Teams choose to be pickier

The Baltimore Sun

NFL teams choose to be pickier with draft selections The NFL's two-day draft of college players that begins today will be the first test of rookie commissioner Roger Goodell's tougher personal conduct policy.

After a spate of off-field arrests in the past year, Goodell warned all 32 teams April 10 that they would be held accountable for players who stray beyond the line of good conduct into criminal behavior.

The draft is the arena in which the NFL restocks its rosters with the most promising - and sometimes most troubled - players from the college ranks.

College players with character issues and criminal records often find their way into the first day, if not the first round, of the draft. Among those draft-eligible players who represent the greatest risk this weekend are Florida defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, suspended for failing a drug test and then kicked off the national championship team for failure to comply with terms of his reinstatement; North Carolina State defensive tackle DeMarcus "Tank" Tyler, arrested in 2006 on a charge of assaulting a police officer; and Nevada-Las Vegas cornerback Eric Wright, arrested on suspicion of rape in 2005 while at Southern California. The charges were dropped, and Wright transferred to UNLV.

Now, the price for taking those risks will be at a premium.

Right after suspending cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones of the Tennessee Titans for the 2007 season and wide receiver Chris Henry of the Cincinnati Bengals for eight games for conduct that tarnished the NFL's image, Goodell introduced a tougher, more punitive personal conduct policy that holds NFL and club employees to a higher standard than that of the players.

He said he also has the right to punish teams for transgressions within an organization. Although unspecified, those penalties could include fines and draft picks.

Goodell's crackdown comes at a time when an estimated 50 NFL players have been arrested in a calendar year, when a star player on a Super Bowl team needed permission from a judge to travel to Miami for the game, and when one player - Jones - was involved in no fewer than 10 incidents requiring police intervention since he joined the Titans in 2005.

The Ravens, who have had to deal with the off-field issues of Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis in the past seven years, got the message. Eric DeCosta, the team's director of college scouting, said they take as many as 10 players off their draft board each year for questionable conduct.

"I know we haven't changed anything we've done," DeCosta said. "We use the same process, use the same techniques to get information. I think there's a comfort level with what we've done. I'm not sure if that comfort level exists in other organizations."

Needs vs. bad seeds

During the draft, many teams often overlook warning signs because they are beguiled by a player's size, speed or potential and/or have a great need at that position.

But the Ravens remove players each year from their draft board for character flaws they deem too risky, DeCosta said.

"We take a lot off the board, between five and 10 players," he said. "If we think a guy is a threat to the Baltimore Ravens or poses a future risk, we won't take him."

Not every team is so cautious. The Cincinnati Bengals didn't make the playoffs last season, but they led the league in player arrests with nine. Four of eight players the Bengals drafted in April 2006 were arrested by January. Goodell eventually met with Bengals owner Mike Brown to offer assistance.

Brown is notorious for scooping up suspect players who drop in the draft. Corey Dillon, Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott all were first-round talents with character issues who fell to the Bengals in the second round.

The scouting standard can be different from team to team. The New York Giants have long administered psychological tests to players in search of clues. Jerry Reese, who replaced Ernie Accorsi as general manager this year, said in a news conference that the Giants will gamble on a player whom they feel will benefit from the structure of their program.

"These are young kids," he said. "They're impressionable kids. So you can't absolutely kill a guy because he went out and had a beer after a party and got into a scuffle or something," Reese said.

The Giants had Wright in for a visit this month and reportedly are considering drafting him.

The NFL's security department conducts background checks each year and makes the information available to all teams. Between the February workouts for draft-eligible players in Indianapolis and the draft, each club has an opportunity to interview players it has interest in. Teams that subscribe also can pool their resources in the league's scouting combine.

General manager Ozzie Newsome, who calls the draft-day shots for the Ravens, prefers to go it alone and rely on the people he has hired. The Ravens do not use psychological testing.

"We trust our people," DeCosta said. "Ozzie's got tremendous instincts in talking with people, and hopefully I have developed those same type of instincts.

"We have great sources all over the country. We believe a firm handshake and a good look in the eye is more important than a doctor who's never played football ... telling us that because the [player] thinks a dog is a cat or a cat is a dog, he's not going to be a good inside linebacker."

One player who apparently helped his cause in the interview process was Miami safety Brandon Meriweather. He was suspended one game for stomping on a Florida International player during a melee last season. He is also known to have discharged a registered handgun defending himself during an attempted robbery.

Mike Mayock, lead draft analyst for NFL Network, said he projects that Meriweather will be drafted between the 17th and 27th picks of the first round.

"I think he's a real good football player," Mayock said, "and I don't sense that people think the significance of what he has done warrants taking him off their boards."

Mayock said he doesn't expect Thomas, the Florida defensive tackle, to get drafted until the second day, if at all, because of his indiscretions.

On the lookout

In the wake of Goodell's threat to punish teams and players for misbehavior, Newsome said he will be even more wary.

"There are some players now we may have to pass on because I don't want to put [owner] Steve Bisciotti in that position - or put this organization in that position - to be held accountable for a player that I knew had some issues."

Still, DeCosta said it wouldn't surprise him if one of the players with character questions surfaces high in some other team's draft.

"Nothing surprises me," he said. "I've seen bad players drafted in the first round and character guys drafted in the first round. There is incredible pressure to win.

"The pressure is very severe and teams will sometimes lower their standards and take players [they shouldn't]. It wouldn't surprise me if it happens again."

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