The 2014 season did not turn out as planned for Marcus Peters.
A star cornerback for the Washington Huskies, and a physical, aggressive defender who was already projected as a first-round NFL draft pick, Peters started the year with a stupid penalty and a sideline tantrum against Eastern Washington that led to a one-game suspension. He repeatedly clashed with new head coach Chris Petersen and his staff. Petersen dismissed Peters from the Washington program in early November after a midweek incident when Peters reportedly "blew up" on an assistant coach.
The 2014 season did not turn out as planned for P.J. Williams, either.
The Florida State cornerback, co-MVP with Jameis Winston of the 2013 National Championship Game, pulled a hamstring during fall practice. Instead of nursing the injury and protecting his draft stock, Williams chose to play through the pain, performing well but sometimes looking a step slow when facing the ACC's top receivers.
Just as Williams returned to full speed, a traffic accident drew him into a maelstrom of suspicions surrounding the Florida State program and alleged preferential treatment by police of Seminole players.
Peters and Williams are first-round talents for a league that craves big, physical cornerbacks. Both are out to prove to NFL teams at this week's scouting combine that they don't deserve to wear the "character risk" label.
Injuries and Accidents
P.J. Williams suffered the first significant injury of his life at the end of a one-on-one drill during fall practice last season. He tried to slow down too quickly when chasing a receiver and pulled a hamstring. "I was scared," Williams said. "That never happened before. Nothing that big."
Williams could not practice for two weeks. The season opener against Oklahoma State was looming. Florida State needed him—the team had lost five starters to the NFL and returned only two seniors on defense, so Williams had assumed a leadership role in the secondary—but taking the field at less than full speed could hurt his draft stock. Williams thought briefly about sitting out until he was fully healthy, but chose instead to play through the injury.
"For a guy that has that much hype, it was neat to see him decide that he was going to be there for his teammates," said Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelly. "He's very unselfish when it comes to that stuff."
Williams played well against Oklahoma State, breaking up a few passes. But he can be seen gimping between some plays on the game tape, and he needed some last-second heroics to catch up to receivers he would have blanketed in his sophomore season. "In that first game, I was feeling it every time I went to stem, every burst I made, I was feeling it," Williams said. "I had to be mentally strong, work through it, and help my team get a win."
Williams did not return to full speed until about Week 6. Florida State kept winning, but Kelly's defense felt the impact of so many NFL defections. With hamstring pains lingering and the Seminoles pass rush depleted, Williams appeared to take a step back from his 2013 performance. In fact, Kelly relied on Williams more and more to handle difficult one-one-one coverage assignments.
Just as the hamstring was feeling better and the Florida State defense began clicking, Williams was involved in a late-night car accident near campus after a game in early October. Williams and some passengers (include fellow cornerback Ronald Darby, who also entered this year's draft) briefly left the scene. Police initially classified the incident as a hit-and-run, but lowered the charges to reckless driving and driving with a suspended license.
Florida State, its campus police and the local authorities were under intense scrutiny at that time in the wake of the Jameis Winston rape allegations: law enforcement officials appeared to be covering for college athletes. Williams' accident received much more national scrutiny than your typical late-night car crash, and the tenuous connection Winston created the whiff of something sinister.
While there were few media questions about Williams' background at Saturday's press conference, Williams expects NFL coaches and executives to ask about the accident. "It wasn't a hit-and-run like everyone was saying it was," Williams said last week. "We had a wreck, and I walked back to my house. We were right around the corner from my house. And we came right back." Williams' version of events corresponds to police reports: Williams returned to the scene within minutes after the crash and identified himself as the driver.
Florida State Director of Player Development Mario Edwards arrived at the scene and spoke to the police soon after the incident; he was one of the people Williams called soon after the accident. "In my opinion, he couldn't have handled that situation any better," Williams said. "To me, that showed maturity: He was willing to tell the truth about what happened."
"I said, 'Let this be a lesson to you,'" Edwards added. "The lesson being: Accidents happen all the time. But you have to be an adult. You have to be mature about the situation at all times like you were tonight. Answer the questions that they ask you, answer every question truthfully like you did, and at the end of the day, you get to go home."
Edwards, a former NFL cornerback, has been impressed by Williams' maturity and character since he had the chance to coach the defender in a high school All-Star game. "He stood out because he was very coachable," Edwards said. "Some guys, when they come in highly recruited, they think they know it all already. When you try to coach them, they hear you, but they aren't really listening, because they've been good since middle school."
Williams played through multiple coach and coordinator changes at Florida State. Kelly came to rely on him as not just an on-the-island cornerback but an extra pair of eyes on the field. "When a defender comes to the sideline, you have to be able to ask your guys: 'What's he doing? Where's he lined up?' You have to get the information back from those guys and be able to trust what they're telling you," Kelly said.
"PJ can tell you that. On the flip side, you can give him an adjustment and he'll say, 'Yes sir, I got it.'"
No one questions Williams' physicality as a bump-and-run cornerback. Louisville's DeVante Parker called Williams the toughest cornerback he faced in college, while Miami's Phillip Dorsett singled Williams out for his aggressive style. Kelly did not hold back in his praise of Williams. "He's one of the best I have ever coached," said the 20-year college coaching veteran.
It all comes down to an injury that would have sidelined a less determined player, and a character issue that coaches do not believe to be a real issue. "He's a guy who, if I ask him something, I can stand on what he's telling me because he's never lied to me before," Edwards said.
"If there ever was a situation that I needed to get to the bottom of, he's always been straightforward with me."
Avalanche Ready to Happen
Talk to any NFL scout about Marcus Peters' ability, and you will hear the consensus opinion: He's fast, smooth, tough and instinctive, with the technique and understanding of the game to grow into a top starter.
Talk to two NFL scouts about Marcus Peters' attitude, however, and you will get at least three opinions. One expert I spoke to brushed off Peters' dismissal from Washington as an autocratic coach and his staff at loggerheads with a fiery, temperamental young man. Another expert was adamant that Peters is an attitude case who will be out of the NFL in a hurry. One scout invoked the specter of Justin Gilbert, the Browns' top draft pick last year whose attitude and work habits kept him off the field.
Everyone acknowledges that a lot of bad things happened at Washington last year, Peters included. But if Peters is an irredeemable headcase (or Petersen an unreasonable dictator), both have a funny way of showing it. Petersen will allow Peters to participate in Washington's pro day next month, an unusual move for a player kicked out of a program just three months ago.
"I went up there a couple of weeks ago and had a real good conversation with Coach Petersen," Peters said on Saturday. "We sat down and we talked about everything that happened. I sincerely apologized to him again for what I put him and the team through."
Peters has spent several weeks accepting responsibility for the immature outbursts that ended his college career. "It was an avalanche ready to happen, man," Peters told USA Today's Tom Pelissero last week. "It was going to collapse sooner or later."
At the scouting combine on Saturday, Peters acknowledged teams will grill him about the events that led to his dismissal. "Everybody wants to know the character," Peters said. "Am I a hothead? Which is false. I made immature decisions. I lived with them, I learned from them, and I continue to grow as a man."
After a stellar 2013 campaign, Peters' life suddenly changed. Coach Steve Sarkisian left the Huskies; the stricter Petersen took his place. Peters got his girlfriend pregnant. His role in the defense changed. He suddenly became a well-known national name who attracted extra media attention. By his own admission, Peters did not handle the new pressures well.
Peters headbutted a receiver and threw a sideline tantrum against Eastern Washington, resisting a coach's effort to calm him down. He began showing up late for meetings. Petersen, who dismissed several Washington players last year, offered Peters several second chances. After a missed practice and a heated confrontation with assistant coaches in early November, Peters reached the end of Petersen's leash.
The conflict between Peters and his coaches, while severe, became overdramatized. Peters was rumored to have tried to choke an assistant, an allegation all sides vehemently deny.
Peters would not elaborate on the exact nature of his disagreements with Petersen's staff. "Miscommunications, mostly on my behalf," he called them. "I didn't take the coaching transition too well."
After the dismissal, Peters spoke to his father, a high school football coach who advised him to "own up" to his errors. He spoke to the players at his former high school about his mistakes. When Washington teammates had questions about their on-field assignments, Peters tweeted them advice. "I prided myself to be able to know all the assignments in the secondary. They just wanted to get some insights," Peters said of the unusual interaction between a dismissed player and his former teammates.
"When someone needs help, I'm always there to help."
Peters' girlfriend also gave birth to a son named Carson. Peters said that fatherhood has had as much an impact on his new attitude as the dismissal. "What really has humbled me was having a child," he said. "Now I have to provide for somebody other than myself. I will have someone who is looking up to me. I have to be 100 percent true."
Peters had no personality conflicts in high school or under Sarkisian. Prospects with character questions often read from the I've learned from my mistakes script at the combine. Peters sounds sincere, and the actions that brought him back to Washington for pro day appear to back up his words.
There's a tendency to drape "character issues" over every prospect with a blemish on his record like a blanket. Not all character issues are created equal. Some aren't even character issues. They are simple mistakes, momentary lapses or growing pains. For Peters and Williams, the "issues" appear to be more smoke than fire, and the lessons they learned from their mistakes are genuine.
Last season did not turn out as planned for either of them. Both have the opportunity to make next season much better.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.