[size=18px]Passing the character test[/size]

NFL teams pick apart potential draft picks' pasts

By CARTER STRICKLAND
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/23/06


For months, Odell Thurman attempted to build a foundation.

Public speaking training . . . mock interviews with former NFL general managers . . . media training. Brick by brick, the former Georgia linebacker attempted to "polish his image," said his agent John Michels.

Then another crack appeared. A week before teams were to bid millions for his services, Thurman, an oft-troubled 21-year-old, had been linked to a bar fight in Athens.

"Some teams were saying, 'Trouble just seems to follow him,'?" Michels said.

Only problem was, Thurman was never in the Athens bar that April night. But a predispostion about Thurman's character made NFL teams leery. Because of an arrest on misdemeanor alcohol and traffic charges in 2003 and a three-game suspension for violating team rules in 2004, Thurman had been labeled a risk by the NFL.

It cost him millions in salary and signing bonus bucks.

"He was probably a mid- to late first-rounder," Michels said. "It may have cost him a whole round because all along teams told us they considered him one of the best defensive players. It was only the character issues."

Those issues made Thurman the 24th defensive player drafted and the 48th pick overall. The Cincinnati Bengals linebacker finished the season in the top five in rookie of the year voting.

No more big money to big risks

Maybe that served as some sort of vindication for Thurman, but it didn't serve notice that NFL teams are about to change the philosophy of character-based selections. The league — which has had its share of image problems, from Ricky Williams to Ray Lewis — has become increasingly hesitant to take early-round draft risks on players with checkered pasts in search of checkered flag futures.

"Ten years ago in the draft, you would have seen the front page of the player's report and it would have been all about the talent, and that would have been about 90 percent of the decision," said Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay. "The back side would have had five lines and been about 10 percent character. Now it is not 50-50, but at least 60 to 40.

"Character is such a good predictor of how a player is going to play in the league as far as reaching his potential."

It has also become a solid predictor of where a player will be drafted. Because of the salary cap, and the potential for front page embarrassment, teams are rarely willing to risk large dollars and high picks on questionable players.

Some may work out, as Thurman did. Others — Lawrence Phillips, Cecil Collins, Maurice Clarett — were picked after the first two rounds and were gone faster than the XFL.

The Minnesota Vikings may have recently taught one of the biggest lessons in character study when they threw caution to the wind by selecting problem-plagued Dimitrius Underwood 29th in 1999. He walked away from the team the day after he signed his $5.3 million contract.

As the sprint toward next weekend's draft nears its conclusion, character questions abound again.

Southern Cal lineman Winston Justice and Oklahoma defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek have slipped on some draft boards due to their year-long suspensions in 2004.

Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick and Georgia Tech cornerback Reuben Houston may have slipped even further because of their troubles with the law. Houston, without the baggage, was a possible third- to fourth-rounder, ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said. Now he could be looking at not getting drafted at all.

Even Georgia's DeMario Minter, who was arrested for possession of marijuana as a freshman and has had no public transgressions since, has been labeled by national magazine draft guides as a potential character risk.

"Typically [the teams] try to bring out as many warts and questions so you can get the most bang for the buck," Michels said.

The theory is, unless the talent is extremely overwhelming, why pay for damaged goods at full price? And teams will go as far as they need to in order to make sure their product doesn't have faulty wiring.

"The typical athlete doesn't have any clue how in-depth the teams are willing to go to find out about their character," said Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. "I've heard of teams, if they had a question about something, going back and tracking down the elementary school teacher."

Players' backgrounds dug up

That's how far back the Dallas Cowboys went during the Tom Landry era in an attempt to evaluate a potential pick's character.

"You always want to try and throw them a curveball and see what their reaction is," said Gil Brandt, former vice president for player personnel with the Cowboys. "We thought that Little League baseball was something that might tell us something about the person."

They'd ask about positions played, player-coach relationships, just about anything to discover if the player had strong character.

"If a guy didn't like his Little League coach, there was no way he is going to like his position coach or his head coach," Brandt said.

The NFL also provides a service to teams in need of background checks. The checks are in accordance with labor laws, league spokesman Greg Aiello said.

To supplement that service, teams conduct their own background checks and reach out to companies such as InfoMart, a background screening company based in Marietta that declined interview requests due to the private nature of its dealings with NFL clients.

"Teams have got to figure out what makes this kid tick," NFL Players' Association spokesman Carl Francis said.

Whether that's the tick-tock of normal, everyday life or a time bomb set to go off.

Passing the character test