The Cincinnati Bengals are known for taking chances on players with troubled pasts and questionable character.
They decided long ago, though, that they wanted to stay clear of Aaron Hernandez.
Bengals owner and general manager Mike Brown told FOX Sports on Monday that the franchise intentionally passed on selecting Hernandez in the 2010 draft after closely scouting tight ends that year.
An unfavorable pre-draft report the Bengals had received about Hernandez and concerns there was the potential for more off-field problems at the pro level helped influence Cincinnati to select the University of Oklahoma’s Jermaine Gresham in the first round. Hernandez was a fourth-round choice by New England, which released him last Wednesday after he was officially charged with 27-year-old Odin Lloyd’s murder in North Attleborough, Mass., as well as five counts of illegal firearm possession.
“That one is no secret. We just stayed away from it,” Brown said about Hernandez inside his office at Bengals headquarters. “We didn’t question the playing ability. But we went for Gresham.”
Cincinnati wasn’t the only club to feel skittish about Hernandez. Although he displayed NFL-quality athleticism as the 2009 winner of the Mackey Award annually given to college football’s tight end, Hernandez was the sixth one drafted in 2010 behind Gresham, Rob Gronkowski (New England), Ed Dickson (Baltimore), Tony Moeaki (Kansas City) and Jimmy Graham (New Orleans).
Brown said the Bengals medically disqualified Gronkowski from their draft board “because he had a bad back” coming out of the University of Arizona. Although he quickly blossomed into one of the NFL’s top tight ends as a second-round pick, Gronkowski was limited to 12 games last season after breaking his forearm on two separate occasions. Gronkowski also is expected to open the 2013 preseason on New England’s physically unable to perform (PUP) list after undergoing offseason back surgery, which has raised further questions about his potential career longevity.
At least Gronkowski has an NFL future. Hernandez’s playing days may be over as he faces life in prison if found guilty of murdering Lloyd. Even should he ultimately be cleared, Hernandez still faces the strong possibility of a lengthy ban from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
No NFL team, including the Bengals, claimed Hernandez off waivers. The NFL also has announced Hernandez can’t be signed to a free-agent contract that the league will honor until Goodell decides his playing fate.
The Bengals held Hernandez in worse pre-draft standing character-wise than defensive end Carlos Dunlap, another University of Florida product who was arrested during the 2009 college season on a drunk-driving charge. Cincinnati used a 2010 second-round pick on Dunlap, who has avoided being arrested again since joining the Bengals.
While his receiving statistics are not as prolific as those posted by Hernandez or Gronkowski, Gresham has reached the Pro Bowl the past two seasons while tallying 172 catches for 1,804 yards and 15 touchdowns. Gresham also hasn’t had any run-ins with law enforcement since entering the NFL.
A clean rap sheet carries more weight for the Bengals now when they draft players than in previous years.
According to a UT-San Diego website database that tracks player arrests, eight different Bengals were charged on 10 different occasions with assorted crimes and infractions since the 2010 NFL draft. Only one of those players was a member of the Bengals’ past four draft classes. Cincinnati cut safety Robert Sands, a 2011 fifth-round choice, following his arrest last January on a domestic violence charge.
In comparison, 10 Bengals players accounted for 17 arrests in a 17-month span between December 2005 and June 2007. Eight of the 10 players involved were Cincinnati draft picks. That includes wide receiver Chris Henry, a 2005 third-round choice who was suspended (and later reinstated) by Goodell after five different police incidents. Henry died in a December 2009 auto mishap at the age of 26.
Brown said the Bengals are taking fewer draft gambles on prospects who may be disposed for off-field difficulties based upon their college behavior. Brown said the Bengals also try to avoid the player who is “a total jerk in some ways … short of breaking the law but obnoxious and off-putting. It feeds back to (our team).”
Brown said the approach follows in the spirit of his late father Paul Brown, the Hall of Fame head coach who founded the Bengals in 1968.
“Going way back to when my father was here, we were very conscious of picking people we thought were people you could live with (and) the right type of person,” Brown said. “And then, lo and behold, one of the teams we played seemed to reach out and bring in guys who weren’t always what they should be – at least that’s how it appeared to us. But they were good football players. They sort of had us for lunch. We then began doing some of that.
“Sometimes you win doing that, and sometimes you don’t. There’s no way to tell going in how it’s going to work out. We had some people that we had question marks on at the time of the draft. A few were really tremendous players, but there came a time when for the most part they made life difficult. It wasn’t always the case, but there was enough of it. In the last few years, we’ve gone back to our old formula. We bring in guys, but only when we know that they’re sound people.”
The Bengals have reached the playoffs in two consecutive seasons for the first time since the early 1990s. But the roster isn’t completely comprised of choir boys. Cincinnati still takes more chances that most franchises on talented players with histories of off-field trouble, especially with a head coach (Marvin Lewis) adept at helping to guide them back on the straight and narrow.
Cornerback/punt returner Adam Jones is a prime example. Jones was charged June 10 with simple assault following an incident outside a Cincinnati bar. He has pled not guilty and publicly proclaimed he was provoked into an altercation with a 34-year-old female patron who struck him with a beer bottle following a verbal spat. Jones is soon expected to meet about potential NFL discipline with Goodell, who suspended him on two previous occasions before he was with the Bengals for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
The latest Jones incident once again cast him, the Bengals and the NFL in a negative light. The Bengals, though, didn’t acquire Jones via the same kind of heavy investment that they once were willing to chance on others with checkered pasts through the draft or free agency. Jones also has provided a positive locker-room presence since joining the team in 2010 and has the continuing support of Bengals management, which re-signed him to a three-year, $5.4 million contract in the offseason.
Besides Jones and Sands, the other Bengals player arrested this offseason was right tackle Andre Smith. A 2009 first-round pick who was re-signed in the offseason, Smith was charged in January with attempting to carry a loaded handgun onto a commercial flight in Atlanta. The status of the case is unknown.
Brown said he understands how Patriots brass could be fooled into thinking that Hernandez had matured since his days at the University of Florida. A source told FOX Sports last week that the Patriots were “concerned about the people” Hernandez was associating with before the Lloyd murder but didn’t have knowledge he was involved in any off-field activities that would have warranted an investigation by the franchise or NFL.
The Patriots had enough faith in Hernandez that he was signed to a seven-year, $41.2 million contract extension during the 2012 offseason.
“We’re not going to know everything about our players once they leave the premises nor should we,” Brown said. “They have the right to their privacy and to live their lives as they see best so long as they don’t step over a line. They can’t break the law.”
Brown is dismayed that so much media attention is being given to the NFL’s 29 arrests this offseason when the societal rate among non-players in the same age and demographic groups is far higher than among the 2,900-plus players currently on rosters entering training camp.
“You’d think we were an aberration,” Brown said. “We might be, but actually an aberration on the good side. This might be saying something about us, but it also says something about the country as a whole.”
The Bengals are making their own statement now by how their roster is now being shaped.