NFL Teams Make Prospects' Draft Stocks Plummet by Probing for Character Flaws

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistMay 2, 2014

Bleacher Report

With the alleged criminal activity of players such as Aaron Hernandez looming over the draft, NFL teams are increasingly looking for information they can't get from game tape or stopwatches. More than ever, character and behavior are shaping draft boards all across the league.

"Some of what we come across is alarming, so yes, our efforts have intensified," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said.

For instance, many teams employ entry-level scouts who are responsible for monitoring every prospect's social media activity.

"We have every tweet they have ever made," said one front-office executive who requested anonymity for competitive reasons. "When we interview them, we'll ask them about their tweets. Some of them tweet about drugs, about 'bitches.' 

"It's unbelievable."

Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla did himself no favors when he went on a Twitter rant, indicating he thought the Sandy Hook shootings may have been a government conspiracy. He later apologized.

Finding the missteps is one thing. Interpreting them is another. 

"You have to be careful because every kid says something on social media or has a picture they wish they didn't have out there," Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "You have to decide if it's part of his character or just a kid making a mistake. You have to keep in mind they are 18- or 19-year-olds who sometimes are a little immature. You want to project if they will grow up and mature into the type of men you want on your team."

Lyerla has more than offensive tweets working against him. He quit his football team on Oct. 6 for what he said were "personal reasons.'' He later was arrested for cocaine possession when police say they witnessed him using the drug. He then ran from police. Lyerla also had his driver's license suspended last October after being ticketed four times in two years.

Three scouts who are not allowed to comment publicly on prospects by the teams that employ them said if they were judging Lyerla strictly on ability, they would put a second-round grade on him. But it is highly unlikely he will be drafted that high, if he is drafted at all. All three said he is off their teams' boards. 

Teams have different ways of designating a player who is deemed to be a character risk. Some will put a red dot next to his name. Others will use a black dot. 

The Steelers grade players' character with numbers. One is the best. Four is off the board. If a player rates a two or a three, the team still will consider him but at a later point in the draft than they would if his background were clean.

"We eliminate the high-risk individual," Steelers president Art Rooney said. "There are guys we wouldn't take a chance on. With others, we put a risk-factor grade on. We wouldn't take them as high as football evaluation might dictate."

Hernandez is an example of a player who was devalued by some teams in this manner. A number of front-office executives, who were cognizant of the crowd he ran with and his admission that he failed one drug test while a player at the University of Florida, said they had him off their board entirely.

There really weren't any secrets about him.

Hernandez, who is being held on murder and weapons charges, had the football ability to be considered a second-round pick. No team could justify selecting him that high, but the Patriots thought he was worth taking a chance on in the fourth round.

Psychological testing helped some teams get a feel for Hernandez. The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Clegg reported a company called Human Resource Tactics that represented 18 NFL teams gave Hernandez a predraft psychological test in which he had the lowest possible score—a one out of 10—in a category called "social maturity."

Steelers president Art Rooney.
Steelers president Art Rooney.Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

"The biggest change is we are using more information that we gather from psychological testing," Rooney said. "It's valuable information."

The Steelers use psychologist Kevin Wildenhaus to help test players and interpret results. He attends the combine with team executives and the medical staff.

The Seahawks ask their psychological consultant, Mike Gervais, to evaluate players they are most interested in as well as guys who could be considered character risks.

In addition to helping the team understand the prospect, the psychologists can also provide postdraft direction that can help players cope in a new environment.

"Having those players spend more time with the team psychologist (before the draft) is incredibly important," Schneider said. "When alarms go off, you have to work with the team psychologist and try to find out what their mental makeup is. You want to determine if you can help the player or if he will be a detriment to the team."

Almost every organization is willing to roll the dice at some point. It's just a matter of where each line is drawn.

"Sometimes we've picked guys with eyes wide-open," Jones said. "It's a matter of risk versus reward. You take some chances.''

Most teams have little tolerance for what they determine to be substance abuse, addiction or antisocial issues. But how those areas are defined can be subjective. 

Bruce Irvin pursuing Saints running back Khiry Robinson.
Bruce Irvin pursuing Saints running back Khiry Robinson.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Some clubs would not have drafted linebacker Bruce Irvin under any circumstance. When he was a homeless teen, he broke into a drug dealer's home and stole money. But the Seahawks felt differently and chose him with the 15th pick in the 2012 draft.

But before they did, they did an extraordinary amount of research.

The research had actually started years before, when Pete Carroll looked into Irvin when Carroll was head coach at USC and Irvin was at Mt. San Antonio College. So the coach had a comfort level with Irvin when he was preparing for the 2012 draft as head coach of the Seahawks. And then the team interviewed as many as 25 people about him.

"We had a very good bead on his life and his career from junior college on," Schneider said. "We felt we knew the individual."

Teams use some interesting methods to get to know the individuals.

One general manager who did not want to be identified for competitive reasons said his team has made increasing use of sophisticated Internet search engines. 

A subscription to a single search engine can cost $30,000 or more. The general manager estimated his team easily is spending 20 percent more on search engines than it did a couple of years ago. 

His team researches about 600 prospects per year, going back to when players were in ninth grade. They are looking for information about the players' lives, athletic careers, off-field incidents and injuries.

The team leveraged search engines in researching Minnesota defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman, whose traumatic childhood required more background work than most prospects. They were able to turn up a story on a school website that helped to identify people in his history who would be helpful to interview.

Researching a prospect can start literally as soon as he makes his first play in college. There is a benefit to being ahead of the information-gathering curve.

"The closer you get to the draft, the less open people are about the individual because they don't want to do anything to hurt them," the GM said. "You get more honest and complete responses if you get to people early."

The general manager said his scouts often visit a player's hometown and talk to family members, coaches and others who knew him in high school. 

Other common interview targets are college head coaches, coordinators, position coaches, strength coaches, trainers, academic counselors and professors.

"Having resources at the school is important," said one AFC front-office executive who did not want his name revealed for competitive reasons. "Veteran scouts can go to a school and get information from people they've known for a long time. I spend a lot of time talking to secretaries who have been through multiple coaching staffs and are safe in their jobs. I'll sit with them at their desk and bring them a coffee or bagel.

"Equipment guys are good to talk to. Players might con coaches or trainers, but they act normal around equipment guys. Those guys get treated poorly by a lot of players, and they know their true personality."

Many teams also have a security director who is involved in information gathering. Usually, the security director is a former policeman, detective or FBI agent. Some teams hire outside private investigators to help with specific cases, either to uncover records or to tail prospects. An NFC team president said his team typically hires a private investigator for between two and five prospects each year.

The NFL also does a standard security check on anyone who is identified as a key player in the draft and provides a report on any player with a criminal record.

Interviews with the prospects can also be revealing. The AFC front-office executive said he asks every player if he has any off-field issues the team should know about. He said 95 percent of them freely admit anything they have been involved in, and sometimes they speak of issues the team had no knowledge of.

A player's body can tell a story that he might try to hide. At the combine, prospects are photographed wearing nothing but shorts. When teams study the photos, they are looking at more than body composition. "You can tell about potential gang affiliations by tattoos," the AFC front-office executive said. "If necessary, you can bring in gang task-force people to look at the pictures."

Tattoos of the devil are concerning, according to one GM. Another general manager reported seeing swastika tattoos on multiple players and said he eliminated them from consideration rather than try to sell them to the team's owner.

Whereas personnel men have their own standards about character, team owners often ultimately make the decision to accept or reject questionable prospects. In addition to being concerned about whether the player can survive and thrive, the team owner also has to be comfortable with how the prospect will represent the organization, the city and the owner's name.

Rooney sits in on interviews at the combine and then has a meeting with Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert shortly before the draft in which the GM reports on every prospect the team is considering.

"We talk about players who have some kind of a risk factor that we want to make a joint decision on," Rooney said. "I participate a little more with those players than others, evaluating the risk and understanding what the factors are with the player and his background."

There are fewer character-risk players in this draft than there have been in many others. One front-office executive said his team will probably have five players off the board. Another said his team will have eight to 10.

"This is as good a group of players that I've seen in a long time," the AFC front-office executive said. "You don't have a lot of bad guys."

In addition to Lyerla, players who are meriting closer inspection include South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton, who has been disciplined for behavioral issues in high school and college, and LSU running back Jeremy Hill, who has been arrested in separate incidents for sexual assault and battery.

For all the concern about Hernandez, the process of getting smarter about evaluating potential character risks began before his arrest, NFL executives say.

For a decade or more, NFL teams progressively have increased their efforts to learn more about the character of players they are considering investing in. Now, they merely are taking more logical steps in the process.

"Aaron Hernandez was not the tipping point," the NFC team president said. "The point has been tipping for a while."

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.