NFL vetting process: There are no sure things

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Posted: Sep 22, 2014 11:10 AM
NFL vetting process: There are no sure things

By the time the typical player signs an NFL contract, around 100 scouts, coaches and general managers have pored over his history.

It's an expensive, painstaking and time-consuming process that includes personality tests, conversations with high school friends, the college equipment manager and many more — and, of course, a thorough review of police records.

The teams try to turn over every leaf, and yet, there are things they miss, or simply would never think to look for. Very little in the portfolios collected on Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson foreshadowed problems with the law.

"It's an inexact science. The process is flawed on both ends," said Charley Casserly, the former Redskins and Texans general manager, who spearheaded the teams' vetting processes for nearly two decades. "It's humans picking humans. None of us are perfect on either side of the equation."

The process is much easier when the issues the players face are clear-cut, but that didn't stop Aaron Hernandez from being drafted. The former Patriots tight end had a checkered record in college and is now in prison, accused of murder in two cases. NFL teams will have copious amounts of information when they decide whether Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston, in trouble multiple times at Florida State, is worth bringing onto their roster.

"The information is usually there to make a good decision," said Ted Sundquist, former general manager of the Broncos. "There are many times when an organization will choose to listen to what they want to hear if they really like the player."

But not every troubled player in college stays that way in the pros — and, of course, there are thousands of college players whose names never make it onto a police blotter.

"You're not going to be able to catch all these things all the time," says Chris Elzey, who teaches Sport and American Culture at George Mason University. "People change. Certain things come up. As far as trying to recognize those problems beforehand, you can catch the glaring mistakes, but you can't foresee everything."

The scouting report on Peterson, now charged with child abuse, didn't raise major red flags.

When he was 7, Peterson's older brother was killed by a drunk driver. Peterson's father served eight years in prison on a drug-related conviction. A quote attributed to Peterson on biography.com says: "Resilience is what I'm all about. I run angry. Football allows me to take out some of my pain on the field."

Almost all of the scouting material on Rice before the 2008 draft centered on how hard he worked to get the most out of his 5-foot-8, 200-pound frame. He was an underdog with a bit of chip on his shoulder. But there were no red flags in the character department, and he backed that up after arriving in Baltimore, becoming the face of the franchise — generous with his time and money.

The videotape of Rice punching his then-fiancee changed everything, and the uptick of such crimes coming to light figures to make NFL teams redouble their efforts.

"The leagues and the (sports) federations better be aware that it's a different world now," said Steve Roush, the former chief of sport performance at the U.S. Olympic Committee, who has vetted hundreds of athletes and coaches. "The standards by which these people have to conduct themselves has changed drastically and so has the standard by which the organizations evaluate them."

The grassroots of the NFL vetting system is the scouts. One of their jobs is to build relationships at the universities where the most talented players play. They get to know position coaches, trainers, equipment men, professors.

"Ultimately, you want a guy who can walk up to a college coach and say, 'Hey, you've known me for 25 years. Give me the straight skinny,'" Sundquist said.

Teams put players through tests that gauge how well they learn; some of the exams are designed to give front offices a feeling for coachability, competitiveness, "some kind of psychological profile, if you will," Casserly said.

The clubs hire security firms, and if computer searches show blemishes on a player's record, the firms do follow-up work — calling police, lawyers, family, friends.

In all, a top prospect could get up to eight people judging not only how fast he runs, but what kind of citizen he is. The lowest picks usually get at least two sets of eyeballs on them.

Sundquist says that while the vast majority of NFL players "are good guys," there's no denying one truth: Most players treat the scouting combine and interviews as job auditions and try to be on their best behavior.

"Once you sign him, it's almost like it changes immediately," Sundquist said. "The focus is no longer on what kind of guy he is, it's now the opportunity and money you've invested, so I expect you to do 'X, Y and Z.' And on the other side, it suddenly becomes 'Player LLC' under the umbrella of a corporation, and the player is doing everything he can to protect the corporation."

How they'll react in the new relationship is an educated guess, at best.

"You do your job, you do it thoroughly, you make a decision and you go, and that's it," Casserly said. "You can't foresee every possible scenario. And you'll drive yourself nuts if you second-guess everything."