In the months leading up to the 2007 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns front office circled a first-round prospect they had their eyes on. All the physical tools were there — a 5-foot-11 cornerback who ran a 4.36 40-yard dash and showcased NFL strength — this blue chipper from the San Francisco area had all the makings of an NFL starting DB. He interviewed well enough with team officials at the Scouting Combine, and his most recent college coach said he was on the straight and narrow.
But Eric Wright had a murky past.
Wright withdrew from USC after his sophomore season amid a cloudy combination of shady circumstances and foul play. A 19-year-old rising star on Pete Carroll’s BCS championship squad in the 2004 season, Wright was arrested at a campus apartment in March of ’05 by officers investigating reports of an assault. He was booked for investigation of rape and posted $100,000 bail. After the district attorney’s office did a thorough investigation, 136 pills of the drug Ecstasy were found in Wright’s room at an apartment he shared with another player near campus.
In most instances, regardless of what the player had done in the years that followed — whether it be charity work, Boys & Girls Club or church — such an incident would be enough to justify removing a player from the draft board.
But cover corners don’t grow on trees, and the Browns weren’t ready to strike a red line through the name of a guy they viewed as an elite talent. So they went to work. The Browns’ owner, Randy Lerner, had Lew Merletti, a former director of the Secret Service, personally conduct a background check into Wright. Merletti came away from it confident enough to offer Lerner an assurance, saying, "He’s going to be fine."
Again, corners don’t grow on trees, and when 31 other teams passed and Wright was available in the second round of the 2007 draft, the Browns selected him 53rd overall. Wright’s now an impending free agent looking for his next NFL contract. In his five years in the league, he never has run into any issues with the law.
In this year’s draft, the cornerback position is ripe with players with pasts just as cloudy as Wright’s.
At the top of every team’s defensive back list is a collection of names dotted with red flags and character question marks.
Dre Kirkpatrick, an elite Patrick Peterson-sized corner out of Alabama, is considered the second-best defensive back in this draft. Less than five days after declaring for the NFL Draft, he was in a former teammate’s rented vehicle that police said had 7.9 grams of marijuana in it. The charges were eventually dropped, but Kirkpatrick was grilled by teams and media over the weekend about the incident.
"It was just me being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the guy that left the marijuana in the car turned himself in," Kirkpatrick said of the incident near Bradenton, Fla. "He didn’t want to put me in that bad situation. He signed an affidavit saying that I was unaware of the marijuana being in the car, and the charges have been dropped.”
Wrong place, wrong time? Or is it more of a question of the types of people Kirkpatrick surrounds himself with? Or, does it even matter at all?
Brian Billick, an analyst for FOX Sports and the NFL Network, was asked about players with the dreaded “character” labels tied to their names.
"I’ve told this story a million times, and I’ll tell it again. We had a young man at the combine, and we had our 60 interviews and it was late in the process and you’re tired,” recalled Billick, the longtime head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. “And we have the information on these guys. And I’m sitting with the kid and looking at his rap sheet and nothing really serious, but enough stuff to know this guy is an issue. So, I said, ‘You’re tired, I’m tired — let’s cut to the chase: Are you a thug or are you stupid? Which is it?’
“He asked, ‘Are those my only options?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess you’re not stupid, OK.’ This kid went on and played 10 years in the NFL and never had an issue.”
Billick added: “So the toughest thing is the issues. Young people tend to do stupid things. Do you have a sense he understands he has to change his behavior? Is he willing to have the people around him now change his behavior? Going forward, is this an ingrained part of his character or did he just do some stupid things?
"If it’s the latter, you can be optimistic about the NFL and what’s at stake for him will help sort that out. If it’s an innate part of the character, that’s where you don’t want to make that mistake.”
Whereas Kirkpatrick being in a car with marijuana stands as his only real red flag, North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins’ rap sheet reads a little longer.
Jenkins arrived at the University of Florida as a highly recruited high school player with a big, bright future in his hands. In three years at Florida, though, Jenkins was arrested three times, failed (at least) one drug test, got in one highly publicized bar fight and was dismissed from the team by new Gators coach Will Muschamp last spring. Jenkins also has four children, all age 3 or younger.
He ended up at North Alabama for his senior season, where he was barely tested by opposing quarterbacks. Jenkins was rarely thrown at, leaving teams with his Florida tape and a whole lot of guesswork on the type of man he is.
"(They asked) about my past, the off-field issues, what happened at Florida, and how did I end up at North Alabama?” Jenkins said over the weekend. "I was honest, straightforward, and told them I did it. I admitted to everything, took full responsibility and that I learned from it.”
Pressed further, Jenkins said: “It made me a stronger person, taught me how to fight through reality — that I’ve got to separate myself from certain guys, certain people. To be successful at the next level, I can’t do the things I used to do.”
The NFL Network’s Mike Mayock took to the podium on Sunday, offering his take on “red flag” guys and the draft process: “Every year, I talk to you guys about different red flags, medical, off-the-field. There are all kinds of red flags. What is always interesting to me is how different teams treat those red flags. There’s no one uniform way to deal with a kid off the field. That’s why I think it’s really important for a kid that’s had issues to come in here and for the next two months they’re going to be asked nine-gazillion questions.”
“It’s all public. It’s all out there. The teams know more than we do. You’ve got to look these guys in the eye and have the right answers and, most importantly, convince them it’s not going to happen again.”
The Detroit Lions are a team with a definite need at cornerback.
“There’s a lot of things that you can do during the process,” said their general manager, Martin Mayhew. “Obviously, speaking with people before, you can get to his hometown, that usually helps out a lot. But as far as analyzing those guys, each situation is different and you want to take them on a case-by-case basis. If we get to a point as we delve deeper where we don’t feel comfortable, then, obviously, we can stop digging at that point. But we will continue to look into backgrounds. Until we get a comfort level with the guy and we make a decision to move on."
Though Jenkins’ rap sheet got the most play this week, he’s not alone on the list. Janzen Jackson was a star defensive back with Tennessee. Lining up next to Eric Berry as free safety for Monte Kiffin’s defense in ’09, Jackson had 37 tackles and an interception. The next year, he was an All-Southeastern Conference selection. A big body who could play either corner or safety at the next level, Jackson has the size and skill to be a second-day selection.
He also has a past. Incidents off the field — personal issues and suspensions — resulted in Jackson being away from the Vols in early 2010. When head coach Derek Dooley installed a zero-tolerance rule for last season, Jackson was dismissed after an incident in August. Jackson ended up playing at tiny McNeese State last season. Like Jenkins, he wasn’t tested much, leaving a lot of filling in the blanks for scouts and GMs these next few months.
“It’s a function of research and trying to get to know the player,” said Houston Texans GM Rick Smith. “We take a position that we don’t penalize a player or kill a player because he made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. What you don’t want, you don’t want repeat offenders because that will indicate something that’s maybe a deeper issue. We won’t just take a player off of our board for character reasons if he makes a single mistake. If there is repeated, repetitive behavior that suggests something different than that, then we become a little bit more concerned and that’s what this process is about.”
Smith, who took high character guys J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed with his first two picks last year, added, “If you’ve got a team full of players who have that discipline in the fourth quarter, in the big time in the game where the pressure is at its height, those guys with discipline tend to continue to do the things that they need to do in order to perform and execute and continue to be successful.”
Cliff Harris was an consensus All-America cornerback at Oregon in 2010. A 5-10 cover corner with tremendous hands, Harris also returns kicks and is considered a second- or third-round talent. Last June, he was cited for driving a car 118 mph somewhere other than a racetrack.
“It was fun, but it was a bonehead move,” Harris said Sunday at the combine. “I come from a family of drag racers. I was raised at the races. Going fast is almost in my blood, but I have to do it at the right time and at the right place.”
Harris was later dismissed for the final seven games of the season after being cited for driving with a suspended license and without proper insurance or a seatbelt. He then was released from the program for good in December. He was cited for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in Fresno, Calif., on Nov. 25, leading to the final nail in the coffin of his Ducks career.
“I was young. I was dumb. I made a couple of bonehead moves,” Harris said. “From the success I was having and having it taken away just like that, that was an eye-opener for me. I’m ready to prove that I’m not going to make those same mistakes.”
Harris showed up at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, not to play in the game or make news about himself, but to watch. He came unannounced, bought his own ticket, and sat in the stands cheering on his ex-teammates as they beat Wisconsin. NFL coaches and scouts like that. He has said and done all the right things since his dismissal in December and has been on his best behavior in 2012. How much can Harris do and say, though, to make up for his past mistakes?
Cornerbacks don’t grow on trees, but one bad apple can ruin a batch. Sometimes, it comes down to just how bad that apple really is. Other times, it’s a matter of how desperately teams need that apple.
“At what level do you buy in? At a first-round price? At a second-round price? At a fourth-round price? Every team’s different that way,” said Mayock. “I already know some teams have certain players off the board. I’m not going to give you any names. But I know some teams have some players already off the board. ‘I’m not dealing with that player.’ Some teams say, ‘That’s a first-round pick, but I don’t care.’ Other teams say, ‘He’s off the board.’ And there’s a bunch of teams in the middle somewhere.”
Kirkpatrick, Jenkins, Jackson and Harris are four of the top cornerbacks in the 2012 NFL Draft. Like Wright five years before them, their pasts are going to be poked and prodded and inspected thoroughly during the next two months.
Teams will need to decide — are they thugs, or were they just being stupid?