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Character assessments shape NFL success

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Posted April 11, 2011 @ 7:15 p.m. ET
By Nolan Nawrocki

The ability to evaluate talent and understand how it fits into a specific scheme is critical to drafting well. What can have an even greater impact, though, in the final weeks preceding the draft — when teams set final grades on their draft boards — is character.

Knowing when to take a chance on a player with character concerns such as Florida State DL Darnell Dockett, who has become a perennial Pro Bowler, and when to stray from a character risk such as J.P. Losman, who fizzled out of the league, often define drafts. Teams increasingly have paid more careful attention to what positions require strong intangibles and at which positions they might be able to get away with character concerns.

"The DL group is such an immature, romper room," one veteran NFL executive said. "You can get away with taking more chances at the position. ... At quarterback, it's not easy to get away with. You're talking about the face of your franchise. If I had to choose between a (quarterback) with great intangibles and average talent or (a quarterback with) average intangibles and great talent, I'd take the (stronger) intangibles every time."

Defensively, the importance of intangibles stands out most at the middle linebacker and safety positions above all the others, where there is more responsibility for making calls and lining up the defense. The receiver and cornerback positions are two where over-confidence and big egos often play into success, and teams are more willing to take chances.

Following are players expected to be drafted in the first two rounds whose character stands out for being extreme and whose NFL success could hinge on the strength or weakness of their character.

Factors that were used in defining overall character include maturity, work ethic, intelligence, citizenship, coachability, responsibility, trustworthiness, accountability, leadership and overall intangibles.

(Editor's note: Players are listed in alphabetical order.)

Top character questions

North Carolina DT Marvin Austin — Interviewed very poorly at the Combine, very selfishly throwing his college under the bus and refusing to take responsibility for any of the wrongdoings that led to his dismissal from the team. Has earned a reputation in the NFL scouting community as a "finger-pointing, excuse-making con artist" who does not know what it means to lead. Set a poor example and coasted way too much on his natural talent throughout college. Set back the UNC program by accepting improper gifts and was called "the ringleader" that led to investigations affecting the eligibility of 13 players. Has clear first-round talent as one-gap penetrator in a 4-3 defense after showing well at the East-West Shrine game and at the Combine, and could fit into the back of the first round, but a number of teams have said they would not consider him until the third round, or would not want him at any price because of the way he will affect a locker room.

Auburn DT Nick Fairley — Despite possessing difference-making, top-10 talent as an inside pass rusher, Fairley is a classic one-year wonder with a spotty motor. His work ethic is questionable — and it shows in his smooth-muscled, soft body. He is not a self-starter, is known to fall asleep in meetings and has a learning disability that showed in his 12 Wonderlic score. On talent alone, he could still fit into the top 10 because of his ability to generate an inside rush and take over games. Three teams PFW consulted that have selections in the first half of the draft admitted he has been removed from consideration, but still hoped and expected he would be drafted highly.  

Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett — One GM said Mallett was the first quarterback ever to admit his drug usage to him in interviews, and his willingness to be honest about his past and acknowledge issues is viewed as a positive. Concerns about his history of use could impact his draft position, though. Although Mallett did not produce an official positive test at Arkansas, he has been arrested for public intoxication and carries a reputation as a "big party guy," per sources who have interviewed him. How much teams believe he has matured will weigh into his draft status. "I would not take him at any point," one executive not in need of a quarterback said. He still figures to be drafted in the second round.

Auburn QB Cam Newton — Make no mistake about it — when an athlete is extremely talented, capable of winning championships and advancing the careers of coaches and proliferating the profile of programs, he is going to have supporters who loyally will stand by him through thick and thin. Newton won championships, advanced careers and has his share of supporters. Some of his teammates also admittedly have been less than forthcoming in interviews because they do not want to be viewed as bad teammates. Nonetheless, Newton's immaturity remains a considerable issue that has been well-documented and includes multiple incidents of theft and academic cheating. Very concerning is his enormous ego and lack of humility that could make it extremely difficult for him to handle a leadership position at one of the most demanding leadership positions in all of sports. He still figures to be a top-10 selection, but whether he can prove to be a long-term solution 3-5 years from now is very much a doubt in the minds of many NFL decision-makers. "Only the tip of the iceberg has (been reported) about (Newton)," one NFL executive said. "He has won two national championships, won the Heisman (Trophy) and had great production in one year. He's an athlete with a strong arm. But there is so much there. ... Mark my words — the team that drafts him will have an owner who reports to himself or a GM who is planning to be retired on the beach in three years."

Colorado CB Jimmy Smith — At heart, some evaluators believe Smith is good-natured, but he has not been able to escape a troubled past that has included multiple alcohol arrests and positive drug tests. He is too much of a follower, easily distracted and inconsistency has extended on and off the field. "I gave him a first-round grade," said one veteran, high-level executive, "but I would not take him there, especially with our DB room." Although he could fit into the back of the first round, he will need a defensive backs coach who can push him hard and a veteran presence to help him survive the demands of the NFL.

Baylor NT Phil Taylor — Transferred out of Penn State after being suspended for fighting and developed a reputation as a lazy underachiever with questionable work habits who is chasing a big payday. He has tended to report to camp overweight and out of shape and questions remain about whether he has the mental toughness to play in the NFL's trenches. The need for massive big bodies could allow him to fit into the back of the first round, but evaluators maintain that he is not deserving of more than a third-round grade and will struggle living up to expectations in the NFL.

Safest character selections

Miami (Fla.) DE Allen Bailey — Best known for killing alligators with his bare hands, as Hurricane folklore will have it, Bailey is a very simple, yes-sir, no-sir, small-town, country kid with an easy-going personality and excellent work habits. Bailey is known for doing all the extras in the weight room and on the practice field. The game does not always come natural to him and he could potentially slide as low as the third round because of suspect football instincts, but as it relates to pure character, he grades among the best in this year's draft and could be selected closer to the first than third because of it.

TCU QB Andy Dalton — A very smart, hard-working, well-prepared gym rat, Dalton has been discussed as a potential late first-round pick much more so because of his intangibles, football character and gritty competitiveness than because of his average athletic and arm talent. He is known to arrive early and be the last to leave the building and takes a very professional approach to the game. Although questions still exist about his tape, he has gained as much momentum as any prospect in the draft because of what he offers intangibly.

Florida State C-OG Rodney Hudson — Has a chance to fit into the back of the second round because of his tireless work habits, stick-to-it-iveness and football temperament. Is a very detail-oriented, football junkie who seldom misses assignments or makes mistakes and garnered so much respect from teammates and coaches that he was voted the team's offensive MVP.

Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan — A relentless edge rusher, tempo-setter and elected team captain. Works very hard on the field, in the weight room and watching film. Does not grade out as a first-round talent or possess any elite traits, but he stands to be drafted in the top 20, more highly than he grades on tape, because teams feel comfortable knowing exactly what they are getting, and he is always working to improve.

Notre Dame TE Kyle Rudolph — Described as "the type of guy you want your daughter to marry." Receives extremely high marks for his mental toughness, having played through a hamstring injury in 2010 until it tore off the bone when most others would have shut it down. Showed excellent work habits rehabilitating much sooner than expected and really impressed executives with his intangibles during the interview process.

Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt — Described as having the cleanest character of any player in this year's draft. Is extremely focused, determined and dedicated to the game, to what one GM called an "almost unhealthy, obsessive" way, not that he was complaining at all. Is very smart, articulate and well-spoken and commands respect from teammates. He was so intensely driven at Wisconsin that players tended to gravitate towards him. He'll make a strong impact in the locker room, setting a positive example and holding players accountable.

For scouting reports on all of this year's top prospects, check out PFW's Draft Preview at the PFW store.

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