I spent 30 years of my adult life as a talent evaluator for NFL teams. For nine of those years I was the Director of College Scouting for the Chicago Bears. In that time, I was put in a number of situations in which I had to make a decision on players who had character questions. Do we draft them or do we remove their name from the draft board altogether?
Those were never easy decisions to make, and they were never spur-of-the-moment decisions. We, as a team, had a specific process we went through. When all the information was in, we discussed it and came to a consensus.
The Scouting Cycle
A typical yearly scouting cycle usually starts around the beginning of June. At that time, there are well over 1,000 names on each club's scouting list. During the summer, scouts view tape to get a preliminary idea of some of the prospects' talent.
When fall practice starts, scouts begin making school visits. It's during those visits that scouts will begin to obtain background information on each player.
A scout doesn't just talk to the pro liaison on a school visit. He will also talk to the team trainer, strength coach, equipment manager and the player's academic adviser. A veteran scout may also do a simple Internet search on the player to see if any pertinent information surfaces.
It's these conversations and background checks that give the scout a basic idea of what kind of character the prospect has. If said prospect has any arrests or suspensions in his past, the scout may also check with the campus police or people from his hometown to find out more about the player.
As Director of College Scouting, I would meet with the scouts for approximately a week every December. The purpose of those meetings was to have a first cut-down of that year's scouting list. No matter how many names we had to begin the cycle, I wanted to come out of these meetings with the list narrowed down to roughly 600 players. Character was often an issue that highlighted players on the preliminary lists.
If there was a player who did not have a talent grade that made him "draft worthy" in our minds, and had character questions, he was eliminated from further study during those meetings. Any player with a "draftable" grade would then require more in-depth research, regardless of character concerns.
With each scout now working with a more manageable amount of players to research, they have the ability to do a more comprehensive look into the players in question. At this point, scouts have roughly two months to dig up more information before meeting again in February. Part of that process involves scouting and interviewing players at postseason all-star games, including those players with character concerns.
I would also be involved in interviews for highly rated prospects. Myself and team scouts would spend a sizable portion of those interviews talking about any character concerns we had, the biggest reason being that we had to know if we were going to be comfortable with that player going forward.
When you do enough interviews with college prospects, it's easy to figure out who is lying and who is telling the truth. Some kids are just so full of it that it can be easy to eliminate them—they basically cut themselves. The only thing that changes from year to year is the faces. The stories and excuses are always the same.
February Meetings and Scouting Combine
Our second set of meetings occurred in February to once again cut down our scouting list. I always wanted to come out of these meeting with the list down to about 300 or 350 players. In these meetings, both talent and character played a role in cutting down the list.
It was during these meetings that we would decide who we would be interviewing at the NFL Scouting Combine. Teams can interview up to 60 players at the combine, and all 60 interviews had to be players we had a high interest in.
The combine is basically the first time teams get a chance to talk to the underclassmen in the draft, face to face. For that reason, the majority of our interviews were underclassmen, and many of those were kids who had character concerns.
The entire coaching staff is also at the combine. Coaches have an opportunity to talk with prospects, and just like at postseason all-star games, any prospect with character issues would address them during the combine interview.
When talking to a prospect about issues in his past, good scouts will already know the answers to the questions before the they are asked. If there was an arrest, the scout would probably get a copy of the arrest report and read it through. If the charge had led to a conviction, the scout again reads court documents, finding out exactly what happened.
When you finally get to talk to the player, it is how he responds to the questions that can make a difference as to whether or not you want to keep him on the draft board.
A few years ago, there was a highly touted player who had a drug arrest in his past. We had already read all the court records and knew the whole story. When we asked the player about the incident, his story was totally different from what we knew was the truth. He blamed everyone but himself. He couldn't accept responsibility for his actions.
There was another player who had been kicked off his team during his final season at college. Once again, we knew what the truth was, but the player's version was far different. He blamed the coaching staff at both his high school and his college for all his problems. He even threw his family under the bus. It was obvious that he was very bitter about what had gone on in his life.
In both these cases, we decided to remove the player from our draft board. The first player, who had second- or third-round talent, did not get drafted. The other player got drafted much later than his talent level would suggest. He is still in the league but has had—and still has—similar problems.
Of course, there are other kids I have talked to who are very sincere and truthful about their indiscretions. In most cases, they have turned their life around and have gone on to have good careers. Those players are mature enough to know what being a pro athlete can do for them and their families.
Possible Gang Involvement
In 2007, I went to an NFL front office symposium. One of the topics covered was potential gang involvement among players in the NFL. The league was worried that with a growing gang population across the country, they would have to attempt to keep those type of people out of the league. The league was worried that if a player had gang involvement, he could become a victim of extortion or violence.
At the combine, each player has a front and back picture taken. The purpose of those pictures is to see players' physiques and to determine what growth potential those players may have. With those pictures, we would have an expert look at any tattoos or markings to determine if any of them were gang-related. If there were, that led to doing more research on the player in question. Again, we would look into where he came from and who his friends were. We couldn't leave any stone unturned when it came to making a possible multimillion-dollar investment in a player.
Making Final Decisions on Prospects
After the combine is over, it's time to cut the list again, and like the other cut-downs, character comes into play.
In the weeks leading up to the draft, the NFL and NFL Security does a great job providing clubs with information about the players in the draft. Each club receives a detailed report on anything a player may have done wrong in his past. This includes traffic violations and public intoxication citations, as well as any arrests going back to high school.
After receiving this report, clubs still have plenty of time to do research on the information they received, especially if it is new. A team may go back to the player's college coaching staff and find out how hard or easy the player was to deal with. Was he the type of kid you wanted on your team or a player you wanted no part of? All these questions have to be answered.
The final decisions on these players have a huge effect on who a team drafts. What it comes down to is trust. If, after doing all the research and interviewing the player and people around him, you have a strong feeling that he can succeed without problems, you may go forward and select him in the draft. If you have doubts, you have to pass. You can never draft a player who you feel you can't trust, regardless of his talent.
The makeup of a team's locker room can have a lot to do with those final decisions. If a locker room has strong veteran leadership, especially at the player in question's position, teams may decide to take a chance. The idea is that the veteran core will help guide the player with peer-group pressure and a good example. Without that strong veteran group, things can go the wrong way. Either way, there is risk involved, and it could turn out well or come back and haunt a team.
I was involved with drafting a player who was very talented but also had questionable character. He came from a tough upbringing and many of his friends were questionable, to say the least. This player loved football and was a great worker, so we took a chance. It worked for a while, but then it backfired. As much as he loved the game, he couldn't separate himself from his past. That brought the player down and we eventually had to cut him.
When a player is drafted in earlier rounds and it turns out to be a mistake, it can hurt the whole program. I learned from that mistake. The result of the lesson was this: If there was risk involved with drafting a player, we had to pass. I would much rather have a less-talented quality person than someone who has talent but can damage the team. After all, it is a team sport, and one player's talent is not going to make that much of a difference.