to prove that I could be a good student, a good citizen for a whole year," Justice told reporters at the combine. "And to have a good season. And I think that I accomplished that."
Former Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick, the brother of Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick of Atlanta, has been compared with former college stars Maurice Clarett of Ohio State and Lawrence Phillips of Nebraska, both talented players but with self-destructive tendencies.
Vick was suspended for the 2004 season after he was charged with crimes in two different incidents. He also had driving infractions that included reckless driving, speeding and driving with a suspended license.
In the Gator Bowl, Vick stomped on the leg of Louisville defensive end Elvis Dumervil. A week later, the school dismissed him, citing: "a cumulative effect of legal infractions and unsportsmanlike play."
Now Vick is hoping his NFL career isn't over before it started.
"At this point in my life, I just want a team to give me a shot," Vick said at the combine. "It doesn't matter the round, or how much money we're talking. I just want a shot to be able to prove my ability."
Ferguson hasn't had such problems, but in ESPN the Magazine, it was revealed there were scouts wondering about this big lineman's easygoing demeanor and whether his love of playing the saxophone indicated he is more serious about music than football.
Seems silly, but the comparison drawn is that this was a work-ethic issue and that in 1998 when the Indianapolis Colts, with the first overall pick, had their choice of the supposed two best quarterbacks in the draft, they took Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. That surprised a lot of people, given that Leaf, chosen by San Diego, was thought to be the better athlete.
He well may have been, but as it turned out, Leaf displayed no passion for pro football, flaming out early after several immature, disruptive emotional outbursts.
Lesson: You can never be too careful in sorting fact from fiction.
In 1983, another quarterback-laden draft, Dan Marino dropped to the bottom of the first round amid rumors he had drug problems while at Pittsburgh. Not so, of course, much to the dismay of the teams that believed it and passed on the eventual record-breaking Hall of Famer.
Second-year San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan already has shown a low tolerance with players who don't toe the line or meet his expectations.
When asked why, with the better salary-cap situation, San Francisco didn't pursue the free-agent market more aggressively in the offseason, he had a ready, blunt response: "Because, in a lot of cases, those guys are out there for reasons."
As for general draft philosophy, Nolan, no newcomer to the NFL as a former defensive coordinator, said, "There are going to be teams that will take chances and don't put as much value (in character).
"It's the pretty girl thing versus the one who can cook. Looks wear off, and then it's, 'My God, what did I do?"
(Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service, www.shns.com
Copyright 2006, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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