The NFL’s emphasis on player conduct in recent years has changed the way that scouts and coaches evaluate draft prospects.
In the past, evaluators were willing to overlook character concerns if a player’s talent rated off the charts. However, the potential loss of a starter or key contributor to a league-imposed suspension has led teams to opt for high-character players in early rounds, and sent the draft values of perceived knuckleheads tumbling despite their considerable talent.
This year, teams face a similar dilemma when assessing the risk-reward values of Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and Colorado corner Jimmy Smith. Both are widely regarded as top 15 talents, but looming concerns about their character and background issues have threatened to push them out of the first round.
When defining character in football terms, scouts and coaches break it down into two categories: Football character and moral or ethical character.
Football character is best described as a player’s work ethic, football intelligence and passion for the game. Coaches, in particular, pay close attention to those traits because they can be directly attributed to a player’s on-field success. It will also indicate how well he might fit into the culture of the locker room.
Moral or ethical character focuses on a player’s legal transgressions. Any accusations, arrests or convictions are thoroughly investigated by team personnel to see if they are indicative of a negative behavior pattern. Failed drug tests and/or alcohol-related issues are documented and researched. Hot-button issues, such as domestic violence or sexual assault, are also meticulously explored. Teams will severely downgrade or remove prospects from their respective draft boards if these issues come up during background checks conducted by league or team personnel.
When it comes to examining Mallett solely based on the tape, it is possible that he would be considered the top quarterback talent. He is a pure pocket passer with outstanding arm strength. He can make all of the throws, including executing the deep ball with touch and accuracy. Mallet also shows solid footwork and fundamentals working from under center, and is comfortable executing three-, five- and seven-step drops. He sets up with good balance and body control, routinely delivering the ball on time.
He enters the league well prepared after running Bobby Petrino’s pro-style system for two seasons at Arkansas. He has experience directing the game from the line of scrimmage and understands how to execute hot reads as well as audibles against the blitz.
When looking at flaws in his game, decision making in critical moments is often mentioned. He had key turnovers in losses to Alabama and Ohio State, leading to concerns about his poise in big games.
Still, it is important to note that he led his squad to 18 wins in two seasons as the front man of a high-powered offense. During that span, Mallett had 62 touchdowns against only 19 interceptions, and tallied 63 completions of more than 30 yards.
Given his skill set and production, Mallett should be in the conversation as the top quarterback, but teams have backed off putting him that high based on character questions. He was charged with public intoxication in 2009, and there have been rumors of possible drug use. While none of the rumors have been confirmed, the speculation left many wondering whether he was worthy of a first-round pick.
As the potential face of a franchise, Mallett’s cloud of negative publicity puts teams in a quandary. They must decide if he is capable of handling the many obligations that come with the responsibility. From serving as the leader of the team to interacting with sponsors and the media, the quarterback has to be viewed as the quintessential professional. Therefore, it is important that his background is thoroughly investigated, and everyone is comfortable with the football and moral character of a team’s anointed leader.
By all accounts, Mallett has received favorable reviews for his work in interview rooms. Although he has been described as an unpolished speaker, he has been candid about his background. His football intelligence has rated off the charts, showing he has a clear understanding about the complexities of the game. Few have concerns about his ability to learn, process and execute a pro system. If he can continue to dispel the rumors about his character, Mallett can salvage his status as a first-round pick.
Smith is equally as impressive to watch on tape. He is a rangy corner with speed, quickness and athleticism. He is smooth and fluid in his movements, showing short-area explosion when changing directions. Smith is ideally suited to play as a “press” corner, and few prospects can rival his performance over the past two seasons.
As Colorado’s shutdown corner, few opponents challenged him on a regular basis, thus he only allowed 11 completions in man coverage as a junior and senior. He routinely eliminated the opponent’s top receiver with his aggressive, suffocating style. While his technique is a little ragged at times, he rarely is out of position and his competitive nature allows him to win ugly against elite receivers. Throw in the fact that he is a fierce hitter on the edge, and there is a lot to like about Smith’s game.
Conversely, there are just as many concerns about his character. Smith was arrested twice for possession of alcohol as a minor and a positive drug test in 2007, according to the Denver Post. Although those transgressions occurred early in his collegiate career, they accompany a host of other concerns that have emerged when scouts have seriously researched his background. Smith has been perceived as a bit of a prima donna by some, others worry how he will respond to the pro lifestyle. Furthermore, they wonder if he will continue to put in the time and work to hone his craft.
With various red flags, Smith has to convince evaluators that those problems are a thing of the past. He must be forthright about his legal issues and demonstrate a tremendous work ethic when scouts and coaches come to visit for private workouts. His collegiate coaches must also vouch for his character when scouts call them for a more detailed perspective on how Smith would potentially fit into a locker room.
If Smith can address those concerns and convince teams that he has matured throughout the process, someone will gamble on his immense potential before the first round is over.
The decision to go with talent over character comes with risks, but the rewards can be sweet if the prospect lives up to his ability and learns from the mistakes of his past.