There was an NFL meeting years back—well before Aaron Hernandez’s life went into the spiral that ended in a Massachusetts jail cell Wednesday morning—where the league brought in an FBI agent who worked with gangs.
The idea was to teach coaches and front office people what to look for. Symbols. Signs. Tattoos. Whatever. Anything to give information to the people making football decisions on the darker parts of the lives that some players clearly were living.
“That left an impression with a lot of people,” said one AFC personnel chief who was there that day. “I know it did with me. And we started paying more attention. Once you know what to look for, you start to find those things online, on Facebook, on Instagram. I saw a picture yesterday on Instagram—it was a guy in this year’s draft, his Instagram—that I’m 100 percent positive had to do with a gang.
“That meeting was before Hernandez. And the thing is, the issues on him were right there, people knew. So I don’t know if this will change the way we do things. Some teams do a lot of due diligence, some don’t. The info is out there. It’s how you use it.”
My assignment here is to try and figure how the Hernandez saga that’s unfolded so publicly over the past four years will change the NFL. And my conclusion is that it probably won’t change much. The fact is, teams draft guys with gang connections, and gun issues, and drug problems every year. It’ll happen next week, the same way it happened last year and the year before that.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll take you inside Andrew Luck’s decision to have surgery and how he has to adjust, look at why the Pats will seriously consider offers for Malcolm Butler, explain why Deshaun Watson’s learning curve isn’t as steep as you might think, and show what the Cowboys have learned from letting Dak Prescott slip to the fourth round before taking him last spring.
But we start with the biggest story in America, sports or otherwise, and an attempt to delve into what it means for an inherently violent sport, and the franchises that play it. As everyone reading this knows by now, Hernandez was found dead, hanging by a bed sheet in his cell at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts early Wednesday morning.
So my first question for the half-dozen coaches, GMs, and scouts I talked to Wednesday afternoon was simple: Will this affect how you look at players?
“Absolutely, it does,” said an AFC head coach. “Character counts. You have to dig deeper into things said about a player, a player’s entourage, how they roll, who their team is. The whole nine yards. And you have to understand, you’re not just drafting or signing the player, it’s everyone around them too.”
“I think about getting as much info as we can about a player coming into the league, then caring more about them when they get here,” added an NFC personnel exec. “Guys that play this game—they’re making the conscious decision to run their bodies into other people for a living—are different. They’re wired different. That, on top of them of feeling invincible because of how good they are, is something to think about.
“We too often don't help these guys that are coming into a different life and lifestyle than they’d ever imagined. Most of these players come from places where football is the only way out of situations that many people think is only in the movies.”
“Anytime something like this occurs, it makes you think and puts in perspective how much character and personality counts,” said an NFC general manager. “But at the same time, any time you go looking for football players, never in anyone’s paradigm are you thinking, ‘We have a murderer on our hands.’ We’re never thinking that.”
The Patriots certainly weren’t in 2010, and teams that roll the dice on players next week won’t be either, even knowing what just went down in Massachusetts. And these gambles will keep coming because the brutal truth is that if you fill your roster with choirboys, you probably won’t have much of a football team.
Here’s an example. In 2003, Jacksonville hired a new GM, Shack Harris, from the Ravens, and he proceeded to build a talented but troubled team. The Jags took risk after risk, and eventually it wound up costing them. Harris was fired, Gene Smith was hired to clean up the mess, and his emphasis on character, over time, led to a bushel of draft reaches and a roster bereft of talent.
Most teams are trying to strike a tough-to-achieve balance between those two circumstances, where calculated risks are taken, but not enough to make the trouble guys you have become who you are.
“(Hernandez) won’t affect me because each player is an individual—I’m not gonna say all tight ends from Florida are like this now,” said an AFC personnel exec. “There are seven or eight players right now in this year’s draft that are connected to that (gang) stuff. But there are people who are connected to it that aren’t going to go kill people. Every individual is different. That’s scouting—risk vs. reward.”
And just like each player is different, each team has different lines too. The Ravens and Panthers and Giants, for instance, likely wouldn’t bring in Joe Mixon as even an undrafted free agent, given the recent past for those clubs with domestic violence. Likewise, the Patriots probably can’t roll dice on guys with gang ties anymore.
More established teams, of course, with strong culture have the ability to absorb more risk. Some coaches are better equipped to help manage those guys than others. No one team’s situation is like the next.
What is the same is the challenge that faces all of these teams and the guys running them—figuring out just who these players are before bringing them in. And that challenge runs all the way down to the position coaches and the area scouts.
“You don’t want to miss, because normally, guys don’t change their stripes much,” said an area scout for an AFC team. “Maybe it’s not gang-banging, but there’s drugs, or a misdemeanor or even a felony there with guys who get in trouble in the league. You’re not going from choirboy to murderer. Usually there’s something where we can raise the flag to our bosses.
“And yeah, I think everyone should be scared of getting that wrong. There’s a healthy fear there. I mean, I want to get a receivers’ hands right. But the biggest part of job is character assessment. That’s what take I pride in. That’s what you don’t want to mess up.”
So in the end, what the Hernandez case has become for NFL people is a reminder that this is absolutely an outlier—a sick sort of worst-case scenario.
But callous as it might sound, it’s not really a game-changer.
“Look at it like this: You’d think the Ray Rice thing would change the way the NFL handles domestic violence, right?” said our AFC personnel chief. “Yet, you have a guy who’s going in the second or third round next week (Mixon), and he’s in a video smashing a girl’s face. What’s changed? The bottom line is every team is different. Every team is their own country. Their policy is their policy. And that’s really it.”
And if there was an easy way to get it right with players like Hernandez, well, then we all wouldn’t be where we are now.
1. Maybe the Raiders are bluffing, but my understanding is that as much as they liked meeting with Marshawn Lynch, and were impressed with the shape he’s in, it was communicated they’re willing to walk away from a potential deal.
2. The draft would seem to provide a natural deadline, particularly because of the strength of this year’s running back class. That said, despite the outside hysteria, I’ve gotten the sense the Raiders/Lynch talks have remained positive.
3. And a good example of another team that took a hard line with a running back—New England. The Patriots let LeGarrette Blount know they wouldn’t wait forever to sign him. They proved it by signing Mike Gillislee to an offer sheet.
4. I know one team that has 35 corners with draftable grades. That is an insane number—this particularly team has 15-20 draftable CBs in an average year. One secondary coach told me he thinks some fourth- and fifth-rounders will start in the fall.
5. A lot has been made over QB Mitchell Trubisky only starting 13 games at North Carolina. One reason his coaches gave teams: 2014-15 starter MarquiseWilliams hails from fertile recruiting ground, so benching him would have consequences.
6. I’d bet Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and Pat Mahomes are the three quarterbacks to go in the first round. What’s weird: There’s more consensus that Watson can play, but seemingly fewer teams that have fallen for him than the other two.
7. As far as where they start coming off the board, it seems like the belief out there continues to be that Buffalo at 10 is the team that you have to leapfrog if you want to trade up for a quarterback.
8. Four offensive linemen to watch in the draft: Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp, Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, Alabama’s Cam Robinson and Utah’s GarrettBolles. In a weak year up front, those four have separated. All could go in the first round.
9. I’d echo everyone’s feeling on the death of Steeler patriarch Dan Rooney. He was the most normal guy you could imagine amongst the exclusive club of NFL owners. And as such, inside the room, he was often the voice of reason.
10. I’ll give the new Lions jerseys my seal of approval. Good call dropping the black and going to a simpler look. My issue with them is the very loud “LIONS” on the one sleeve. Classy “WCF” (for the late William Clay Ford) on the other sleeve.
1. Andrew Luck’s next phase.If you drew a line graph to show Andrew Luck’s career arc from his redshirt freshman year at Stanford (2009) to his third NFL season (2014), it’d show fairly consistent ascension from one step to the next to the next, and so on. And so it certainly was interesting to hear the Colts QB say this week that the shoulder problem that led to his January surgery first surfaced in September 2015, which was the beginning of the first bump-in-the-road season he’s had since any of us have been paying attention.
“It was my decision, ultimately,” Luck said. “The team gave me all the resources that I needed to make the best decision. We sat down after the year with our guys in the building and talked, and then went out and got a lot of really good opinions from a lot of doctors around the country. At the end of the day, I never felt like anyone was trying to make a decision for me. I made this decision with what I felt was the best information I could find. I have no regrets about going to get my surgery.”
OK, so let’s go through how Luck got here. As I understand it, there was a belief, when the brass met with Luck, that he could conceivably repeat the process he went through in 2016 to get himself ready to play and skip the surgery. After he first hurt the shoulder in 2015, Luck handled training camp last summer in pretty much the same manner he always had. When the Colts got to the season, the coaches adjusted some things. They kept Luck from throwing on Thursdays, and built that as a run-oriented practice day so he wouldn’t have to sit out completely. In addition to that, over the course of each week, Luck went through exercises to maintain strength in the shoulder, and had regular massages and treatment. And the belief was that Luck’s shoulder withstood all of that reasonably well. But there was a mental price Luck paid every week in needing to go through that kind of routine, especially being as young as he is, in addition all the normal work a quarterback does to get ready for a game. And so came the point where getting all that time back, and taking the hassle of the shoulder maintenance out of his routine, was worth going through the process/recovery period of surgery.
Now, as for what will change going forward, the hope in Indy is that Luck’s play will begin to evolve, in the same sort of way Ben Roethlisberger’s did when Todd Haley arrived in Pittsburgh. I’d expect an emphasis on Luck getting the ball out quicker, and being more judicious in taking the chances he does running it. Because he’s built like a tank, he’s gotten away with a daring style other quarterbacks wouldn’t be able to employ. Going through what Luck has the past couple seasons should serve as a good signal of that style’s long-term sustainability.
2. Why a Malcolm Butler trade makes sense now. Earlier this offseason, the Saints dealt Brandin Cooks, and I don’t think the reason why makes Cooks a horrible guy. There was history there, and that made it so there’d be benefit for both sides to move on, which they did. And I think the same sort of reasoning applies to Malcolm Butler, which is why the idea of a Cooks-for-Butler deal was floated in March after the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore but before the Saints sent Cook to New England for the 32nd overall pick, and a swap of mid-rounders. That’s why, as I see it, there’s a pretty decent chance the Patriots move Butler between now and next Thursday night.
Cooks publicly groused about his role in the fall. And according to a couple teams who’d studied him in weighing whether to consider trading for him, Cooks’ dissatisfaction was apparent on tape not in his effort, but how he carried himself. In games where he wasn’t the focal point, his frustration was visible, and it was clear that he’d chafed at rookie Michael Thomas nudging into the territory of the team’s No. 1 receiver. Some decisions for the team were coming, including whether or not to pick up Cooks’ 2018 option. And the Saints decided the pick they could get in return for Cooks was worth it, and now both sides get a fresh start.
Butler’s case isn’t quite the same, but you can draw parallels. Like Cooks, what had for a while seemed like a perfect match of team and player wasn’t so anymore. With Butler, it was a result of contract talks that went nowhere, and the anger that plenty of NFL players feel while they’re outplaying their pay. As I’ve heard it, there was friction between Butler and the Patriots in the fall. And now, the Patriots have to consider what version of Butler they’d get in 2017. Will it be the scrappy, tough, committed guy who seemed to embody everything about New England’s program? Or will it be a player worried about getting himself to the end of the year in a position to get paid? The Pats went through that with Jamie Collins last season, and pulled the plug less than halfway through. They dealt him for the 103rd overall pick. And unlike Collins last year, Butler actually knows what kind of money is out there for him now, having negotiated financial terms with the Saints, and knows exactly what staying in New England is keeping him from receiving.
So if New Orleans offered to flip the 32nd pick back to the Pats for Butler? I’d guess the Pats would analyze what version of Butler they’d get this year, while knowing he’d likely be gone next year, and see dealing him for a valuable commodity in a corner-rich draft as a good idea.
3. Not all spread offenses are created equal. There’s this rush to group every offense where the quarterback doesn’t take the ball from under center as “spread”, and position the transition to the NFL from those schemes at the level of English to Mandarin. Sure, sometimes, the language/scheme barrier is extreme. But not always. Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes and Cal’s Davis Webb are coming from Air Raid backgrounds. For those two, the learning curve is steep.
But in researching Clemson’s Deshaun Watson the past couple weeks, I’ve learned that the Tigers are on the other side of the ledger here. The quarterback may take the snap from the gun, and there may be more wideouts on the field at once, but the concepts aren’t far from what the NFL runs. “All these guys talk about it like it’s not a pro-style offense—to me, that’d mean that it’s based on the quarterback run game and/or RPOs (simple ‘run-pass option’ plays),” said one NFC offensive coordinator. “When you watch Clemson, Watson is dropping back, reading it and throwing it. They have NFL pass concepts. He’s a lot easier to evaluate than the Texas Tech guys. … And in fact, that’s where people get concerned with Deshaun—the issues with getting to No. 2 are real. But at least you see them doing it.”
And, as noted by coaches who’ve interviewed him, Watson also has shown signs he can work through his issues with field vision and progression reading. “He took the best defense in the country (Alabama) and tore them up twice,” said an AFC quarterbacks coach. “From a pure football standpoint, he was the smartest of any of them I talked to in being able to understand protections, how he handled issues. He could speak the offense well. Now, he did have 17 picks his last year, and he puts the ball in harm’s way too much. But you look at it with him, and when you ask, ‘what are you seeing here?’, he was able to provide good answers. And usually, if they have those answers, they can work from that with you.”
These, of course, aren’t Watson’s only problems. There are questions about his accuracy, too. But the sense I get in talking to people I respect about this stuff is there’s plenty to work with here, and a good reason why he’s considered the most pro-ready of any of the quarterbacks—even if he didn’t take many snaps from center as a collegian.
4. On the schedule release. The NFL will be releasing its 2017 schedule Thursday night, and the likelihood is that Patriots-Chiefs will be the Thursday Night season opener on Sept. 10. And there is significance in that, beyond just the scheduling of a game or that it’ll signal Roger Goodell’s return to Gillette Stadium. It also means that the league is listening to its teams.
Last year, privately, the Panthers felt like the NFL hosed them in placing them in the opener against the team that beat them in the Super Bowl. There were a few public comments about being a returning conference champion, with a shorter offseason, and not getting the chance to play at home in Week 1. But there was a deeper reason being Carolina’s issue with the scheduling. It forced the team to face its demons constantly during the 2016 offseason. So as coaches were trying to get players to psychologically turn the page on Super Bowl 50, after their 17-1 run to arrive at that point crash landed there, the reminders became impossible to bury. Every team spends a good piece of its offseason preparing for Week 1, and that preparation only ramps up the closer they get to it. That meant the closer the team got to the 2016 season, the harder it became to truly close the book on the end to 2015.
When I asked Ron Rivera last year about what he’d learned from the game, I could here how exasperated he was by looking at it. “At one point, I’d watched the game eight times,” he said. “And there were so many little things that popped up. It wasn’t the big things that beat us, as much as it was the little things. It’s not like it was out of our control, but we never took control.”
Now, no one needs to shed a tear for Carolina, and I’m not saying it’s why they couldn’t come close in 2016 to the success they had in 2015. What I am saying is that the scheduling created an unnecessary problem for a team that was coming off a banner year. And doing the same to the Falcons this year (the Patriots are on their schedule) would’ve been even worse, considering the manner in which they lost their Super Bowl. So good on the league, presuming they go forward with Pats/Chiefs, for not scheduling what would’ve been a very attractive opener, based on a mistake they made last year.
In January, I did a story with Cowboys COO Stephen Jones on Dallas’ potentially franchise-altering rookie class. And in the course of our talk, he raised something interesting to me—the team was going to look hard at what he viewed as its biggest draft slip-up. That was waiting until the fourth round to scoop up Dak Prescott.
On Wednesday, I circled back with him to see what he and his scouting staff had identified as the “miss” on the 2016 NFL Rookie of the Year.
“The biggest thing for us, and we’re trying to see how we’ll cultivate it and do better with this, is how you differentiate when you say, ‘this guy’s got great football character, the ‘it’ factor, he’s a leader,’” Jones said from his office. “How do you quantify that in good vs. great, and great vs. rare. That’s probably what we missed the most with Dak.
“We underestimated how just rare his leadership skill and his football character were. That contributed to his maturity, in terms of being able to walk in the door and have success at our level so early.”
So there’s our offseason lesson of the week, with the draft a week away: Talk of intangibles may sound corny, but a guy’s makeup matters and even more with the quarterbacks than anyone else. Which is to say, when people say Deshaun Watson is off the charts in that area, you should listen; and when Davis Webb and Pat Mahomes are positioned as gym rats, pay attention.
Jones acknowledged the challenge. “Most quarterbacks have that,” he said. ”Most quarterbacks, you’re gonna hear, they’re the leader of the team, they’re the face of the program. When most of them have that, well, then what’s the difference between top five guys who all have that mark? Is one better than the other? How would you rank them in terms of that rare leadership skill, that rare football character?”
It’s not easily quantifiable, but as Jones explains it now with the benefit of hindsight, the Cowboys did see it in Prescott. Thing is, Jones thinks if they’d dug deeper into it, it’d have been even more obvious. And if they’d valued those traits more, Dallas probably would’ve taken Prescott earlier.
“I think he’s rare compared to the guys who went in front of him,” Jones continued. “I don’t want to single guys out, that’s not fair, but he had football character, he had leadership skills, he had work ethic that was rare compared to most of the guys in front of him, if not all the guys picked in front of him. We need to pay more attention than we have in the past.
“That may be a trait that’s a differentiator even though most quarterbacks have it that are at least good. Is there a difference between good, great and rare?”
It’s something the Cowboys plan to apply to their process in looking at all positions now, at least as a tiebreaker, and potentially more in certain cases. And it may be important too, given the amount of turnover that Dallas will undergo on defense.
The thought here is that if the team can ID traits that helped Prescott assimilate quickly and excel early in defensive guys next week, the holes on that side of the ball will get filled more seamlessly.
As for where Prescott is, Jones is cautiously optimistic that, while the team learned a lot about scouting quarterbacks through this process, they won’t need a new starter for a long time to come.
“It’s probably a little bit early to call him a franchise quarterback, he has one year under his belt and this year coming up is crucial and critical in terms of how he responds,” Jones said. “Obviously, there’ll be a lot of time for a lot of people to watch tape on him and us in terms of how they defend us next year. He’ll be doing that work, too.
“My bet is Dak understands that, and knows that he’s got a lot of work in front of him, and he’s not going to catch anyone by surprise this year. He’s going to have to have that work ethic, that football character come out in spades for him, and he’ll have to work harder than he’s ever worked. That’ll be up to him.”
If the Cowboys’ work on this over the past months is correct, there’s not much to worry about there.