The Way We Hear It: High-character guys

Just as undervaluing players’ character can cost a team millions of dollars and flush extreme talent down the toilet, overdrafting players with high character and inferior talent can also cause teams to miss. Look no further than high picks such as Robert Gallery, Kelly Jennings and Kamerion Wimbley, who have struggled to live up to expectations despite possessing outstanding character. Others who were graded as free-agent talents by some evaluators, yet drafted in the first three rounds, such as Dan Bazuin and Quinn Pitcock, are out of the league already after only a few years, in part because their character was overvalued relative to their actual talent.

Photo Mankins has developed into a Pro Bowler with the Patriots.
(Rich Kane/US Presswire)

Savvy-drafting decision makers do not bump up the grades of inferior talent because of exceptional character. However, they are more likely to roll the dice early on players they figure will be very safe, 10-year starters, such as New England Patriots OG Logan Mankins and Indianapolis Colts WR Anthony Gonzalez, because they know exactly what they are getting and can trust that the players’ talent will be maximized.

“It’s very difficult to be competitive in the National Football League if you miss on your first- and second-rounders,” said one very analytical NFL executive with a rich history of properly identifying elite talent. “And there are far more misses because teams misidentify character than talent. Everyone likes to hit a home run, but you’re more likely to win hitting doubles than striking out.”

“Look at Reggie Wayne,” another executive said. “He was drafted with expectations that he would be a good No. 2 receiver, and it took him three years before he figured it out. But he was not expected to outplay Marvin Harrison and become a No. 1.”

Even though Gallery has not become the Pro Bowler the Raiders expected when they drafted him second overall, he has been a very solid starter at guard, which is much more than the Detroit Lions ever reaped out of Charles Rogers, drafted in the same slot the year before, because his character was so poor.

In a violent game where NFL evaluators say every team can use a couple of anti-Boy Scouts in the locker room to provide an edge, teams are not always seeking “pristine or angelic character,” and some players fail to live up to expectations because they are too nice and cannot flip the switch and change their on-field temperament. Generally speaking, teams expressed the most concern about a repeated history of mistakes (positive drug tests or DUIs) and domestic violence, for which some teams carry a zero-strike policy.

“We forget, these kids are 17, 18, 20 years old,” one executive said. “We browbeat these kids endlessly and, at the end of the day, forget that we were once the same age and made a lot of the same mistakes.”

PFW polled five NFL executives to determine which players had the best character in this year’s draft class among those expected to be selected in the first three or four rounds. All participants were granted anonymity in exchange for honesty.

It should be noted that Kansas State QB Josh Freeman was mentioned readily by three of the club officials polled and all three elite quarterbacks (Georgia’s Matthew Stafford, USC’s Mark Sanchez and Freeman) in this year’s draft were mentioned at one point in the overall conversation. However, one official suggested quarterbacks are expected to be more programmed than any other in the draft by virtue of the position they play and argued that none should be considered in the top five of this survey. For this exercise, they were not included.

A number of offensive linemen – another position where good character is the rule, not the exception – were also mentioned.

Factors that were used in defining overall character include maturity, work ethic, intelligence, citizenship, coachability, responsibility, trustworthiness, accountability, leadership and overall intangibles. It should also be noted that almost all of those mentioned prominently were seniors, with the exception of Florida State DE Everette Brown, who is a fourth-year junior, RB Donald Brown from Connecticut and Freeman, who one executive said appeared extremely well-prepared for the interview process to the point of being “rehearsed.”

Photo Malcolm Jenkins
(John David Mercer/US Presswire)

1. CB-FS Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State
At a position known for producing many prima donnas craving attention, Jenkins stands out for his maturity and humble attitude. Evaluators call him one of the cleanest elite cornerbacks to come out of the draft in the last decade and praise his smarts, intangibles and emotional leadership ability. They point to Jenkins having rallied the Buckeyes when they would fall behind and having provided the spark needed in the huddle, which his why some teams believe his makeup is most ideally suited for the safety position. He straddles the line of appearing arrogant on the field, but evaluators say he is far from it and have been impressed with his confidence, overall character and the way he has carried himself in team interviews. He was described as the type of person who will contend for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award and PFW’s Arthur Arkush Humanitarian Award in due time.

2. DE Everette Brown, Florida State (Jr.)
Questions still remain among the NFL scouting community about whether Brown is an elite talent. Some believe he is too stiff to be projected to play rush linebacker and could not be more than an open-side end in the NFL, where his stock could be adversely affected because many fronts do not feature the position. However, much like Wimbley, no one is questioning his character, as Brown receives high marks for his work ethic, maturity and citizenship. His intelligence and approach in the classroom were given such high marks that he is viewed as being more intelligent than football-smart. Brown goes the extra mile to make a difference and can be expected to be a pillar of the community for the team that drafts him. Hailing from an unruly program known for its share of run-ins with the law, Brown stands out for his exceptionally strong character, warranting several votes for having the most rare character in this draft class.

3. DE-OLB Brian Orakpo, Texas
Comparisons to current Jets OLB Vernon Gholston have increased in league circles as Orakpo’s finishing ability and every-down effort, especially in backside pursuit, have warranted closer scrutiny. Yet, Orakpo is more intelligent, intrinsically motivated and has more passion for football than Gholston. Having put on roughly 50 pounds since entering the program through sheer weight-room determination and a superior work ethic, he in many ways defies the typical, laid-back demeanor that has come to be associated with Texas talent, and he consistently showed up in some of the Longhorns’ biggest games. The explosive edge rusher brings emotion to the field and has represented Texas very well off it. Several executives were torn between voting for Orakpo or Curry, both of whom were described as “self-made,” but when pressed to give a nod to one of them after reviewing character grades in their scouting databases, they sided with Orakpo.

4. MLB James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
Some evaluators have been quick to stamp the “overachiever” label on the Buckeyes middle linebacker, not regarding him as an elite athlete deserving of a high pick. However, most decision makers still feel comfortable with the thought of selecting him in the back half of the first round because he is such a “safe” pick. Notwithstanding an overbearing father who was cited by two teams, Laurinaitis has the work habits, maturity, football intelligence and leadership ability of a seasoned pro.

5. OLT Eugene Monroe, Virginia
Monroe borders on being almost too nice and too passive, which, unfortunately for him, shows up on tape. That said, the biggest criticism that evaluators have heaped upon Monroe is some doubt about whether he is mentally tough enough to play through injuries. Coming from a family with 16 kids, Monroe has been credited for blending into a locker room and being a strong team player. He has represented the Cavaliers very well, not finding any trouble off the field. For an elite talent projected to be a top-five pick, some evaluators have expressed reservations as to why he was not voted a team captain. Others are not the least bit concerned and say he will do everything he is told.

Others strongly mentioned:
WR Brian Robiskie, Ohio State
RB Donald Brown, Connecticut (Jr.)
OLB Brian Cushing, USC
OG Andy Levitre, Oregon State
OLB Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
DE-OLB Clay Matthews, USC
OT Jason Smith, Baylor
DE Tyson Jackson, LSU
QB Josh Freeman, Kansas State (Jr.)
TE Chase Coffman, Missouri

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