Teams wary of character, medical issues

OWINGS MILLS - Discovering derogatory information about a college football player besides what can be gleaned from game film requires more than the investigative skills of a detective or being versed in medical terminology. Before an NFL franchise assigns a red flag and downgrades or removes a prospect's name from its draft board entirely, scouts, coaches and executives perform their due diligence.

That means not simply relying upon the voluminous files of background checks compiled by NFL security personnel, a group mostly made up of former law enforcement officers.

Because teams' decisions, and risks taken, on players potentially involves millions of dollars and this being such a highly competitive league, teams seek an edge by schmoozing with anyone who can get them accurate insight into a player's medical outlook, past legal imbroglios or other campus behavior issues.

"Our scouts do a great job of going into the schools, and they may know a strength coach or an equipment guy or somebody who is going to be able to give them the full scoop on the players," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, noting that final say on character concerns is left to majority owner Art Modell and president David Modell. "The information we get from the league is just documentation of what we already know.

"We factor it in, but when it comes to taking questionable character players, I turn that over to Art and David."

There have been a few high-profile incidents involving prospects of late.

Most notably a drive-by shooting last weekend that wounded Oregon State cornerback Dennis Weathersby.

Plus, there's the controversy over whether Michigan State wideout Charles Rogers used a masking agent or simply drank too much water before his drug test at the scouting combine. The Detroit Lions will still probably draft Rogers second overall on Saturday.

Overwhelmingly, though, this draft class is widely viewed as a group that lacks the potential powder keg of, say, Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips in 1996, or oft-troubled tight end Jeramy Stevens, the Seattle Seahawks' first-round pick last year.

Phillips had a history of domestic violence incidents. Stevens has had several assault charges, and was investigated for a sex charge and was cleared. He also failed several drug tests and once drove his car into a nursing home while under the influence of alcohol.

"To be honest with you, we've had fewer guys with question marks this year than in years past," Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said. "I don't know if these guys are finally starting to learn that we get all the information and that their status will drop if they get into trouble.

"There have been a lot of speeding tickets and parking fines, things like that. In terms of guys we would disqualify as being Ravens, I can't say there have been a lot of guys like that."

In the past, DeCosta said, observation of the Ravens' draft board would include as many as seven to 10 prospects red-flagged toward the bottom. This year, he noted only two or three prospects that might be affected by character issues.

In terms of Weathersby, bullets pierced his back and passed through to his torso and forearm in a shooting in Duarte, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb known for having heavy gang activity.

Originally projected as a certain second-round pick because of his rare combination of size and athleticism, Weathersby's future is uncertain now.

In stable condition, he'll still likely be drafted, just lower in the draft.

Legally, there are a few prospects who could give teams reason for pause.

For example, Florida State wide receiver Talman Gardner was arrested earlier this spring in Tallahassee, Fla., on a felony charge of carrying a concealed, loaded handgun as well as incurring a possession of marijuana charge, a misdemeanor.

 Hard-hitting Arkansas safety Ken Hamlin has been compared favorably to former Razorbacks All-American and Pro Bowl safety Steve Atwater.

He has also been arrested twice for driving under the influence and served 10 days in jail after his second offense.

"I always have to chuckle a little bit when I hear teams say, 'Well, character for us is very important,' as though, for the others, it's not," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Notwithstanding documented problems, it's the hardest thing to quantify."

 Medically, there are several issues with top prospects. Miami tailback Willis McGahee, who tore multiple knee ligaments in the Fiesta Bowl, is rehabilitating aggressively and might still warrant consideration by the Oakland Raiders at the end of the first round. Prior to the injury, he was projected as high as the Houston Texans' third overall selection.

Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman apparently has nerve damage in his shoulder, but is still expected to be selected toward the top of the first round.

"If the other teams are listening, from what we understand, Terence Newman's arm fell off last week," Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage quipped. "But if he's available we're still going to take him, Lefty Newman."

Tennessee wideout Kelley Washington suffered a concussion on a vicious hit against Georgia, also damaging his neck. He underwent spinal fusion surgery on Nov. 19, 2002, but has shown well in spring workouts.

Those are contact-free, of course.

"There's more work to be done on a medical standpoint as to whether he's truly cleared to play football," Savage said. "He's going to be able to play, but to actually go out there in pads and take a hit.."

Meanwhile, Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich had a successful workout after having his tibia fractured twice and having a rod inserted. He has also passed the Ravens' physical.

Now, Leftwich is garnering consistent Top 10 grades. The Ravens would be highly unlikely to pass on him if he's available with the 10th pick.

It's not as well-documented that Georgia outside linebacker Boss Bailey, the younger brother of Washington Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey, has already torn his left and right anterior cruciate ligament.

Or that USC safety Troy Polamalu had a history of concussions with the Trojans, or that Florida State offensive guard Montrae Holland reportedly has arthritic knees.

 Getting back to the issue of legal concerns, it really bothers teams when players don't learn their lesson after getting into trouble.

Almost everyone is prone to youthful indiscretions, but speedy Oregon running back Onterrio Smith has had more than his fair share of trouble.

After a positive drug test for marijuana led to his dismissal from the Tennessee Volunteers' football program, Smith was arrested shortly after transferring to Oregon for drunk driving. Under the age of 21, Smith was only charged with driving with a suspended license.

When a player doesn't show any signs of reform, it tends to downgrade or push him out of consideration for responsible teams. Several franchises erased Stevens from their draft boards last year despite his considerable physical skills.

"There was a guy we had a couple of years ago and I asked him, 'Are you a thug or are you stupid?'" Billick said. "His answer was, 'Are those my only choices?' I gave him points for that.

"Coaches put a very large stock in what the scouts tell us about a young man because they've talked to the trainer, the coaches, to a lot of people in and around the program and can put a lot of insight into it."

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