Character issue comes to forefront in 2007 NFL draft

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Scouts call them measurables, such as a pro football prospect's time in the 40-yard run, his height, his weight, how high he can jump. That's the easy stuff, something a stenographer could record.

The intangibles? As elusive as Willie Parker. There are more of them, too. Scouts have their peculiar phrases for them, such as how a player moves in space, how fast is his motor, how big is his heart, whether he has quick-twitch fiber or -- former Steelers offensive line coach Kent Stephenson loved this one -- if he is country strong.

One word used to describe an intangible has dominated the talk of scouts and coaches more than ever as they evaluate college prospects who will be drafted Saturday and Sunday: Character.

While many NFL teams long took into account a prospect's character, new NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has forced them to take it even more seriously. Goodell recently suspended Tennessee Titans cornerback Pac-Man Jones for the 2007 season and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry for half of the season because of their frequent troubles with the law.

Goodell has not issued a formal policy on the matter, but he has said teams also could be fined or lose draft picks based on the criminal behavior of their players. And that has gotten the attention of everyone.

"The No. 1 thing we look at right now is character," Detroit coach Rod Marinelli said during the NFL meetings in March.

Close by, Seattle coach Mike Holmgren talked about ignoring potential problem players in the draft.

"If you have real stringent requirements, I think, in the draft, you head it off," Holmgren said. "Then you're not going to take a chance on somebody.

"Some teams already do that. And, when you look at the kids, all his records and everything, he has a problem and boom, he's off the board or he drops or whatever."

The Steelers have not one, not two, but three men who work various security details for them and the NFL in the Pittsburgh area. Much of their time after the season ends is spent on background checks of college prospects.

NFL security also works background checks on all the college prospects and issues reports to every team. Yet, Jones still was drafted in the top 10 by the Titans.

"There was one issue [at West Virginia] that everyone knew about prior to the draft," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said at the NFL meeting. "His background was very difficult. None of us have an idea what he went through, I can assure you of that. Beyond that, it is very complex. If I could give you one simple answer to why, I would. But it is a very, very complex set of circumstances."

No team has been vilified about the character issue more than the Cincinnati Bengals. Nine Bengals have been arrested since January 2006, and Henry has been charged five times since December 2005.

Yet, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said the Bengals take character into account at draft time as much as any NFL team does, and that the screening process has been in place for a long time.

"You already do that. It happens at your paper. It happens at Procter & Gamble. Nobody ever has to read about it. The process is pretty tight already."

Lewis blamed some of it on loosening standards of society as a whole.

"The family structure is not the way it used to be. When we were in high school, the coaches were in the schools, and now they come in from off campus. The discipline isn't there. There's a lot of breakdowns."

Lewis said teams cannot be so strict that they ignore all players who have had some trouble in their past.

"If you took that line, Chad Johnson would not be in the NFL [or] T.J. Houshmandzadeh."

The Steelers, for the most part, have avoided the kind of criminal behavior that has dogged some teams such as the Bengals and Minnesota Vikings.

Wide receiver Santonio Holmes had no known criminal record when the Steelers drafted him in the first round last year. Yet, before their spring drills were over, he was arrested twice, once for domestic violence in Columbus, Ohio, and another for disorderly conduct in Miami Beach. Charges eventually were dropped in both cases.

Cornerback Deshea Townsend last month was issued a summons on simple assault in a Station Square bar fight, and linebacker Joey Porter was charged with misdemeanor battery in a Las Vegas fight not long after the Steelers released him. Townsend has said he was not involved in the fight and has witnesses to back him up; his case comes up in a few weeks. Neither of the two veterans had any known prior criminal record.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin saw first-hand the residue of the wrong kind of tradition that can grip a team when he worked one season in 2006 with the Minnesota Vikings as defensive coordinator. Four Vikings were charged in the infamous 2005 Love Boat scandal, and there were lingering problems with behavior on the team.

"It's part of the culture," Tomlin said. "Things that go on outside the white lines always manifest themselves inside the white lines. That's the bottom line. We had a tough job there, and it was just beginning to scratch the surface. I know they're going to continue to move forward, but it's a lot tougher than people think."

Tomlin said the Steelers will take a tough stance in this draft on the character issue.

"Everybody says they want to win and says the right things, but are they willing to deal with things on a day-to-day basis? Are they willing to prepare like a champion?

"It's about the people you bring in."

The Post-Gazette counts down to the NFL draft Saturday-Sunday

Sunday:
What do the Steelers need? Also, we take a look at the draft as a whole and rate its top prospects.

Monday:
Character. It's in the news and it's becoming a bigger part of scouting ... because it's in the news.

Tuesday:
Day 2 of the draft is often more important than Day 1. How does a team get ready for Sunday?

Wednesday:
Local colleges figure to produce a number of early picks, including a couple of first-rounders.

Thursday:
Ed Bouchette recounts some of the historic moments in Steelers draft history.

Friday:
Mike Tomlin is a 4-3 defense man coming to a 3-4 team. So what's the big difference? Plenty.

Saturday:
Who will the Steelers take? Ed Bouchette makes his prediction. Also, he mock drafts the first round.

 

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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