NFL Draft: Why Character Concerns Matter When Considering Elite Prospects

Scott Bischoff@@Bischoff_ScottCorrespondent IIJune 19, 2012

24 Dec 2000:   Quarterback Ryan Leaf #16 of the San Diego Chargers passes the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. The Steelers defeated the Chargers 34-21.Mandatory Credit: Stephen Dunn  /Allsport
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Elite draft prospects that have character concerns are too much of a gamble for NFL teams, and these players aren’t being selected early in the NFL draft any longer. A draft prospect that turns into a bust is a significant problem and something that all teams look to avoid.

The cost of drafting a player with character issues has the potential to hit a team hard in multiple ways. From a financial standpoint, the investment that teams make on players that get drafted early is massive. There is guaranteed money, and large salaries that eat up salary cap space.

In the salary cap world, teams have to manage their finances almost perfectly. There can be no money wasted on a player, and it is one reason why teams generally shy away from players with off the field concerns at the top of the draft.

There is another cost. From a football perspective, the team is relying on the player that gets drafted to come in and contribute right away, or to develop into something special. When that contribution or development doesn’t happen, it can really alter what the coaching staff has tried to do through the draft.

Teams struggle for years to overcome the mistake of drafting a player that has known character concerns. Some of the kids entering the draft have done unbelievable things in college, with little means to do so. It makes you wonder what a team is thinking when they throw large amounts of money at a player with the expectation that the problems will go away.

Teams that gamble too early on this kind of player are generally rewarded with failure, a wasted pick on a player who is not going to help the team. It is a bad outcome if a player is out of the league after his rookie contract, but some teams can’t help themselves as they get suckered in by a player’s physical tools.

CLEVELAND - AUGUST 21:  Wide receiver Charles Rogers #80 of the Detroit Lions catches a touchdown pass amid the defense of Andra Davis #54, Daylon McCutcheon #33, and Earl Little #20 of the Cleveland Browns during their pre-season game on August 21, 2004
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There are many examples of teams that miss on a draft pick because of character concerns, but this is now happening later in the draft. The point at which teams are willing to take the risk is a point when the reward is greater than the risk.

For an example of a player that has fallen in a recent draft for character issues, look no further than North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Jenkins was easily a first-round talent but his off the field history caused him to slip into Round 2.

Rob Rang of cbssports.com wrote that Jenkins has had multiple arrests and was a multiple offender of the drug policy in college. He has had run-ins with the police and has fathered four children with three different women. He was also kicked off of the Florida football team.

Jenkins has done all of this without any means to do so. Does anyone think that the combination of Jenkins and money is a good thing? I can’t even to begin to think about what may happen if Jenkins is sidelined with an injury and has to spend time away from the team, with all kinds of means to find trouble.

Jenkins was too much of a risk in Round 1 of the 2012 NFL draft. The St. Louis Rams ended up drafting Jenkins with the 39th overall selection, the seventh player chosen in Round 2. This was an extra pick that the Rams picked up in their deal with the Washington Redskins.

With no character concerns, Jenkins could have come off of the board as the second cornerback selected in the draft. The Buffalo Bills selected cornerback Stephon Gilmore with the No. 10 pick in Round 1.

14 Sep 1997:  Running back Lawrence Phillips #21 of the St Louis Rams in action during a game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado.  The Broncos won the game 35-14.  Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr  /Allsport
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Gilmore was the second cornerback off of the board, and there can be an argument that Jenkins could have been the pick here with none of the baggage that he brings.

The Rams had the extra pick, and they spent it on a player with a lot of upside, and a lot of character concerns. This is the point where the Rams are playing the risk/reward game. Jenkins has a high ceiling and a very low floor as a player.

If Jenkins is out of the league in a few years, the price was a second-rounder, and that is far easier to swallow than it would be if he were to be selected early in Round 1. It will still be painful for the team, but it won’t be as disastrous as it could have been.

If Jenkins can stay clean off of the field, then the Rams have gotten a lot of value with their gamble. The Rams are going to have to stay on top of Jenkins to keep him from making bad choices, but that is the choice they have made in selecting Jenkins.

There are a large group of players that teams have taken gambles on at the top of the NFL draft. These players all had character concerns, in one form or another, but they were great talents.

Running back Lawrence Phillips was selected No. 6 overall in 1996, quarterback Ryan Leaf was selected No. 2 overall in 1998, wide receiver Charles Rogers was No. 2 overall in 2003, cornerback Pacman Jones was selected No. 6 overall in 2005 and wide receiver Mike Williams was drafted No. 10 overall in 2005.

All of these players had character concerns, and all of them were drafted far too high because of their issues. It is easy to see it in hindsight, however, there are lessons to be learned from the combination of their character concerns, and their lack of production as NFL football players.

The lesson is simple. If a player has character issues during his college career, there is a very good chance that those issues will present themselves at some point early in his NFL career. Teams must manage these players in a much different way than other players.

In the end, a team must weigh everything out before a selection is made. It just doesn’t make sense for a team to ignore the elephant in the room.


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