What about these characters?

Character. Character. Character. Mike Nolan talks about it all the time. Character, Nolan suggests rather forcefully, is almost as important as talent when it comes time to evaluate who he wants on his football team. So how does Nolan explain the 49ers using their final two draft selections last month on Texas cornerback Tarell Brown and Kansas State running back Thomas Clayton?

That's a question that will follow around the 49ers this spring and summer until the two rookies with somewhat dubious backgrounds prove they can fit into San Francisco's positive yet tightly-wound team structure and leave behind the red flags raised about the character of each during their time in college.

Or until they prove that they can't.

After parting ways in March with Antonio Bryant - the mercurial wide receiver who blew his big chance to be something in San Francisco with his volatile behavior both on and off the field - Nolan didn't hesitate to admit he'd erred in taking a chance on Bryant and his sketchy track record.

"I thought we could get him to a position where we could get him to do something, and I was wrong, that was my decision," Nolan said in April, more than a month after the Niners finally decided to cut their losses and deem the Bryant experiment a failure. "I guess you could say I made a bad choice. I think Antonio has a good heart, and that needs to be said because some guys just see a real bad character thing. I just think he wasn't quite ready to be a 49er yet."

Character now is a big issue, not just in 49erland but the entire NFL , particularly after new NFL commissioner Roger Goodell laid down the law in April that the bad characters of the league caught doing bad things would no longer be tolerated.

Anybody wonder what Pacman Jones is doing these days, besides appealing his year-long suspension? How about Chris Henry? The list of NFL losers who are blowing their careers because they don't have the sense to act like responsible adults and realize the implications of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the good Lord has shined upon them goes on and on.

And, will continue to go on, which is part of the point here.

Nolan always has put character at the top of his list of requisites since the day he arrived in San Francisco. And as he discussed what the 49ers would be looking for in the 2007 draft a week before it began, character remained at its customary lofty position.

"If you've got bad character, we will not draft you," Nolan said then. "I don't even question that. I believe everybody (the team would consider) has character, otherwise they don't even make our draft board. That's a given."

Nolan is truly a man of his word - and especially his conviction. There is no question at all about his character. The man is character personified.

But what he said before the draft and what the 49ers did at the end of it kind of makes you go, "Hmmm…"

So the question gets asked once more: How, exactly, does Nolan explain the 49ers using the final two selections of their otherwise marvelous 2007 draft class on Brown and Clayton?

Let's just say that both those prospects come into the NFL with - ahem - a few questions about their character.

Yes, they are talents that fell to the 49ers, which in the minds of some would make them worth the risk due to that factor alone. But they also are characters who easily could have been avoided with the "why even bother taking the time and risk" mentality.

Brown - regarded by many as one of the top 10 cornerbacks available in the draft on pure talent alone - had a misdemeanor drug possession charge against him dropped just a week before the draft.

He was arrested March 22 - just one day after working out for NFL scouts - when he was a passenger in a car driven by Brown's cousin that was pulled over for not having a front license plate. According to reports, authorities smelled marijuana and searched the vehicle, finding a small amount of the illegal substance. The marijuana was found on the driver's side of the vehicle, but there was none on the passenger side where Brown had been sitting.

Early last season, during the week before defending national champion Texas' showdown with top-ranked Ohio State, Brown was suspended after an incident in which he was charged with a misdemeanor for carrying drugs and weapons. Brown had been found with a loaded 9mm handgun and less than two ounces of marijuana. The marijuana charges were later dropped, but Brown missed arguably his team's most important game of the season - and one of the most significant of his college career - because of the incident.

Doh!!

A pre-draft scouting guide says of Brown, "Trouble has a way of finding him, and character is a consideration that needs to be examined closely."

And Clayton? According to reports, he was suspended for the season opener last year after a conviction for misdemeanor aggravated battery, which resulted from a 2005 incident when he struck a university parking official with his car while driving away from the employee, who was getting ready to put a wheel lock on his car, which had no license plate or vehicle identification number.

After transferring to Kansas State from Florida State, Clayton missed two games due to separate incidents for violating team rules. His college career fizzled to an end last season, when he played in only five games and a reported poor relationship with his head coach left him inactive for the remainder of the season. Clayton did not travel with Kansas State for the team's appearance in the Texas Bowl.

So what gives? How and why do the 49ers take a chance on these risky, albeit talented, characters?

They hardly fit the profile of what Nolan always has said he's looking for - and up to that point over his three drafts with the 49ers had usually found - in his draft selections.

"I am confident in our decision, because we don't take character lightly on our football team," Nolan said. "I don't have reservations about the two guys we (selected) at the end because I do believe they're good character people."

The 49ers, then, must know something the rest of us don't. And perhaps, that's the point, too. If there is a question about a prospect's character, "We speak to everyone," Nolan said. "If there is someone with any kind of red flag, we go into depth, we research him extensively. We talk to coaches, trainers, equipment guys."

So one can only assume the 49ers did their homework on these guys.

And while listening to both Brown and Clayton during interviews with 49ers writers after they were drafted by the team, it's seems pretty clear both are eager to put the suspicious episodes in their past behind them.

"That's not the person I am," Brown said. "Before this incident, I had never been in trouble. I know it won't be an issue. Coach Nolan is big on character and I feel that we're going to have a great relationship and everything else is going to take care of itself. I know that it's something that just happened, and I feel confident and comfortable with the situation I am going into."

Said Clayton, "I went through a little situation my junior season, which I've learned from. Looking back on it, I know it was a mistake, but I think once (the 49ers) got an opportunity to speak with me and get to know me, they knew that I'm a quality guy."

As Nolan has said, "If you've made a bad choice or two, it's our decision that we have to make identifying that person and if it's a choice issue or is it a character issue."

It should be noted that Brown and Clayton both passed the eye test - and, for that matter, the initial character test - during the 49ers' three-day minicamp last week at team headquarters. Clayton, particularly, impressed with his compact build and slashing moves on the field.

But did the 49ers make the right choice on these two youngsters, stepping out of character to draft a couple of guys with character risks? Only time will tell.

But Nolan already has had his mulligan with Bryant. The 49ers better be right about these two, or all that talk about character won't mean nearly as much in the future.


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