Ravens looking for character, not characters

OWINGS MILLS -- Stopwatches, scales, computers and the truth revealed from studying a football player on video are outstanding tools for evaluating NFL prospects. Yet, evaluating the subjective element of character remains the toughest issue to define.

How can an NFL team accurately predict future behavior based on a player's background and make pivotal judgment calls on how a young man will assimilate to a new environment with the injection of millions of dollars and plenty of free time into the mix?

For the Baltimore Ravens, it's an unending internal debate that's been playing out ever since their wise decision to pass on troubled Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips prior to their inaugural draft to pick UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden fourth overall.

Phillips, who had a history of domestic violence at Nebraska, is now in prison and Ogden is earmarked for future Hall of Fame induction after retiring last year.

"It's not as much his character, it's about behavior," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said during a draft luncheon when asked about how he weighs the character issue. "In our society, everybody makes a mistake.

"We look at the behavior if the player has an opportunity to come into the structure that we have here in our building, that can change and become a better person each day they are here. We will take a chance on that person."

As the Ravens make those determinations, they have been investigating the character of several potential first-round draft picks. They do a ton of background work to determine whether they want to draft a player or not. "I really do realize that personality is really, really important," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said. "A guy's internal drive, his passion for the game, his toughness, his character, his personality, his intelligence, all those intangible qualities, I think, are really, really important and are very good predictors of how a guy is going to play at our level."

University of Florida wide receiver Percy Harvin is regarded as the riskiest player in the draft, according to a Pro Football Weekly report that polled several NFL executives.

"Coachability, a posse of hangers-on, his lack of respect for authority and drug usage made Harvin a unanimous selection to become a repeated problem in the pros," wrote Pro Football Weekly.

Harvin allegedly tested positive for marijuana at the NFL scouting combine, feuded with Gators coach Urban Meyer and teammates and was once banned from participating in high school sports for bumping an official in a basketball game. DeCosta said that a single positive drug test doesn't necessarily automatically eliminate a player from consideration.

"I think it's a case-by-case basis, but it's definitely a serious, serious red flag," DeCosta said. "We're concerned anytime a player tests positive whether he's a freshman in college, a senior in college or at the combine. It's a major-league red flag.

"Have we ever drafted a player who has tested positive? Yes, we have, but it's a case-by-case basis. We consider the person, the circumstances and we talk to a lot of people at the school. We interview the player. We ask him about the specific instance and make a decision based on that."

Flunking a drug test at the combine is a very big deal, especially because the players know the test is coming.

"It brings up the question as to whether or not it's habitual and number two it brings up the intelligence question," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said during a conference call. "There aren't many GMs and head coaches in the league that I know that are real excited to have a kid on their team who is dumb enough to test positive at the combine."

The Ravens conducted a private workout with Harvin.

Some NFL teams have reportedly removed Harvin from their draft boards, and Mayock said he would be uncomfortable drafting Harvin in the first round.

"I've heard there's even more bad stuff with Harvin," retired NFL scout Tom Marino said during a telephone interview. "At Florida, they're glad he left and he's a very talented guy. He reminds me a lot of Andre Rison, on and off the field."

In the case of Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew, his brush with the law was an isolated one.

Pettigrew was arrested and charged with felony assault and battery on a police officer for allegedly elbowing the officer in the chest, ultimately pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault and public intoxication and receiving a year of probation and community service.

"I don't think it's a red flag," Marino said. "I think this is a good kid who made a bad mistake."

Pettigrew has visited the Ravens and is considered a strong candidate to be their pick at No. 26 overall.

Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis, who also visited the Ravens, was demoted and benched by coach Ron Zook and reportedly has a cocky personality and work ethic issues.

"There's two top 10 talents that could slide, and that's Percy Harvin and Vontae Davis," Mayock said. "There are a lot of rumors, not necessarily drug-based where teams have to sit there and say, 'At what point does this become a viable decision for us?'"

The Ravens have been evaluating hard-hitting USC linebacker Rey Maualuga who was suspended for a game three years ago after allegedly acting up at a fraternity party and was charged with punching a man four years ago at a Halloween party.

The Ravens have met with Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith, who was suspended from the Sugar Bowl for improper contact with an agent, bolted out of the combine early without informing officials and was visibly overweight at his Pro Day workout and has since fired his agent and hired another one this week.

Smith has never been in legal trouble and is regarded as a top-flight blocker who lacks maturity.

"I'm convinced and I think that most of the NFL is convinced that what we saw from Andre Smith at the combine was more about immaturity than about him being a bad kid," Mayock said. "And he needs to grow up a little bit and take things a little bit more seriously and stay in shape."

The Ravens also had Nicholls State cornerback Lardarius Webb in for a visit. He was dismissed from the Southern Miss football team for rule violations.

The Ravens don't have a tradition of taking risks in the first round on players' character, picking a succession of well-behaved citizens that includes recent selections: quarterback Joe Flacco, offensive guard Ben Grubbs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and wide receiver Mark Clayton.

Prior to the draft, Newsome and the Ravens' scouts go over potential red-flag players with team owner Steve Bisciotti and team president Dick Cass before removing players from their draft board.

The Ravens met with Phillips prior to that first draft, and decided to pass on him.

"I can go right to my very first draft," Newsome said. "We brought a player in and we thought, we knew there were some behavior issues, but we felt like we had the structure in place, the people in place to be able to change that person's behavior. Well, we didn't take the player and his behavior didn't change.

"There are some inherited things that some players do that they can never get away from. And those types of issues, if they have them, then we stay away from them. You can't change them in the environment that we have in the NFL with so much press, so much exposure. It's just tough for them to do."

NOTE: The Atlanta Falcons' acquisition of Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez via a trade from the Kansas City Chiefs for a 2010 second-round draft pick has boosted the Ravens' chances of drafting Pettigrew in the first round.

Drafting 24th overall, the Falcons were one of the teams that was originally very interested in Pettigrew. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said Thursday that he is going to try to bolster his defense in the first round.

Now, the Buffalo Bills possibly trading back from 11th overall or the Philadelphia Eagles at No. 21 are the other obvious potential landing spots for Pettigrew besides Baltimore.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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