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NEW YORK – NFL teams seemed to take a strong hint just a day after Ben Roethlisberger(notes) was suspended without committing a crime. If there was a theme to the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night, it was that character was put on equal if not higher footing than talent.
Nothing said that more than the Denver Broncos' selection of Tim Tebow with the 25th overall pick, but the message was evident throughout the first day. Denver completed a day straight out of Wall Street, trading down and then back up the draft board a total of four times. The Broncos ended up with two first-round picks – and what they hope is the foundation of a revamped offense – with Tebow and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who Denver nabbed with the No. 22 pick.
But the theme was established long before Tebow was selected. Start with the surprise of the day: The Jacksonville Jaguars used the No. 10 overall pick on Tyson Alualu, a guy who didn't get much love from draftniks such as Mel Kiper Jr., Mike Mayock or Todd McShay. None of them had Alualu as a first-round pick, let alone in the top 10.
Alualu got high marks from his teammates at Cal for his maturity. Married and a father of two, Alualu was considered a leader of the Polynesian players on the Cal squad, his wife driving the group to practice every day.
"Definitely a leader," former Cal teammate and newly minted Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best said. "Not very vocal, but a leader by example and guys feed off that."
Then there was running back Ryan Mathews of Fresno State, whom the San Diego Chargers gave up a small fortune to grab. The Chargers moved all the way from No. 28 to No. 12 for Mathews. San Diego gave up promising linebacker Tim Dobbins(notes), the No. 28 pick, its second-round pick and a fourth-rounder to get a guy who scored off the charts for character with many NFL teams.
"That kid is special," a member of the New England Patriots front office said before the draft.
Mathews earned great respect before he even went to college. After he verbally committed to Fresno State, several bigger programs such as USC and UCLA tried to convince him to change his mind.
"No way I was doing that," Mathews said of the overtures by the bigger programs. "Fresno State put themselves on the line for me and I was sticking with them."
Then there was the selection of Thomas over Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant. Thomas, who had a broken foot and couldn't work out at the scouting combine, went No. 22 overall. Bryant went No. 24 to the Dallas Cowboys even though an overwhelming number of NFL personnel men said Bryant was clearly a better talent, perhaps even a top-five talent.
The problem was that Bryant is also considered an extremely irresponsible young man, consistently showing up late for meetings, practices and, according to two teammates, even games.
One personnel man, who actually predicted Thomas going ahead of Bryant, said: "I told you what people thought of [Bryant]. … Maybe he'll be Randy Moss(notes), like he says he will. But he has a lot of work to do if he's going to get there. A lot."
That said, perhaps no player has more work to do than Tebow in terms of changing his football mechanics and learning to read defenses. Even so, Tebow's high character and work ethic convinced Denver coach Josh McDaniels enough that McDaniels will put the future of his franchise (not to mention his job) on the line with the big lefty from Florida.
In taking Tebow, the Broncos are getting a project player who many NFL types don't think will be ready to play for perhaps two years. From former NFL coach Jon Gruden to former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski, Tebow's name elicits an extremely measured response.
It's a combination of admiration and trepidation.
"Nobody is going to work harder to get it out of himself than Tim Tebow," Gruden said. "I just think he needs time. At least a year, maybe two."
"I agree," said Jaworski, who is a stickler for the technical side of the game. "But he has a lot of mechanical issues to work through and you just wonder what's going to happen if he gets rushed out there."
The problem is that a rush job may happen now that Tebow has gone in the first round, surprisingly ahead of Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, who fell completely out of the first round.
First of all, Tebow is now a first-round pick – and that comes with expectations. Second, Tebow isn't exactly competing with world-beaters for the job. Ahead of him are Kyle Orton(notes) as the starter and reclamation project Brady Quinn(notes). That's a scarecrow and a Jell-O mold between Tebow going from the sideline to under center (a place he never actually played in college in Florida's spread-option, shotgun offense).
Third, and most importantly, there's the pressure that's already on McDaniels, who has done much to alienate folks in the Mile High City. In less than 18 months, McDaniels has traded established players quarterback Jay Cutler(notes), wide receiver Brandon Marshall(notes) and tight end Tony Scheffler(notes).
Cutler and Marshall had character concerns and Scheffler didn't want to play there anymore, but all could perform at a high level. Before McDaniels broke them up, the trio led one of the best offensive units in the league under former coach Mike Shanahan.
If McDaniels doesn't start righting the ship soon, he may have to turn to Tebow faster than necessary just to get fans excited. While Tebow, who impressed NFL people by changing his mechanics this offseason, will do everything to make that work, sometimes work is not enough.
Work ethic, character and smarts can't always help you complete a pass.
No matter how much we all wish it would.