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Judging Character

Posted Feb 26, 2012

Talent is important, but so is the fit a player will have in the NFL

Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict (left) must convince teams his issues won't be a problem; Darnell Dockett proved he was worth the risk.

INDIANAPOLIS – Former Ravens coach Brian Billick recalled a time at the Scouting combine when he had an interview at the end of long day and night with a player who had never been in serious trouble but enough to make it an issue.

“You’re tired and I’m tired,” Billick said he told the player. “Let’s cut to the chase. Are you a thug or are you stupid? Which is it?” The player responded, “Are those my only options?” Billick liked it. “Well," he said, "you’re not stupid.”

That player ended up with a 10-year NFL career, Billick said.

Determining which guys can overcome their problems and be productive on the next level is the most difficult job NFL teams have. Is he worth the risk?

There are players here like former Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who clashed with coaches, piled up personal fouls, was out of shape this past season and got into a fight with a teammate in the locker room. But his potential keeps him attractive. The same goes for cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who has been arrested three times and was kicked out of Florida, yet is still at the combine waiting to see what team might choose him.

An NFL team doesn’t want a washout. Finding the right player is as much about his personality as his talent. It can work though. In 2004, the Cardinals took a chance on a guy who had minor scrapes with the law and emotional control on the field.

The third-round pick spent on defensive tackle Darnell Dockett turned out to be an excellent one.

“(Darnell) is a great example of a guy who has overcome some challenges early on,” Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said.

Character has multiple meanings for the Cardinals. There is football character, which measures, for instance, a player’s passion for the game and his ability to be disciplined on the field. The other side of character is about the player’s personality, how he could fit in the locker room, his coachability, and the issues off the field that could reflect poorly on the franchise.

Those issues aren’t always obvious as a red flag. Talent isn’t always easy to dismiss, either.

“We don’t penalize a player or kill a player because he made a mistake,” Texans general manager Rick Smith said. “Everyone makes mistakes. What you  don’t want is repeat offenders because that will indicate something that’s maybe a deeper issues. We won’t just take a player off of our board for character reasons if he makes a single mistake.”

Said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, “You may read some of the headlines, but we have to do our homework and determine what’s true and what’s not true.”

Teams will quiz the players. Cardinals director of player personnel Steve Keim said the team interviewed a player last year who had run his car into a building because he was texting and driving at 2 a.m. Coach Ken Whisenhunt made the player diagram the accident on the white board, like he would have done with a football play.

Burfict will be asked, multiple times, about the locker room fight he had with a teammate at ASU this past season. Teams will judge his answers, but teams also quiz as many people as they can who have spent the most time with a player – coaches, trainers – to try and get the complete picture.

“I’m not concerned about it,” Burfict said. “I just know I’m the best linebacker in this draft. I know I can get the job done.”

Teams have to be convinced first, and be convinced what is real. Players have been coached by agents to say the right things, and teams often have to try and sort through the answers.

“We had a guy in the room (this week) and he came in, he sat down – then he just went on his spiel,” Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said. “One of the coaches asked him a question. It kind of broke his concentration. It took him a second to get back into his thing.”

Keim believes the Cards’ high character quality in the locker room is what helped the team rally from its 1-6 start this past season to finish 8-8. There is wiggle room too – Whisenhunt thinks if a team already has a lot of high character players, it is easier to take a chance on talent that could be borderline otherwise. The locker room leaders could keep a player in line, which is the idea many have with Burfict going to the Ravens because he would be mentored by Ray Lewis.

“You have to be consistent in your evaluation of how you see them not only as players but as people,” Whisenhunt said. “How they will fit in in this town, how they fit in the community, as well as how well they fit with football."

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