Teams must weigh Jenkins' talent over any potential headaches
'Tis the season for NFL scouts. With two weeks until draft day, teams are making their lists and checking them twice -- and more. As the old carol goes, they've "got to find out who's naughty and nice."
For talented but troubled North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins more than any other player in this year's draft, this in-depth review of his past transgressions could well mean a tumble down draft boards.
It's mid-April in the NFL and teams are wrapping up visits and physical checks on draft-eligible players. Long, intense draft meetings have begun in which every prospect is thoroughly dissected via tape review and discussion among GMs, player personnel directors, scouts and coaches.
No stone goes unturned during this laborious process, and players with serious question marks -- whether due to character or injury issues -- usually generate the most discussion and concern in the risky business of the NFL draft.
Jenkins has been called potentially the best cover corner available this year by some scouts and analysts. He is quick, athletic, instinctive, smooth and plays with great anticipation. On talent alone, the 5-foot-11, 193-pounder with 4.4 speed carries a mid-first-round grade. He started three years at Florida, earning Freshman All-American honors in 2008 and snagging eight career interceptions as a Gator. In his junior year, he held future high-first-round picks A.J. Green and Julio Jones to a combined eight catches for 61 yards. He is also a top kick returner.
But off the field, problems mounted for Jenkins. He was arrested after a bar fight in Gainesville in 2009. On April 26, 2011, a year to the day before this year's draft, he was booted from the Gators team after two marijuana possession arrests within three months. He also has fathered four children with three different mothers. There have been questions about his attitude.
Jenkins says he stayed clean during his senior season after transferring to Division II North Alabama, saying "I'm done with that" in reference to his past drug use. He and his supporters have tried to rebuild his image, and he has been forthcoming with NFL GMs, coaches and scouts -- and the media -- by admitting his mistakes. He had a very good showing at the Senior Bowl and Combine.
And then another red flag suddenly arose earlier this month, when he mysteriously parted ways with his highly regarded agent, Ben Dogra of CAA. Depending on who you believe, either Dogra dumped him or Jenkins fired Dogra. Either way, it doesn't reflect well on Jenkins.
Where he gets drafted is highly uncertain. Cincinnati, with the No. 21 pick, needs corner help, and they have been willing to take a chance on troubled players in recent years, including Pacman Jones. The Patriots have two late No. 1s and could target Jenkins to aid their shaky pass defense, and if any team can keep Jenkins in check, it's Bill Belichick and Co.
Without the baggage, Jenkins would be in the discussion to be the second corner drafted, after LSU's Morris Claiborne, a likely top-five pick. But his character questions will likely cause a drop at least into the bottom of the first round. He may even fall into the second round, as corners like Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina and Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick will likely get picked before him.
The Jenkins situation reminds me of the 1998 draft. With the Vikings, we took a calculated risk on receiver Randy Moss when we selected him in the first round out of Marshall. We trusted our area scout, Conrad Cardano, who had coached under Moss' college coach Bob Pruett at Marshall. Cardano spent extensive time researching Moss, including talking at length with Pruett, who convinced Cardano that Moss was a supreme talent whose off-field problems were in the past.
Moss was in a bad high school fight over a racial slur against a friend, and had an alleged failed marijuana test that caused Florida State to release him.
Cardano's evaluation and Moss' college film (which included 54 touchdown catches in his two seasons at Marshall) sold us on his abilities as a player. Just as importantly, we considered him a moderate-risk/high-reward player, especially since we would be picking him at No. 21 overall. At that draft spot, the financial risk (four years, $4.5 million total) was significantly less than it would have been for the many teams who passed up the top-five talent earlier, such as the Cowboys, who at No. 8 were trying to clean up their image after several off-field incidents. We would also protect the team with strong punitive clauses in his contract in the event of any misbehavior.
Another reason we felt comfortable taking Moss was because we were confident in the chemistry of our veteran playoff team. We felt star receiver Cris Carter would be a great mentor, which turned out to be the case early in Moss' career.
Cardano reminded me recently of the long debate on Moss in our pre-draft meetings. He called it "the longest I've ever been involved in," and I would concur based on my many years in draft meetings.
Moss rewarded our faith in him with a 17-touchdown season that earned him the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He played a huge role on our 15-1 team, which lost to Atlanta in the NFC title game. And while he's had a few behavioral issues over the years, he has also been involved in many charitable endeavors that benefit children. He is surely a future Hall of Famer who ranks as one of the NFL's all-time great receivers.
While the Moss selection was successful for us in Minnesota, we, along with 10 other teams, passed on Warren Sapp in the first round of the 1995 draft, when unconfirmed but unsettling drug rumors surfaced regarding the future All-Pro defensive tackle. The damage was done to an obvious top-five talent who lasted until Tampa Bay picked him at No. 12 overall, one spot after we selected the safe pick -- defensive end Derrick Alexander, who started several years before injuries shortened his career (though he certainly was not the player Sapp became). So it goes with the inexact science of choosing players.
The obvious difference in the Jenkins case, as opposed to Sapp, is that there is no disputing the facts of Jenkins' arrests.
Another prime recent example foremost in teams' minds involving a troubled player drafted in the first round not working out is Pacman Jones. The Titans chose Jones No. 6 overall in the 2005 draft. He played well in his two seasons on the field in Tennessee, but was a disaster off the field. Multiple run-ins with the law and a suspension by the NFL for the 2007 season for violation of the NFL player conduct policy marred the beginning of his career. While the now-Bengal he has kept his nose clean lately, he certainly has not had the career success expected of a top-10 pick.
As teams examine Janoris Jenkins, they will weigh all the positives and negatives. The debate will be lively as they look at a draft board with colored dots signifying drug, character and legal concerns next to Jenkins' name. Though skeptical by nature, there will be some scouts, coaches and execs who somewhat believe his well-rehearsed interviews at the Combine or think they, along with the veteran leaders on that team, can change him and help him mature into an excellent NFL player, on and off the field. Then there will be the naysayers in the draft room who prefer to go the safe route when it comes to character and attitude.
Ultimately, the GM or top decision-maker will make the call. If there is a player with equal grades on their board at a position of relative need, the player with the clean background will triumph over Jenkins. GMs know there is some risk in every pick. The key is to reach a comfort zone where the GM feels he is making the best possible pick for the team in every round, with added emphasis on the first-rounder, who is expected to contribute immediately.
If Jenkins does fall late into the first or even into the second round, it could serve as motivation for him to prove other teams wrong, as it definitely did with Moss. And with the new NFL rookie wage scale, the financial risk is lower than it was in the past for first-rounders, helping Jenkins' cause. His contract will certainly include punitive clauses that protect against off-field problems or any potential league discipline. Even if he falls in the draft, playing up to his high talent level will enable him to strike gold in his second and third NFL contracts, but only if he makes the right choices off the field.
So will Jenkins follow the Randy Moss high road or the Pacman Jones low road in his NFL career? Is his talent at a high enough level to take on the headaches and the risk in the hope that he will become the next great shutdown corner? Will he have a GM, coach or scout willing to go out on a limb and recommend him, as Cardano did for Moss? The jury is still out, and NFL teams will deliver their verdict later this month in New York.