Teams more diligent in assessing players' character

"Character" is a buzzword throughout the NFL draft process and definitely factors into where a player is selected.

Updated: April 19, 2006, 9:03 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Marcus Vick throws a better ball than his older brother Michael, the Atlanta Falcons' star. He isn't quite as quick -- but, then again, very few humans are. They played the same position at the same school, quarterback at Virginia Tech, and left college at precisely the same size: 6 feet, 215 pounds.

But, while Michael was the first overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft, there is a good chance Marcus won't be taken on the first day.

A series of brushes with the law and poor decisions -- from the alleged possession of marijuana to charges of sex with a minor (later acquitted), the alleged brandishing of a gun and the memorable (and intentional) stomping on the leg of Louisville defensive end Elvis Dumervil during the 2006 Gator Bowl -- led to Marcus' dismissal from Virginia Tech in January.

As a result, NFL personnel experts project him to fall at least to the fourth round and, more likely, beyond. A significant number of teams say they have removed him from their draft board entirely.

Rick Spielman, former general manager of the Miami Dolphins, who also evaluated college talent for Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, saw Vick play this season against West Virginia.

Matt Stroshane/Getty ImagesMarcus Vick is undoubtedly talented, but brings a lot of baggage to the table.

"He has a lot of talent," said Spielman, now an ESPN Insider. "But at that position, the player is the leader of your football team and has to set the tone, an example. If he's not doing things the right way off the field, how can you expect the team to follow him? He flipped off the fans at West Virginia -- that's not how you lead."

Emotion can be a positive factor on the playing field, but the opposite is also true.

"I'm trying to show the kind of person I am, you know, show the world that I'm not the person some people make me out to be," Vick said in his defense at the scouting combine in February. "[It's like I'm] some kind of bad guy, like the villain."

If Vick had made fewer off-field headlines and spent more time on the gridiron, he might well have been a late first-round draft choice. As such, he would have been in line for a five-year contract worth as much as $15 million, including a $3 million to $4 million signing bonus. Now, he's looking at something like a $200,000 signing bonus and an annual contract in the same neighborhood.

The difference between Marcus and Michael Vick? In a word, character.

Defined loosely as moral or ethical strength, character has never mattered more to those who assess college football players. It is a complicated element that encompasses not only a player's body of work on the field, but his police record (if applicable), work ethic, sense of team and passion for the game.

This year's NFL draft, April 29-30 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, will feature some difficult but compelling character decisions. In the past, some NFL teams have paid lip service to the importance of character, but with the annual salary cap now past $100 million, successful teams go out of their way to do their due diligence.

The New England Patriots won three of four Super Bowls by seeking athletes who were willing to subjugate themselves for the good of the team; the selflessness of two-way player Troy Brown is a good example. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who place a similar premium on character, captured this year's Super Bowl title in Detroit.

"It's always important to get good people as well as good players," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "From the Steelers' point of view, from top to bottom, ownership demands that character is a big factor in this organization."

"You can't lose sight of a guy's physical skills on tape, but even good organizations have been hurt by drafting people whose character is questionable," said Scot McCloughan, the 49ers' vice president of player personnel. "Ninety percent of the time, it will bite you in the ass.

"If we have two guys pretty close, we'll take the guy with less talent that weighs in with more character. Half the grade going into this is: How's the kid wired?"

Guessing Game

Judging character is a wildly subjective proposition. Sometimes, teams get it wrong.

When rumors circulated that University of Pittsburgh quarterback Dan Marino had allegedly abused drugs, he slid to the end of the first round in 1983. Seventeen seasons later, when Marino retired as the game's most prolific passer, no one was questioning his character.

In other instances, though, there is fire where smoke is perceived. The Denver Broncos, defying conventional wisdom, drafted Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett in the third round of last year's draft after he had been out of football for two seasons. He was good-sized (5-11, 230 pounds) and fairly fast (4.55 in the 40-yard dash), but he was dismissed from Ohio State in 2003 after a series of incidents.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who had experienced spectacular success by drafting lightly regarded running backs Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson, felt it was worth the risk. Admitting he made a mistake, Shanahan cut Clarett in training camp.

Shanahan served as the Raiders' head coach in 1988-89 and learned a willingness to gamble from owner Al Davis, a self-styled outsider in the elite men's club that is the NFL. The Raiders have long prized talent over character in building teams. First-round choices Todd Marinovich (1991), Darrell Russell (1997) and Sebastian Janikowski (2000) at the very least raised some questions before their respective drafts and encountered brushes with the law as pros. Russell, whose NFL career was plagued with a string of incidents, including rape charges in 2002, died in a high-speed car crash in December.

Complicated situations
When a team is uncomfortable with a potential character issue, it becomes real easy to pass on that player. When you see a player starting to fall unexpectedly, most times there are question marks that have not necessarily become public.

There are countless instances of situations that raise questions regarding a player's character. I think back to a Senior Bowl experience during my scouting years when I was on an airplane leaving Mobile, Ala. in which the majority of the plane was filled with players and scouts. One of the players was extremely rude to a flight attendant and his overall conduct was embarrassing. Not only did it leave a negative impression on the individuals on that flight, but the word spread like wild fire regarding his behavior throughout scouting circles. Within a week, everyone in the league had placed a red flag on this player's card and ultimately it wound up costing this player dramatically on draft day.

Sometimes character issues can be false. In the days leading up to the draft, there are always countless rumors of late-breaking issues that could entail character, medical, etc. At this point in the process, everyone is paranoid.

I remember a specific case in which a highly-rated player was expected to go in the top five of the draft. One day prior to the draft, a team picking in the six-to-nine range made some specific calls to teams drafting ahead of them and simply asked, "Have you received the newest report regarding serious character issues" about the prospect? When the team that was asked responded by saying, "No, we haven't heard anything," the caller simply hung up the phone. On draft day, the player in question slipped to the bottom of the first round and to this day many people, including myself, are convinced that many teams passed on him because they simply could not confirm the suspicious call that some teams had received one day earlier.

As this year's draft approaches, former USC quarterback Matt Leinart has suddenly raised a red flag. Nobody has ever accused Leinhart of being a character problem but the recent firing of his agent Leigh Steinberg raises a lot of potential questions.

Whether you like Steinberg or not, the fact is that he is a reputable agent with a great history with quarterbacks. When he is fired two weeks before the draft, even after a successful draft preparation process in which his client looks like a sure top-four draft pick, something does not make sense. Is Leinart going "Hollywood" and paying more attention to off-the-field opportunities rather than football? Is he listening to other agents, who always are trying to steal players? It would seem that at the very least there are some question marks about Leinart's loyalty and integrity and even the teams at the top of the draft will want to be comfortable with this situation.
Gary Horton, Scouts Inc.

It was Davis who traded for wide receiver Randy Moss -- passed over by several teams in the 1998 draft because of character concerns -- last year after seven turbulent, albeit statistically successful, seasons in Minnesota.

The Cincinnati Bengals, who have one of the smallest scouting staffs in the league, also have routinely ignored character as a measuring stick. It has hurt them over the years, particularly in the case of some of their high-profile first-round choices -- defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson and wide receiver Peter Warrick, to mention two.

With the stakes so high in the draft -- if one in seven draft choices is a failure, it can have a profound effect on the roster -- teams spend an extraordinary amount of time and money in pursuit of character references.

"When I was with Miami, we had a director of security that did background checks," Spielman said. "It's a pain to go through different courthouses where players grew up, but it's worth the effort. You can learn about potential rape charges or if a guy got three tickets for fishing without a license."

Teams with a large veteran contingent or a strong-willed head coach seem more willing to take chances with questionable character. That was definitely the case when the Broncos took Clarett and Minnesota chose Moss.

Yet, it's not just the teams that find themselves concerned with the character issues throughout the draft process.

Long before he began representing some of the marquee players in the league, including Eli Manning and seven other starting quarterbacks, agent Tom Condon was less than selective when seeking clients.

"Early on, we were just taking whatever players we could get," said Condon, who played guard for the Kansas City Chiefs for 11 seasons. "The two characteristics that determine success are intelligence and character. Now, it's a big factor for us.

"As I look through our last few classes of players, you could take virtually any of those guys home and be proud. It makes life so much easier. They're attractive to people in terms of marketing dollars, and later they can move more easily into the broadcast booth."

For the Steelers' Colbert, character will remain a draft key.

"The best-case scenario," he said, "is a good player with impeccable character. That means you have no concerns. Next level, you have one incident or a personality trait that raises concern. The guys with a couple of incidents that suggest a pattern are the ones you stay away from."

This year's draft has players who fit all those descriptions. Here are a few burdened by the baggage of off-field issues that will create some tension during draft weekend:

Oklahoma offensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek
An interesting case study.

Dvoracek was stripped of his captaincy and missed 10 games in 2004 after he got into a fight in a bar in Norman, Okla. He was reinstated for 2005 after undergoing anger-management and alcohol-related counseling. In Dvoracek's request for a medical waiver, he admitted he was an alcoholic.

Scouts say Dvoracek -- an academic achiever who produced one of the very highest scores on the Wonderlic test at the combine -- has second-round talent but will probably drop into the third round.

That said, the fact that Dvoracek has shown signs of maturity by staying out of trouble once reinstated to the team should keep him from sliding too far.

USC offensive tackle Winston Justice
A 6-6, 311-pound specimen, Justice was suspended for the 2004 season after he and some friends pulled a fake but real-looking gun on a USC student.

"I'm always going to be sorry about it," Justice said. "But it's in the past. I'm trying to live day by day to show people that I am a good-character guy."

Justice, who protected Matt Leinart's blind side, is projected to be the second tackle taken -- behind D'Brickashaw Ferguson of Virginia -- going as high as the No. 8 pick, but no lower than the Eagles' No. 14 overall choice.

It's always important to get good people as well as good players. From the Steelers' point of view, from top to bottom, ownership demands that character is a big factor in this organization.
Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations

Florida State outside linebacker A.J. Nicholson
Nicholson was sent home prior to this year's Orange Bowl for violating team rules after a woman claimed she was sexually assaulted by the linebacker. However, while questioned by police, he never was charged. Seven weeks later, Nicholson answered many character questions at the scouting combine.

"If they're paying money to have you on their team, [teams] should want to ask and should want to know, and are obligated to know," Nicholson said in Indianapolis. "It hurt me because it kind of damaged my character and put me in a light I don't want to be put in. They know I'm a good player."

Indeed, Nicholson was soaring up the draft board before the incident. He has first-round talent, but will any team be willing to risk taking him that high?

Finding the Fire

In the biggest college football game of the season, LenDale White outran the player who will undoubtedly be drafted first overall, USC teammate Reggie Bush.

White carried 20 times for 124 yards and scored three touchdowns against Texas in the Rose Bowl. While USC lost the national championship game, White saw his draft stock rise sharply.

But something funny happened on the way to the draft -- actually, nothing happened. White, whose playing weight is about 235, weighed in at the combine at 236 and managed only 15 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press, 10 fewer than the 200-pound Bush. At USC's pro day, White checked in at 244 pounds. There have been rumors that he's hit the mid-250s. Probably not helping matters, it was revealed on Thursday that White has a torn hamstring.

"A big-time red flag," one NFL scout said. "The guy has issues. He never worked out. When he takes his shirt off, a 21-year-old kid shouldn't have a gut."

But that same scout added, "He should have been a high first-round pick, but he could be there in the second round. Then, you're debating value of the pick versus downside. You'd have to think about it."

As it stands, ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has White going to the Carolina Panthers at No. 27.

Then you have the opposite of cases like White. Instances in which a well-rounded individual -- whether he's very strong academically or has a variety of interests -- might draw a red flag because teams question whether he's dedicated to football.

D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the top offensive tackle prospect in this year's draft, has drawn a curious eye from some scouts because he plays the saxophone, according to ESPN the Magazine.

"Work ethic versus too laid-back -- it's tough to assess," Condon said. "There [are] guys with laid-back personalities that will work like mules. Still, there are some guys who don't love football. It's almost cliché to bring up the name of Ryan Leaf, but when you're looking at that big, strong, athletic guy, you're wondering why he didn't succeed."

AP Photo/FileRyan Leaf had few answers during his tenure in the NFL.

Leaf was the second pick in the 1998 NFL draft, behind Peyton Manning, but he never made the Pro Bowl and was out of the league after just five seasons. Why? He didn't have the fire for the game.

"Work ethic, passion for the game equals character," the 49ers' McCloughan said. "My job is to explain to Coach [Mike] Nolan what [a prospect] brings to the table. Is his work ethic going to cause offseason [workout] problems?"

Jeremy Green, who worked for the Browns in player personnel from 2000-05, places a great emphasis on this facet of character.

"Is the guy doing the extra things he needs to do, or is he the first one out of the building at the end of the day?" said Green, director of scouting for ESPN.com's Scouts Inc. "Does the guy like football? I would rather take a player with a little bit of baggage over a player with no heart or [who] doesn't like football.

"In Buffalo, it's obvious [former offensive tackle] Mike Williams doesn't like football. And they made him a top-five pick. Heart is a big part of the equation."

And so is professionalism.

"The combine is like a job interview," Spielman said. "It's like wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt instead of a jacket and tie. It raises all kinds of questions."

Virginia Tech cornerback Jimmy Williams has been the subject of those kind of questions. He is the second-rated defensive back in the draft, behind Texas safety Michael Huff. Williams has size (6-3, 213 pounds) and speed (4.48), and as a junior he was terrific, making five interceptions. In 2005?

"One interception," said Todd McShay, Scouts Inc.'s director of college football and the NFL draft. "He was lazy and took a lot of unnecessary risks. He comes off as very arrogant."

McShay said Williams has top-10 talent -- Arizona still could take him with the No. 10 pick -- but he could fall into slots 20-25.

In a world where speed, strength and toughness usually prevail, is character overrated?

"No," Spielman said. "A tiger doesn't change its stripes. Eventually, you'll have issues with a player with a history. He may be an angel for a year, but it will circle around. If you're comfortable dealing with those issues on your team, that's fine. But beware."

Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware.

"Our experience has always been to take the best combination of person and player," the Steelers' Colbert explained. "On the other hand, you don't want to give someone too much credit for being a good person and not a good enough football player.

"You can't ignore accusations, but you have to be careful to separate rumors from the truth. You just don't know. Nobody's perfect. Players on our team certainly aren't perfect. We just try to get as many good guys as we can.

"You just hope you're getting what you think you're getting."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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