Today's NFL rookies face many obstacles

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

He played for Atlanta when a young Michael Vick began bankrolling a dogfighting ring. He watched St. Louis defensive tackle Claude Wroten derail his promising NFL career with a drug suspension. Rams linebacker Chris Draft doesn't want these kinds of mistakes repeated by others. So he's doing something about it. For the fifth time in his 11-year NFL career, Draft is serving as a panelist at the league's annual Rookie Symposium that begins today in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. All 256 players selected in April's draft are required to attend three days of seminars. The program is designed to help their adjustment into the NFL and stress that players begin early preparation for life after football. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, ex-Minnesota wide receiver Cris Carter and Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson are among the scheduled speakers. Personal conduct is a major focus. Draft is participating in three group discussions, including one titled "Choices, Decisions and Consequences." "When you're talking about 22- and 23-year-olds, it's going to be a hard transition [to the NFL]," Draft said last week in a telephone interview. "But I think you're able to see some positive things happening in terms of the rookies understanding the game a little more and more exposure that's being given to some of the negative things. It's sending a message to the rookies that the NFL is not playing around anymore. "Maybe back in the day, players would get in trouble and you would not see as much about it on a national scale. Now, that's just not the case. When something happens, it's there for everyone to see. You'd have to be half-blind as a rookie not to see that. You have to take that to heart. You have to say, 'It can't be me.' " Yet there are still some who remain oblivious, especially when it comes to alcohol-related arrests. Seattle second-year fullback Owen Schmitt provided the latest NFL mug shot. Schmitt was charged with DUI last week — he allegedly tested at double the legal limit — just days after Cleveland wide receiver Donte' Stallworth was indefinitely suspended following a guilty plea for DUI manslaughter. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had even issued a memo in the aftermath of the Stallworth decision ordering teams to remind their employees of the league's "alcohol-related misconduct" policy. Schmitt didn't get the message. But he's not the only one who isn't listening to what the NFL is preaching. Draft was with the Falcons during Vick's first three NFL seasons (2001-2004), which is when the latter became involved in the dogfighting and gambling ring that led to a 23-month prison sentence and indefinite league suspension. Draft signed in 2007 with St. Louis and became teammates with Wroten, a third-round pick from the previous year. Wroten received a one-year suspension last July after failing his third drug test.
"When something happens, it's there for everyone to see. You'd have to be half-blind as a rookie not to see that. You have to take that to heart. You have to say, 'It can't be me.' "
Chris Draft, Rams LB
These incidents — combined with a slew of other off-field arrests and conduct issues — have hurt the league's reputation. The NFL is trying to fix the problem through discipline and educational outreach. Even before the rookie symposium is held, player-development directors on all 32 teams already have conducted mandatory seminars on continuing education, career development, financial management and assistance services for those who may need counseling to deal with non-football problems. But there's also only so much the league can do. As Draft points out, the seeds for misbehavior were planted long before some offenders entered the NFL. In his new role as a National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) ambassador, Draft is stressing that educators hold athletes to high behavioral and classroom standards instead of giving a free pass because of their physical gifts. "It's hard for some guys to change in the NFL because someone has always been there when they got into trouble," Draft said. "When they finally have to take responsibility, that's hard. But if we can encourage them to take responsibility from the beginning, we'll build stronger people." The NFL also can strengthen its outreach by making a needed change in its player development program. Five teams (Washington, Carolina, Indianapolis, New England and Oakland) have directors who double as assistant coaches or hold other roles that include football-related responsibilities. While some players might not mind that kind of dual interaction, the negatives far outweigh the positives. Players may be reluctant to confide a personal matter to someone who also directly answers to the head coach or general manager. The dual role also has other potential conflicts, like recommendations for continuing education when head coaches want as many players as possible in a regimented offseason program. Christopher Henry, the NFL's Player Development Director, said the league is aware of these possible pitfalls. Goodell, though, hasn't mandated that franchises — some of which are looking to save money on staffing — separate the positions. "The best practice is that the player development director is just a player development director and he or she does not have another job responsibility that can impact the ability to establish trust and the responsibilities of the position," Henry said. "I don't know if this is a trend, but I know the Commissioner is very serious about player discipline and other issues pertaining to player development. We are very aware of what we want and expect in terms of standards. We'll deal with issues as they arise."

Cause and Effect

The subject: Goodell and Seattle coach Jim Mora are planning a three-day hike to the top of Mount Rainier next weekend. The cause: The trek will raise money for the United Way of King County. The effect: Goodell is training like an NFL player. According to a league staffer, Goodell is regularly running the stairs of a 50-story building near NFL headquarters in New York City. The Associated Press also reported that the 50-year-old Goodell is running hills in his neighborhood while carrying a 30-pound sack. Goodell, though, faces a steep challenge from the altitude. He will need to climb roughly 4,000 feet from his starting point to the mountain peak of 14,411 feet. If the Commish and Mora finish the trek, no Seahawks player has any excuse for failing a conditioning test.

The Buzz

Even when talking about his friends, ex-Miami defensive end Vonnie Holliday didn't pull any punches during a Sirius NFL Radio interview conducted last Friday by me and co-host Dan Leberfeld. Because of projected replacement Phillip Merling's inexperience, Holliday said he was a "little surprised" at being released earlier this offseason after refusing to take a pay cut. "He's a guy I think would have benefited from another year or two of tutelage and not having to have the responsibility of being a starter," Holliday said of Merling, a 2008 second-round draft choice. Holliday also said the returning Jason Taylor "shouldn't have had to eat some humble pie" by asking Dolphins executive Bill Parcells for the chance to rejoin the team. Holliday wonders how Taylor and fellow outside linebacker Joey Porter will co-exist on the same defense. "With the success Joey had last year, I just didn't think J.T. was a fit back in the role he was in before," said Holliday, referring to Porter's 17.5 sacks in 2008. "Now they're talking about him playing the opposite side, the left side, which he is not as comfortable with. If [Porter] comes out and has a slow start compared to last year, what's going to happen? Are you going to try and move J.T. into that role and have a problem with a very outspoken Joey Porter? It will be very interesting to see how this unfolds." Holliday, 33, said he is now running again after undergoing postseason knee surgery. With 141 career starts in 11 NFL seasons — including 59 the past four years in Miami — Holliday admits he's surprised to still be a free agent.
"No matter how well you've played, it seems if you have a 30-plus age attached to you, a team is going to look at younger players first before they bring you in," said Holliday, who also is considered a strong locker-room leader. "Teams have offered me injury contracts and I've told them I'm not injured. I finished the season last year on the same knee and felt I played pretty well. My stats are up there with [free-agent signing Chris] Canty of the New York Giants. If you go out and produce, that's all that should matter. It's unfortunate, but I don't want to come across as bitter. It has been a little frustrating but it's all going to end up alright."

Week in Review

Big winner: Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings. He received $16.3 million in guaranteed cash as part of a four-year, $26.3 million deal. Plus, he will only be 29 years old when again eligible for free agency. Jennings earned his cash with a 1,292-yard, nine-touchdown campaign in 2008. Big loser: Toronto. Bills owner Ralph Wilson told the Associated Press that he has no immediate plans to hold more games in that city even if the NFL expands to a 17- or 18-game schedule. Wilson should be encouraged by the fact Buffalo already has sold roughly 53,000 season tickets two months before the first preseason game, according to the Buffalo News. Maybe it's time to start referring to Bills wide receiver Terrell Owens as B.O. — Box Office — instead of T.O. Under-the-radar move: Kansas City signing ex-Chicago safety Mike Brown to a one-year contract. During his time in New England, new Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli saw the value in having veteran safeties like Rodney Harrison and Lawyer Milloy. Brown, 30, will add that same savvy provided he can avoid the injury problems that ended his nine-year stint with the Bears. At worst, Brown can provide quality depth behind Bernard Pollard and Jarrad Page while helping the development of both fourth-year safeties.

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