Over the course of the NFL Draft season, much is discussed about a player’s physical attributes but what is often overlooked is a player’s character. Too often a player’s character is overlooked and his career goes down the drain based on a poor decision made in the heat of the moment. This past week 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster was charged with three felonies which collectively carry more than 11 years in prison. These felonies have to do with domestic violence which is an extremely hot topic in today’s media. In a single instance what looked to be a promising NFL career turned into a tragic nightmare as well as a public relations fiasco for the 49ers. For years, NFL teams have sought out innumerable methods for weeding out the players with poor character qualities. Unfortunately, some players just can’t seem to get out of their own way and tragically waste away a great career. Despite the difficulty, there are ways that NFL teams can select the right players with the right character qualities for their organization. These ways are included in the following stages: the college football season, the NFL combine, and training camp. Let’s take a look at how teams can select and deal with the best possible players and determine character in the NFL draft.
The college football season is filled with ups and downs for every team. It is a long ordeal which often reveals the character of the player. Before Johnny Manziel was awarded the Heisman Trophy he was a virtual unknown who had a previous run-in with the law. This run-in included the possession of a fake drivers license as well as fighting. After winning the Heisman he slowly eviscerated his legacy by making poor decisions. Most were paper cuts but added up they reveal a spoiled kid who needed to grow up quickly. After being taken in the first round of the NFL draft, his life spiraled out of control and his lack of maturity showed. There was the weekend trip to Las Vegas as well as the trashing of a rented mansion. Even if he had not been selected in the first round, his life probably would have gone down a similar path. The signs were there during the college football season yet his talent was undeniable. Now he is picking up the pieces of a once promising career and is hoping to make a comeback in the NFL. He is trying to show the public that he is making better decisions and that he has matured. While he is putting in the effort, it is extremely hard for teams to look past his past starting from college and into the NFL. There is so much history of immaturity to overlook but all it takes is one team to believe in him. Manziel is a perfect example of how teams shouldn’t overlook character in the NFL draft.
This year’s crop of first-round quality quarterbacks seems to have a similar Manziel-caliber player who also has similar character flaws. This is Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and he will become either a bust or a major star. Mayfield’s main problem is that he is too competitive for his own good. He made a lewd gesture toward the opposing team in one game and was stripped of his captaincy for senior day as a result. He also planted his school’s flag in the middle of the opposing team’s field after a huge victory. Both of these incidences were met with public ire and have been a major topic in draft circles for months. He is an excellent player and even won the Heisman Trophy but these incidences could indicate a darker future. Only time will tell if he can live up to the promise he has as a player. Mayfield is the prime example of the role character plays in the NFL draft this year.
The NFL Combine is an excellent time for teams to get to know the prospects physically and mentally. During the 1998 Combine teams questioned Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf what they would do if they were selected with the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Manning gave a professional answer by stating that he would work hard and study the playbook. Leaf stated that he would go to Las Vegas and celebrate. Sure enough, when Manning got selected first overall he worked hard and studied the playbook. Leaf was selected second overall and went to Las Vegas. Manning had a phenomenal career and is headed to the Hall of Fame. Leaf was out of football following the 2001 season due to immaturity and horrible play. What was once such a simple question became a lifetime of triumph or embarrassment.
The interviews at the Combine are a great opportunity for players to clear the air on topics discussed throughout the NFL draft season. Teams ask a myriad of questions at the combine and players answer those questions in different ways. The most important players to be interviewed are those with troubled pasts and potential franchise quarterbacks. The 2018 combine saw Arden Key trying to explain his absence from his LSU team in the spring of 2017 for personal reasons. The reports were not very detailed but his response spoke volumes. He was able to explain the circumstances surrounding that period of time and he even thanked the NFL Combine for giving him the opportunity to clear the air. While some teams may still be skeptical about his personal discipline, all it takes is one team to believe in him. As long as he passes the test of character in the NFL draft process.
Training camp is the last point where a coach can unload a troubled player before the chaos of the NFL season begins. If a player remains on the roster during the season then it can greatly decrease the chances of the team winning games. One bad apple can ruin the whole batch and it is always best to get rid of that apple as quickly as possible. When the Dallas Cowboys second-string quarterback Clint Longley started a fight with Roger Staubach during training camp the team immediately traded Longley to the San Diego Chargers. If he had stayed any longer then the team could have been split apart over the infighting of the quarterbacks. But this is purely football related; no inner demons were needed to be worked out off the field.
Thomas Henderson, another Cowboy, was quite troubled during his time in the NFL. He grew so dependent on cocaine that he snuck it into the Super Bowl, even on the field. This was before the NFL knew what to do with players who had drug problems but the Cowboys suspected something was off with their star linebacker. They traded him to the 49ers who had even less knowledge about drug abuse. After a series of incidences involving lackluster performance, the 49ers released him during the regular season. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done and the 49ers looked like fools for signing him. Henderson stayed in the NFL for another couple of seasons but his life went downhill shortly after his release. He eventually spent time in prison for his drug use and has remained sober ever since. Both the Cowboys and 49ers had very little knowledge of drug abuse yet both organizations realized that something was wrong with their star linebacker. The Cowboys saved face while the 49ers were not so fortunate. They got traded him just in time and before it was too late. It might have even saved his life.
Releasing a troubled player during training camp is seen as a last resort. The earlier a team releases said player the better off the team will be. Regardless of when the player is released, both the 49ers and the Cowboys demonstrated a lack of knowledge on the subject at hand and a general sense of when to release a player. They demonstrated their ability to assess the situation at hand with a player and handled it with authority.
Evaluating character in the NFL draft process is one of the most important things a team can do. It can either make him into a legend or a tragedy While the team can help the player overcome his personal demons it is ultimately up to the player to seek help. This is why coaches have to do their homework before taking a chance on a troubled player in the NFL draft. There is no way of knowing whether the player will rise to the occasion or will become a humiliation for the team unless the coach thoroughly studies the player and how he deals with his personal demons.
This comes to mind many of the domestic violence incidences in the past few years including that of Ray Rice. When it was reported that he was being investigated for striking his then fiancé, his team decided to keep him on the roster. When a video leaked him actually hitting her, the team quickly released him. This has become the trend in today’s NFL where a player looks like he might be headed down the road of domestic violence and a team signs him anyway. The player then commits the act and the team washes its hands of him. The NFL has developed a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence which mirrors its’ efforts against drugs in the 1980’s. Back then drugs were becoming more and more popular and were making a mockery of the NFL which had very little knowledge about how to handle the situation. Similarly, teams find it incredibly difficult to assess a player during the draft process if he is at risk of becoming violent at home. At this point, there is no perfect solution for assessing this sort of situation before it happens. The best way for a team to make this assessment is to look at the player’s history and talk to him. Hopefully, in the near future, a better solution will be developed for this tragedy in society. So while teams can change their trajectory in one pick, the role of character in the NFL draft is one that cannot go overlooked.