Playing the comparison game when it comes to NFL draft prospects is always a bit too easy -- dubbing Gerald McCoy the next Warren Sapp -- but there is one unmistakable echo of the past that keeps reverberating in my head when I peruse 2010's first-round storylines.
Playing the role of Randy Moss in this year's proceedings will be Dez Bryant. The comparison appears to be fairly apt. Like Moss in 1998, Bryant, the gifted but enigmatic Oklahoma State receiver, enters the draft as the clear-cut, top-rated prospect at his position and a top-10 talent. But there's more to the story than that, and by now we all know it. Bryant has the dreaded "character concerns'' attached to his name, and it could precipitate a draft-night tumble into the middle of the first round, well past where his play-making skills alone would project him.
Twelve years ago this month, character issues weighed down Moss in the draft, which is how the future Hall of Fame receiver lasted until the 21st pick, when the Minnesota Vikings stepped up and stopped his free fall. Nineteen other teams opted for 20 other players besides Moss that day, and while there appeared to be some good reasons for doing so at the time, history has not been kind to their decision. (You remember Tennessee's Kevin Dyson, don't you? He was the first receiver taken that year, at No. 16, five slots ahead of Moss.)
Yes, Moss has spent time with three NFL franchises in his dozen professional seasons, and his career has had its rocky and mercurial moments (mostly involving meter maids and questions of motivation). But there are plenty of teams that rue their lack of foresight in terms of his impact potential in 1998, and most fully realized their mistake before the midpoint of his breath-taking rookie season.
The fascinating question is whether there will be a host of clubs doomed to repeat the exercise this year in the case of Bryant. The OSU junior himself all but predicted there would be late last month after his pro day.
"Whoever passes up on me, it's over with,'' said Bryant, suspended by Oklahoma State for most of last season in the wake of being caught lying to an NCAA investigator about his interaction with former NFL player Deion Sanders in the summer of 2009. "I feel like I'm going through the same situation Randy Moss did. That man had issues and teams were passing up on him, and when he got on that field, he killed them. He murdered them. Look at him today. One of the best players in the NFL.''
Playing with a chip on one's shoulder pads isn't exactly a novel approach of course, but which potential opponent really wants to invite another Moss-like player on a mission? After the draft, Moss vowed that teams "will regret it once they see what kind of player I am and what kind of guy I really am,'' and in particular he took out vengeance on the Cowboys, his childhood team, who chose No. 8 in 1998 and passed on him after telling him they would select him.
As a beat writer covering the Vikings for the Minneapolis Star Tribune at the time, I had a pretty good vantage point to see how Moss's draft experience played out in 1998, and its aftermath. Despite already having a pair of star receivers in Cris Carter and Jake Reed and no apparent need for Moss, the Vikings and then-head coach Dennis Green weren't afraid of his damaged reputation, and picking the Marshall University star helped set the stage for Minnesota's record-breaking 15-1, to-the-cusp-of-the-Super Bowl season that year.
I called Green this week to see if he expects any of Moss's saga to repeat itself in Bryant's fate this year. Will April 22 be a Groundhog Day of sorts in the NFL?
"The bottom line when you're drafting someone, what it always comes down to is a player's desire to play the game,'' said Green, the former Vikings and Cardinals head coach who is now leading the UFL's Sacramento franchise. "I felt that year that Randy really wanted to play and wanted to prove he's the best, and I get the same impression from Dez.
"I know there are a lot of rules and a lot of regulations, but I don't think it was ever real clear what happened with [Dez] and Deion anyway. I think he just wants to put that behind him, and go out and show he can play in the NFL. He's clearly establishing, 'Hey, I'm going to be a pro and play in the National Football League.' So I think the team that takes him is going to benefit from that, simply because of his love of the game and the intensity that he plays the game with.''
But who will be the team that takes Bryant and overlooks a track record that has included patterns of immaturity and irresponsibility, with reports surfacing that Bryant was consistently late for classes, team meetings and even games at Oklahoma State (an allegation he denies)? And how much will his lying to an NCAA investigator, and subsequent 10-game suspension, hurt his stock in the eyes of NFL decision-makers who are more wary of character-issue draftees than ever before?
Some league sources I talked to see Bryant as entering the NFL with some undeniable maturity issues, but they also caution that his background be kept in perspective, given there are no instances of arrest, violence or drug use. That's where the comparison with Moss actually breaks down, because the current New England Patriots receiver pled guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge after a high school fight, which cost him his shot at a Notre Dame scholarship after he had already signed a letter of intent. Later, as a freshman at Florida State, Moss was dismissed from the school after testing positive for marijuana, only then transferring to the much lower-profile program at Marshall.
"I look for a background of violence and drugs. I look for breaking the law, and Dez doesn't have those things,'' said former Vikings receiver Cris Carter, who was Moss's teammate in Minnesota and one player Green consulted before drafting Moss. "To me, that makes the situation different from Randy Moss in that way. You have to remember when Randy came into the league, he had the Notre Dame stuff, the Florida State stuff, and that's a lot right there. He came into the league with all of that. Dez doesn't have anything like that to deal with.
"People are going to be apprehensive, but if you have a system in place, you can deal with a player who has those questions in his background. It's still about structure. If the kid is immature, but there's structure around him, you can handle it. If he's immature and got marginal structure around him, the kid will slide. If he's in good structure, he'll succeed.''
Teams toward the top of the draft that clearly could use Bryant's game-breaking talents as a receiver and a punt returner include No. 7 Cleveland, No. 9 Buffalo, No. 10 Jacksonville, No. 11 Denver and No. 12 Miami. Of those, the Broncos and Dolphins seem the most interested in Bryant, although Denver's experience with controversial receiver Brandon Marshall and the Dolphins' organizational preference for drama-free players might preclude them from pulling the trigger.
Ironically, in my most recent NFL mock draft, I have Bryant going 21st overall to Cincinnati, the exact same slot Moss fell to in 1998. The Bengals, of course, are no strangers to taking on receivers who are either troubled (the late Chris Henry) or diva-oriented (Chad Ochocinco) and might snatch up Bryant in a heartbeat, creating a three-deep starting receiver set (Bryant, Ochocinco and the newly signed Antonio Bryant, no relation) in another echo of Minnesota from 12 years ago.
Former NFL receiver turned ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson told me he would love to see Miami draft Bryant, because he believes Dolphins football czar Bill Parcells could have the same kind of mentoring relationship with Bryant that Johnson had with the Big Tuna when he played for the Jets head coach in the late '90s. Johnson especially bristles that part of Bryant's draft stock has been connected at least tangentially by some to the 18-month prison sentence Bryant's mother once served on a drug-sale conviction. Bryant's mother had three children in her teenage years and Bryant's childhood was difficult by anyone's standards.
"It pisses me off to listen to some of these [draft analysts] talk about Dez,'' Johnson told me Thursday. "I heard someone on the network I work at say his stock is going to be questioned because his mother was a former drug user or seller. Are you kidding me? Are you serious? Because his mom did that, therefore his stock will drop? I think anybody who judges him and who he is based on his family, it's ridiculous. He's getting hit with a lot of stuff that doesn't have anything to do with who he is as an individual. It's OK for Colt McCoy to hang out with the Manning family and work out with them, but as soon as Deion hangs out with Dez Bryant, it's an issue. What kind of double standard is that?''
Johnson dismisses Bryant's irresponsibility issues as a byproduct of nothing more than his youth. "He's a kid,'' he said. "Who wasn't irresponsible at some point? I was when I was a kid. Deion Sanders was irresponsible. He wore gold chains and talked too much on TV. It sure looks like that worked out OK.
"This is a receiver who's at the head of his class at his position. He's a big (6-2, 225), physical receiver and it's pretty impressive that he returns punts at the same time. He fits the pro game very well and he should be a great player in the NFL. It's just irresponsible for people to try and peg him as a problem. I've talked to Bill [Parcells] on a number of occasions about Dez already, and I hope the Miami Dolphins draft him. I hope he's lucky like I was to work with someone (Parcells) who cared about me as more than a football player, but as a person.''
But to counter that, there are other sources within the NFL who say that Bryant's lying to the NCAA in an attempt to get out of a tight spot is a definite red flag that can't be ignored in the scouting process. As overblown as some of the issues that surround Bryant may be -- like him forgetting his favorite pair of cleats at his recent pro day workout -- telling the truth when the circumstances demand it is as straightforward a character test as life supplies. And Bryant, they say, failed that test,
Another former teammate of Moss's, ex-Vikings running back Robert Smith, said he believes teams are even less willing to take on a character risk like Bryant today than they were in the late '90s, when Moss entered the NFL. That much more money and potential trouble is now at stake with every first-round pick.
"It's kind of a different era,'' said Smith, himself an ESPN college football analyst who is very familiar with Bryant's career at OSU. "As far as things move in today's NFL, coaches and general managers are even more reluctant to take a player like that today. It can be such a black eye on a program and can cause you such a headache and be a distraction. In ways that the Vikings didn't have to worry about in 1998, with the team leadership we had in place, there are reasons why you're more reluctant to make those moves.
"Without knowing him personally, clearly the guy's got some issues. Anybody can get scared talking to the NCAA, but I think the concern is valid. It raises red flags that there was some depth to the lies that wound up getting him suspended for a year. It would concern me. You'd have to be concerned.''
No matter whether you view Bryant as more risk or reward, he is one of more intriguing prospects in the 2010 draft, and this year's foremost litmus test on the issue and importance of character in the scouting process. Only time will tell if the Randy Moss comparisons ultimately ring true.