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OWINGS MILLS — The NFL draft marks the first litmus test of whether rookie commissioner Roger Goodellâ€™s stern admonition about drawing a strict line on character issues is being heard clearly.
This isnâ€™t a new concern. For years, NFL executives have either downgraded prospects because of behavior or legal problems or ignored obvious warning signs.
However, this will be the first year where an expanded conduct policy allows Goodell to hand down lengthy suspensions like the full-season one he issued to Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam â€œPacmanâ€ Jones or punish teams that employ recidivist criminals.
Goodell now has broad powers to punish teams for players’ repeated transgressions, including imposing fines or taking away draft picks.
â€œThat falls on us,â€ Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. â€œThere are some players now we may have to pass on because I donâ€™t want to put Steve Bisciotti in that position or put this organization in that position to be held accountable for a player that I knew had some issues.â€
Although high-profile Ravens have had significant legal problems, most notably linebacker Ray Lewis and running back Jamal Lewis, those situations transpired after they were already in the NFL. The Ravens have traditionally shied away from players with multiple brushes with the law at the collegiate level.
â€œWeâ€™ve always felt pressure to avoid the troubled kids, the bad-character guys,â€ Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said. â€œWeâ€™d rather not deal with those players. I think other teams may be willing to take those chances with some success. Unfortunately for them, theyâ€™ve had some problems, too.â€
Especially the Cincinnati Bengals, who have had nine players arrested in the past year with recalcitrant wide receiver Chris Henry suspended for eight games after being arrested four times in three different states. The Bengals, who donâ€™t employ nearly as many scouts as other teams, tend to take the most risks on character issues.
Jones is the poster boy for trouble with 10 incidents involving the police since 2005.
There are several potential draft picks whose behavior could significantly affect their draft stock, including: UNLV cornerback Eric Wrightâ€™s arrest for suspicion of rape and having Ecstasy tablets in his dorm room while at USC with the charges dropped; Florida defensive tackle Marcus Thomas being suspended for failing drug tests for marijuana and kicked off the team for failure to comply with reinstatement conditions; North Carolina State defensive tackle Tank Tyler arrested for assaulting a police officer and Cal running back Marshawn Lynch investigated for allegedly sexually assaulting his girlfriend with no charges filed along with his car being riddled with bullets in a drive-by shooting.
Miami safety Brandon Merriweather was suspended for stomping on a Florida International player during an ugly brawl. He shot a registered gun to defend himself during a robbery attempt. Texas cornerback Tarell Brown has a history of marijuana and weapons-related incidents. Thomas reportedly is off some teamsâ€™ draft boards.
The Ravens emphasize that a player doesnâ€™t have to have a pristine background to be considered draftable. They are willing to bank on a player learning from past mistakes or being influenced positively by the teamâ€™s structure.
â€œThere are guys that have issues who came into our league, matured and became good citizens for the league,â€ Newsome said.
Recently, the NFL had an embarrassing information leak as Pro Football Weekly revealed that Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams and Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye acknowledged to league officials that they have experimented with marijuana.
None of the players tested positive for drugs or has a history of off-field problems, so their stock isnâ€™t expected to be affected. Goodell, though, is furious and has vowed to try to catch and punish whomever leaked the information.
Prior to the draft, Newsome will meet with Bisciotti and team president Dick Cass to alert them about possible red-flag players.
â€œWe will have those discussions before the draft so that once we get on the clock, we donâ€™t have to have those discussions,â€ Newsome said.
Unlike other teams, the Ravens donâ€™t use psychological testing to screen players or subscribe to a scouting service for information. They rely on their instincts and they investigate players by quizzing everyone from equipment managers, athletic department secretaries and professors.
They utilize their own version of good cop, bad cop to try to shake players out of the programmed answers preached by their agents.
â€œOzzie and I use good cop, bad cop to try to get under somebodyâ€™s skin,â€ DeCosta said. â€œWe go on our gut instincts. Some guys just kind of rub us the wrong way. Other guys we fall in love with.
â€œWeâ€™ve made some mistakes in the past and you can buy the hype on a certain guy and be wrong, but, more often than not, I think we do a pretty good job of being right.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland