Greg Gabriel: The key to scouting football character in the NFL Draft

There is much more that goes into scouting than a player's on-the-field abilities

Published:
Cleveland Browns' Josh Gordon (12) before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. The Panthers won 17-13. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
Cleveland Browns' Josh Gordon (12) before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. The Panthers won 17-13. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone) — Bob Leverone

The Bears' former director of college scouting, Greg Gabriel has over 30 years of experience in NFL scouting and he'll be breaking down the top NFL prospects to watch this college season and other NFL news each week here at Pro Football Weekly. You can follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

Now that we have hit and passed the quarter pole of the NFL season, fans of teams with poor records are already looking towards the 2017 NFL Draft. These fans want their favorie to drat top talent, but talent alone isn't the sole reason a player is successful at the NFL level. He also has to have a high degree of what we call football character.

The players who are at the top of their game, year after year for a long period of time are in most cases the players who have that high degree of football character.

What is character?

When scouts go out on the road every fall to evaluate the players in their area, they are looking for three different things that go into the makeup of a top player. The first obviously is talent. A player has to have the traits to play the game at a high level. Second, he has to have personal character and when a scout looks at personal character, he is looking at how the player lives his life. Is he a good person? How does he get along and relate with people both inside and outside of football? Is he involved with community service? How important is school to him? What kind of teammate is he? What kind of personality does he have? When away from football does he always do the right thing and stay out of trouble. Is he a drug abuser? Where does he come from? What was his family life like? Does he have a support system?

A scout has to have answer for all of those questions and more as it relates to a prospects personal life.

What is football character?

The third component that goes into the evaluation process is a scout must find out about a prospect's football character. Football character is related to personal character, but they are not the same.

There are many factors that go into the makeup of a player’s football character. These factors include his love and passion for the game. Is the game important to the player, and will he do everything that is possible to make himself a better player? No matter how talented a player is, if he doesn’t love playing the game, it will eventually catch up to him. He may be successful for a short time but it won’t last.

Next, the player has to have a strong desire to be great. If he is satisfied with how good he is now and lacks the drive to become even better, he will never improve. He will reach a plateau and level off. A player’s work ethic has to be at a consistently high level.

A player who has strong football character is usually a highly competitive type of person. He hates to lose at anything and when playing in the game, he goes all out every play. You seldom if ever see him take a play off. He is usually a physical, aggressive player who wants to win every battle within the course of the game.

A player with top football character, can take and accept different types of coaching. Every coach has his own style on how to coach the game. Some are tough task masters, others are more cerebral. No matter what the style, the player accepts it and tries to improve.

Another component of football character is a player’s smarts and instincts to play the game. I’m not saying that every top player has to be a great student, what I am saying is that he has a strong desire to learn the mental part of the game. If he has limitations with learning, he will do whatever it takes to know and understand the scheme he is playing in. It is tied in closely with the player’s dedication and passion for the game.

Are football character and personnel character tied together?

This can be a hard question to answer, but in many cases yes, the two are tied together. There are many players who because football is important to them, and they never want it taken away will lead good lives and stay out of trouble.

There are players who were brought up in a difficult environment who overcome that situation because their drive to be a great player won’t let them do the wrong thing. The game and the benefits of playing the game is too important to him.

There are players who have outstanding personal character who just don’t love football and lack a desire to be great. These players usually fail early in their careers. When I was with the Bears, we drafted a player high who was a great kid and excellent student, but he really didn’t love the game of football. He played in the league for a few years but never lived up to his talent level because of that lack of desire. Like most in this category, he was labeled a “bust”.

There are other players I have been around who mainly because of their love of the game, stayed out of the trouble that was always around them.

The player who has talent but lacks a high degree of both football and personal character will never have a chance. That type of player might not make it through college let alone get to the NFL.

The Great Players

When we study players like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, J.J. Watt, Frank Gore and Matt Forte, we see a common denominator in all of them. They not only are top citizens, but they also have outstanding football character. That has led to long and successful careers for them.

We can look at a player like Josh Gordan and while is natural talent is rare, he lacks the drive to stay away from the things that will keep him out of football. If he had stronger football character, his drive to be one of the best ever would keep him away from substance abuse.

In the 2015 NFL Draft, the first player selected was Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. No one ever criticized WInston's work ethic or desire to be a great player. People did criticize some of his off-field issues. Since Winston has come into the league, he has shown maturity, and as far as we know he has been a model citizen. Why? He has shown very strong football character and that drive to become a great player, an excellent teammate and a strong leader have led him to overcome the immature issues he showed while being a student athlete at Florida State.

I for one was worried that Winston would not be strong enough to overcome his transgresions and a year and a half into his NFL career, I am glad I was worng. The league needs young quarterback talent like Winston.