For years, the NFL combine has been a place where draft prospects with serious character issues come to try and reclaim their statuses as players worth drafting despite the red flags that dog them through this process. NFL teams will be especially watchful during their prospect interviews this week—they'll want to know the truth about a player's off-field incidents, and if that player fails to tell the truth, it can resonate throughout the entire league.
"There is a long process that goes into that with a tremendous exchange of information to try to figure the guys out," said Seattle coach Pete Carroll at last year's combine. "We can measure [the athletic drills]—this stuff is not the hard part. The hard part is taking the measurements and then connecting that with the mentality of the player and figuring out what that's really going to turn out. It's a tremendous science there... for us, it's that competitiveness that we are trying to find in the guys, that chip on the shoulder, that mentality that they have that will take them beyond where normal people go.''
Sometimes, the NFL nips any potential problems in the bud. The NFL recently withdrew former Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson's combine invitation after he was caught up in a rape investigation that began last November.
In other cases, it all works out. Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu was thought to be a severe risk after he was booted off the LSU squad for a number of drug-related incidents. But Mathieu came to Indianapolis, was forthcoming about his past and absolutely owned the workouts, and he has become one of the more dynamic pass defenders in the league.
"I didn't have everything together back in college," said Mathieu at the 2013 combine. "I had everything together as far as football, but when it came to my social life, my personal life, I didn't have everything intact. I didn't have my emotions intact. Spiritually, I wasn't intact. Once you take football away, you are able to work on the person. These last six months, that is all I had was Tyrann the person. I attacked the person, I attacked my issues. I think that is why I am here at the combine ... Back when I was the Honey Badger, I didn't have everything intact. Going forward, I am going to focus on being Tyrann Mathieu and that is the person I want to control right now."
That said, players with severe off-field issues will wash out more often than not. The concern about what happens when you give an irresponsible individual all the money and prestige in the world holds true. NFL teams can only hope that the players they desire have done their own work on themselves, and that's what makes the process so hit-and-miss. Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon, whose multiple suspensions may prevent him from ever making a long-term impact in the NFL, is the most glaring recent example.
"Well, it had better not be hit-and-miss," Carroll said back then. "We are not going to be successful if it is. Coaches can evaluate players in one sense. The scouts and the personnel side of it, they see it a lot differently than we do as coaches, and we need all of that information to blend together to come up with the best decisions. And at that it's still a crapshoot, it's still hard. It's still very, very difficult, because you are trying to tell how a guy is going to perform in a different setting.''
And the combine is where this stuff gets forensic said Mike Mayock of the NFL Network during a conference call this week.
"I've had [this conversation] with a lot of GMs and coaches," Mayock said. "They've got all these security staffs on their own teams and throughout the NFL. They have a battery of psychologists. And really, what the psychologists are trying to tell them is that guys that have demonstrated a certain type of behavior, it is intrinsic to their personality and is it going to be repeated? That's where all of us dumb football guys have to lean on people that have been trained in that. So you have all the information. He was arrested. He was convicted. He was this, he was that, whatever. You hear the kid's side.
"You sit him down and have the conversation with him and his parents, and you do everything you can to get to know the kid and his family situation. Then you have the psychologists tell you here's what he tested. And at the end of the day, tough to make a decision. What happens sometimes is the ability and talent of the athlete overwhelms the other analysis, and that's where we make a lot of mistakes."
These six players who are attending this year's combine will work to create the same kind of rebound story that Mathieu did without the backslides that are far more common.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
On the field, many evaluators are giving Winston as many passes as possible, because he's played in a pro-style offense, he can throw with anticipation and he has the ability to process multiple reads. However, they're seemingly ignoring the fact that he throws interceptions in bunches and throws into coverage both fearlessly and recklessly. Off the field, the conversation is more complex. After a year of investigation, Florida prosecutors decided not to pursue a felony sexual assault charge against Winston, and that left a bad taste with the court of public opinion. The university informed Winston last October that he would be the subject of a separate disciplinary hearing, which was rendered moot when Winston declared for the 2015 draft. Winston has also been involved in less serious incidents—stealing crab legs from a store, shooting at people with a BB gun and yelling an obscenity in a building full of people on the FSU campus.
Someone is going to take a shot on Winston no matter how he performs during team interviews, and unless he drops out of any of those interviews or lies about his actions, his stock probably won't drop that much. The question is, will any of the teams on the fence be convinced that Winston can be trusted with the most important and responsible position on any NFL roster? In college, Winston frequently outmanned people with sheer physical talent and occasional brilliance. In the NFL, the ceiling is far higher—and the questions will be far tougher.
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Oklahoma
There are very few questions about Green-Beckham's on-field ability; many teams will embrace a 6'5", 225-pounds receiver who runs 40-yard dashes in the low 4.3s and can beat the daylights out of defenders despite his relative lack of route understanding, and despite any red flags. Green-Beckham has them, no doubt—he had multiple marijuana-related arrests at Missouri and was dropped from the program after an investigation into burglary and assault charges. He transferred to Oklahoma before the 2014 season and sat out last year per NCAA rules, and then entered this year's draft with a huge hole in his resume, since he hasn't played in over a year. Still, he's going to elicit comparisons to the best young receivers in the league. He'll also be compared to Josh Gordon, and some teams will shy away because of that.
Wherever he goes in the draft, Green-Beckham, who caught 87 passes for 1,278 yards and six touchdowns in two NCAA seasons, will be on the league's radar in another way. Commissioner Roger Goodell has expressed serious interest in punishing players with college rap sheets more severely in the pros if those problems continue.
Karlos Williams, RB, Florida State
For players like Williams, who moved to the running back position after he was recruited as a five-star safety, things get a bit more interesting. Without a clearly defined top-level position (and at a clearly undervalued one in the NFL if he decides to stay at running back), it's a lot easier for teams to ding him off their lists for any character concerns. Williams has been investigated, but not charged, with domestic violence charges relating to an alleged incident with his girlfriend, who is also the mother of his two children. There's also been an investigation into an alleged robbery in July 2014.
He's a freakish athlete, no doubt—and on teams that value positional versatility above all, he could be a highly-regarded developmental project. But the buyer beware label resonates with far more presence when a player is still figuring things out on the field, as well.
Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
Some have said that Clark, who probably merits a mid-round grade based on his on-field work, could go undrafted due to his off-field issues. He was arrested, jailed and dismissed from the Michigan program last November after a domestic abuse incident—Clark's girlfriend said that he punched her in the face, and the woman's brother said that Clark picked up by the neck and slammed her to the ground. Clark racked up five sacks in each of his last two seasons, but he's not the kind of transcendent player who can survive character dings at this level without those dings seriously affecting his draft stock. Nor should he escape unscathed.
Marcus Peters, CB, Washington
Like Winston and Green-Beckham, Peters is a top-round prospect based on talent alone—he has the ability to face up and press any receiver, redirect that receiver and get sticky all the way down the field. And in an NFL that values big, physical cornerbacks more now than it has in decades, the 6'0", 198-pound Peters has all it takes to succeed from that angle. However, Peters' dismissal from the Washington program last season after several blowups with teammates and coach Chris Petersen will have pro teams looking hard at what happened, and what Peters has learned from it.
Peters is already trying to let people know that he's matured, as he did in a recent interview with USA Today's Tom Pelissero.
"I don't blame [Petersen] for anything," Peters told Pelissero. "All I can blame is myself, because I made those decisions and I have to live with them. Now I'll have to man up and I've got to answer these questions in interviews, and all I can do is sit there and answer truthfully and honestly."
It's telling that Petersen will let Peters use Washington's facilities for his Pro Day workout on April 2, after Peters stopped by the campus to apologize for his behavior. And of all the players on this list, it's possible that Peters has the best chance for a Mathieu-style redefinition of his perception.
"I didn't get it," Peters concluded. "I didn't see it in front of me that they were trying to help me out.To be honest, I would tell you today: Why wouldn't you kick me off the team? [Petersen] was trying to help me. He was teaching me some hard lessons at that time, and I just didn't take it right."
Tevin McDonald, FS, Eastern Washington
The son of former NFL safety Tim McDonald and the brother of current Rams safety T.J. McDonald, Tevin McDonald was dismissed from the UCLA program in March 2013 after multiple alleged failed drug tests, and wound up at Eastern Washington. It's reported that McDonald has matured since that dismissal, and his pure athletic talent will leave a favorable impression at the combine, if he's straight with NFL teams about his past, and what he's done to turn things around.