Character counts. But how much?
That question will be on display Thursday night, when the first round of the NFL draft unfurls in prime time before a national TV audience.
Several of the top college prospects are considered character risks, beginning with the player expected to be chosen first overall by Tampa Bay, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. He will not attend the draft, choosing instead to watch it with his family and friends.
But Missouri defensive end Shane Ray will be in attendance when the event kicks off at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, the first time it has been held outside of New York since the 1964 draft in Chicago.
Ray, among the top pass rushers in this class, was pulled over by Missouri Highway Patrol on Monday and cited for marijuana possession. He lamented his poor decision to reporters Wednesday at a “Play 60" event with local Chicago youth.
“What happened Monday was a terrible decision that I made,” Ray said. “I’m definitely very sorry for the position I put myself in and everybody else. What needs to be understood is everybody makes mistakes. I made a mistake, and it just so happens it’s right before the draft. One of the most important days of my life.”
Louisiana State offensive lineman La’el Collins attended the same event, although he didn’t stick around afterward to speak with the media. He had to head back to Baton Rouge, where authorities want to talk to him about last week’s unsolved slaying of his ex-girlfriend, whose body was found with several bullet wounds. She was pregnant, and the infant survived.
Police have not named Collins as a suspect, but they want to know if he has information that would be helpful to them. Several NFL evaluators said the uncertainty of the Collins situation could cause him to drop out of the first round.
With the league coming off its most turbulent year — when the off-the-field transgressions of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson dominated the headlines — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell emphasized the importance of good behavior to the prospects invited to the draft.
“We met with the players as a group, as we always do at the draft,” Goodell said. “We talked to them about the next few days, obviously, but more importantly the days after that. What it’s like to be a professional, what it’s like to be in the NFL. They have a responsibility, the resources we have to support them, and to tell them that we want them to be successful on the field but we also want them to be successful off the field.”
Winston, a Heisman Trophy winner, was accused (though never charged) of sexual assault, cited for allegedly shoplifting crab legs and suspended for standing on a table in his school’s student union and screaming obscenities directed at women.
This could be the sixth draft in the modern era in which the top two players selected are quarterbacks. There’s a strong possibility that Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, also a Heisman winner, will be chosen No. 2 by Tennessee, or by another team that might trade into position to get him.
Whereas there are red flags surrounding Winston, Mariota has a solid reputation and his character is considered among his top selling points.
However, the Buccaneers have thoroughly investigated Winston and say they are comfortable with the idea of drafting him.
Quarterbacks went 1-2 in the draft 17 years ago when Indianapolis picked Peyton Manning, followed by San Diego picking Ryan Leaf. Manning is a future Hall of Fame player; Leaf was among the biggest busts in league history.
Former NFL executive Bill Polian, general manager of the Colts when they chose Manning, said there was “a wide gap” between those two prospects, both as players and as people. He believes the Winston-Mariota decision is a far more difficult one.
“I’m not privy to the psychological reports, nor am I privy to the individual character-slash-security reports that every team in the league has — and that’s a big part of the equation — and I don’t have the appropriate information to make an informed judgment,” said Polian, now an ESPN analyst.
“That said, it strikes me studying tape, talking to people at Florida State and Oregon, talking to people around the league who know the two young men involved, talking to Jameis, that this is a lot closer. It’s a lot closer on the playing field, and it’s probably a lot closer in terms of who they are as people.”
Like Winston, Mariota is not among the more than two dozen top prospects attending the draft. He, too, will be watching with family.
One of the elite prospects who will be in attendance is USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams, widely expected to be a top-five selection. He captured the anticipated emotion of the event, saying he’ll struggle not to cry when he hears his name read.
“It’s going to be hard when I look at my mom,” he said. “She’s already emotional. When I first saw her out here, she started crying. It’s going to be hard to hold back when all my family’s there, and it’s one of the biggest times of my life.”