A onetime point of pride for the New England Patriots has suddenly skewered the NFL franchise.
The team that has famously gotten the most out of some talented players viewed as character risks — among them receiver Randy Moss and running back Corey Dillon — has had to exercise damage control in the wake of Aaron Hernandez’s arrest on first-degree murder charges.
The former Patriots tight end, accused of one homicide and reportedly being investigated for an apparent connection to two more, was deemed too risky to draft by some teams.
New England took a chance, however, selecting the troubled University of Florida standout in the fourth round of the 2010 draft — seemingly a bargain for a player many evaluators considered a first-round talent. For three seasons, the move paid off, with Hernandez reaching the Pro Bowl in 2011 and garnering a five-year contract extension worth as much as $40 million.
Hernandez has pleaded not guilty in the slaying of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd and is being held without bail in a Massachusetts jail. Less than two hours after his arrest on June 26, Hernandez was released by the Patriots. To further distance itself from him, the franchise took the unprecedented step of a jersey exchange. Fans with used Hernandez jerseys can swap them at the team store this weekend for those of any other player on the roster.
The high-profile arrest of Hernandez and the subsequent flood of information about his troubled past has sparked a debate within the NFL: When is a risky pick too risky?
“Without question, the owners are talking to their general managers as soon as this happened, saying, ‘Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen to us,’” said former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys with some troubled players on his roster. “It’s almost the pendulum swings the other way in that there are probably going to be some players that are able to get on the straight and narrow who are going to be bypassed because people are going to be afraid of getting into a situation like this.”
Not everyone agrees. Tony Dungy, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Indianapolis Colts, believes there will be little ripple effect from the Hernandez situation and that clubs will continue to do what they have done for decades, rolling the dice on players with character issues if the price is right.
“You’re going to get enough people to overlook it,” Dungy said. “People will say, ‘I may not want to risk drafting this guy in the first round and paying him so much that if it goes haywire I’ve lost out. But at some point, it’s worth the risk.’ That’s the way it is.
“Talent is the overriding factor in the NFL. Has been for a long time.”
There were warning signs with Hernandez, who had failed drug tests and run-ins with the law in college. A scouting service that prepares confidential psychological profiles of NFL prospects determined that he enjoyed “living on the edge of acceptable behavior,” according to a document obtained by the Wall Street Journal.
The evaluation, prepared by Human Resource Tactics in North Carolina, a company used by more than half of the NFL’s 32 teams, said Hernandez scored a lowest possible 1 out of 10 in “social maturity,” although he scored a perfect 10 in “focus” and nines in “self-efficacy” and “receptivity to coaching.” The test determined Hernandez “may be prone to partying too much and doing questionable things that could be seen as a problem for him and his team.”
That evaluation was similar to one the company prepared on Maurice Clarett, the trouble-prone running back from Ohio State selected by Denver in the third round of the 2005 draft. He never played a down in the NFL and was released in training camp a month after signing a four-year contract.
“He scored high in everything but a two in social maturity,” former Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist recalled. “That was his downfall in Denver, the ability to interact. It was, ‘Maurice, what can we do to help you? What’s bugging you, man? Let’s get this chip off your shoulder. We made an investment in you.’”
Sundquist, who said Clarett is a dramatically changed man for the better after spending 31/2 years in prison on robbery and gun charges, was assigned to monitor him by former coach Mike Shanahan.
“I was the one who was counseling him all through training camp,” Sundquist said. “Mike said, ‘It’s your job to try to figure out what’s going on with him.’ It’s like [Clarett] was upset with us for drafting him.”
Sundquist, the team’s general manager from 2002 to 2008, said there’s a misconception that the NFL provides teams with thorough background checks on prospects. At least that wasn’t the case when he was in the league.
“There really is no league vetting,” he said. “You can contact the league for some things, but for the most part they’re not going to give you what people are wanting, which is a top-to-bottom full report on a guy’s character, his police blotter, all that kind of stuff. It’s up to the individual clubs most of the time to really hunt that down.”
He said typically clubs do not hire private investigators but instead rely on their area scouts, some of them young and inexperienced, to obtain background information on prospects. Often, that information comes from the player’s college, which might not be forthright.
“Some of the schools will tell you what you need,” Sundquist said. “But if you don’t have the relationship built, if it’s a young scout that goes in there, they’re going to protect their reputation and their head coach, and the fact that they recruited a knucklehead.”
At Florida, Hernandez was coached by Urban Meyer, who is close friends with Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. The presumption is that Meyer gave Hernandez the thumbs up.
Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ chief talent evaluator for three decades, is assigned by the NFL to help shepherd prospects around the scouting combine each February. For instance, he escorts them from their medical examinations to their media interviews. He doesn’t recall anything out of the ordinary about Hernandez.
“There was this undercurrent of this guy having problems at Florida, supposedly testing positive — only the people at the school know for sure — but he was not a guy that was combative at the combine,” Brandt recalled. “He wasn’t combative about going up and doing the media interviews. He didn’t stand out as a militant.”
It’s not uncommon for a college coach to endorse a questionable player to an NFL coach.
“I remember we took a guy named Ed Johnson from Penn State when I was at Indy,” Dungy said. “And [former Penn State coach] Joe Paterno said, ‘This guy had some problems. He got suspended by me a couple times. But I think he has grown and changed, and I think in your environment he’ll be good.’”
Johnson, a defensive tackle who was signed as a rookie free agent in 2007, did play well and was the Colts’ only defensive lineman to start every game that season. He was released a year later, though, after being arrested for marijuana possession.
“You go in with your eyes open, and you lay the groundwork, and you work with the person when you take him,” Dungy said. “But we had a place on our draft board in Indianapolis where we weren’t going to take guys no matter where they were on the board, either because we didn’t want that, or we just felt they would not help the environment or help our team grow.”
Sometimes, that philosophy would backfire — at least in terms of performance.
“You’d hear about these guys every Sunday,” Dungy said. “They’d be drafted in the first round, go to Pro Bowls and do great things. So sometimes your coaches would get a little frustrated. ‘Hey, we knocked this guy off the draft board, and this is what he’s doing.’ But we just felt for us, it wasn’t a risk we wanted to take.”
The Patriots have had some high-profile successes in that department. Dillon and Moss were widely considered difficult personalities, each was highly productive in New England and neither caused problems. In the 2012 draft, the Patriots used a seventh-round pick on Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, an excellent college player who had been convicted of assaulting a police officer. Dennard is now a starting corner.
Besides Hernandez, the Patriots have had other failed experiments with players considered behavior risks. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and receiver Chad Ochocinco flopped with them, as did safety Willie Andrews, a seventh-round pick who had a long list of legal problems. Other than Hernandez, none of those players came at a high cost, and it’s typically the expensive failures that draw the most criticism.
“If a player is talented enough, you’re willing to take a risk at a cheap price,” Jimmy Johnson said. “But the thing is, when you bring them in that way, you really don’t give them as many chances as you would another player. You bring him in with two strikes against him.”
To some degree, every NFL team has taken risks on questionable players. In 2012, Seattle used the 15th pick on defensive end Bruce Irvin, whose checkered past included breaking into a drug dealer’s home. He had an outstanding rookie season but is suspended for the first four games of this season for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
St. Louis drafted defensive backs Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson in 2012, both of whom had been Tasered by police in college. Jenkins was among the league’s best rookies last season.
In April, Arizona used a third-round pick on Louisiana State safety Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, who a year ago was kicked off his college team and has a history of marijuana-related issues.
“When I was with the Raiders, [late owner Al Davis] would say, ‘You can get a DUI, but you can’t have problems with the debutantes,’ which is what he’d call women,” recalled former Oakland assistant coach John Guy, later Buffalo’s pro personnel director.
“Everybody’s got their own standards, based on their own support systems. With the Raiders, Al always said, ‘Well, this guy has got some problems, but if we can get him in here....’ He’d ask [assistant coach] Willie Brown, ‘If we surround him with the right group of guys, can we help him?’”
Guy said a common shortcoming among NFL teams is a lack of follow-up on players once they’re on the roster, and well-meaning but insufficient player-development programs.
“People don’t do enough investigating once they get guys in the program,” he said. “You’ve still got to lift up rocks on this person to find out if there’s something there or not. You still have to peel back layers.
“Sometimes, when guys get into the league, you draft them and they still don’t get any better.”