The character issue

The character issue is now a major component in determining whether a team should draft a player. With the Bucs holding the No. 4 pick, what lengths are they going to so they arent' burned by a player with possible off-the-field issues? And how does the NFL's new policy affect player evaluation?

In the first of three stories at BucsBlitz.com, Matthew Postins examines some of the factors that will determine who the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select in this weekend's NFL Draft. Today, it's all about character.

What might seem shocking to us now probably didn't prompt a raised eyebrow from most NFL teams.

The admission that Clemson DE Gaines Adams, Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson and Louisville DT Amobi Okoye used marijuana at some point in college probably won't affect their draft status much this weekend. Not because drug use isn't frowned upon by the NFL and its 32 teams. More to the point, it's because all 32 teams probably knew about the admission as early as February and have spent the past two months in detective mode, trying to determine if those three players' past drug use will affect their future.

NFL teams will invest millions of dollars in first-round picks this year. A team that doesn't due its "due diligence," as Tampa Bay director of college scouting Dennis Hickey put it, is running the risk of setting their franchise back years.

"We do a lot of (research) and character has been an emphasis ever since I've been with the Bucs," Hickey said, entering his 12th season with the Buccaneers. "That's more than interviewing a player."

No, researching the 125 or so players that will grace the Buccaneers' final draft board is more like the world of an old-fashioned gumshoe — there's a lot of legwork.

Hickey and his staff have been scouting this weekend's senior draft class since late May of last year. For the first seven months, that involved mostly film work and live scouting.

Once January came the mode changed. The only games left to scout are All-Star games, and those games give NFL teams the chance to interview prospective players.

Interviews come again at the National Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Many players in attendance get private interviews with teams lasting 15 minutes.

Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, who appeared Monday on the "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," described the interviews as a "fire drill."

"You talk for about 10 minutes, and then someone sounds a horn for a five-minute warning," Quinn said. "Then, once your 15 minutes is up, you're hustled to the next interview. It's almost like speed dating."

The questions primarily aren't about football.

"Some of those questions get pretty personal," Quinn said.

Such as drug use. So it's almost certain most NFL teams knew this information about Gaines, Johnson and Okoye before it was leaked last week.

That's where the gumshoe part comes in. Hickey said that in February, March and April, scouts go from football evaluators to detectives.

"We comb the campus, work the (athletic) building, anyone we can talk to that can have information that can help us determine what kind of teammate we're getting, because that's an important thing. We want to get a good teammate," Hickey said. "We want a guy next to you in the locker room that you want to be your neighbor. Those are the types of guys that you can rely on, that are dependable."

The NFL has one of the most stringent drug policies in American sports, but it does not take affect until a player enters the NFL. So the admission of those three players can't be taken into account should they test positive for any drugs in the future.

NFL Network scouting analyst Mike Mayock said last week that some teams look upon admissions such as this during the interview process as a sign of maturity. Teams would rather hear the information from the player themselves and not through their own investigations. It would smell of a cover-up.

That's probably why the stocks of those three players have not dropped in recent weeks. Teams like the Bucs — who are considering all three players — have done their research, talked to those that really know the three players and come to the conclusion that all three are still worthy of a Top 10 pick.

This year, drug use will likely take a back seat to the NFL's new conduct policy, the first major initiative of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The new policy is not a result of rampant drug use — as the NFL's drug policy instituted in the 1980s was — but off the field violence and run-ins with the law. Tennessee CB Pacman Jones will miss the entire 2007 season for his problems with the law the past two years. Cincinnati WR Chris Henry will miss half the season.

This is Goodell's obvious point of emphasis, and it seems college players with a history of breaking the law — or who even show a hint of breaking the law — are taking the biggest hit in terms of draft stock.

"I think the most obvious guy is Marcus Thomas from Florida," Mayock said. "I think he's a guy with first-day ability that may not even get drafted, and if he does it's going to be very, very late."

Thomas' off-field issues — including failing a school-sponsored substance abuse test — played a role in him being kicked off the team in November, though Florida coach Urban Meyer never specified why Thomas was kicked off.

It appears on-field issues are less of a red flag, as Miami defensive back Brandon Meriweather hasn't seen his stock drop much after his part in last October's brawl with Florida International. Mayock said Meriweather has done a good job of answering the questions of scouts.

"I talked to a team this morning that was highly impressed with him," Mayock said. "And they've spent a lot of time with him. So he's doing a really good job looking people in the eye, saying, ‘Yes, I messed up a little bit but talk to my teachers, talk to my coaches. I'm okay. I'm going to be a good citizen.'"

Hickey said the Bucs have spent countless hours with players and their families, coaches, teachers and teammates, anyone that will give them an edge in determining a player's character. The past few years the Bucs have been successful in that regard. Most of the players Tampa Bay has drafted since 2003 have had few problems with the law. CB Torrie Cox, a sixth-rounder in 2003, has had two well-documented DUI arrests in a nine-month span in 2004 and 2005. Just recently, offensive tackle Anthony Davis was arrested for disorderly conduct in his native Victoria, Va. And Lionel Gates, a free-agent signee for the Bucs earlier this year, was arrested and charged last month with assault on a pregnant woman, burglary and criminal mischief.

Certainly the Buccaneers would like no run-ins with the law, but it's certainly not the police blotter the Cincinnati Bengals have rung up the past year and a half.

And when determining a player's worth for the future, sometimes knowing that makes all the difference.

Thursday: Finding those second-day gems.


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