The one question asked of Bill Belichick more than any other Wednesday — albeit in multiple forms — was whether the Aaron Hernandez situation will change the way the New England Patriots evaluate players moving forward.
By all accounts, Hernandez came into the NFL practically waving red flags. The fact he slipped to the fourth round revealed every team knew he wasn’t a model citizen. An accused murderer? Maybe not. But a player with a host of character issues? Sure.
The Patriots took a chance on Hernandez, and Belichick, facing roughly two dozen news cameras and about 75 reporters Wednesday, was paying the price for that move three-plus years ago.
Knowing what he knows now, would Belichick make a similar decision? Or more to the point, will he change the way he comes to such a decision in the future?
"The process is the same as what it’s been for the last 14 years," Belichick said. "I think that we’ll continue to try to look at ourselves in the mirror and see where we can do a better job, maybe where we can improve the process. But I think the fundamentals of the process will remain the same."
He added, "I don’t know where those little things will come from, but we’ll continue to be diligent on them."
While that’s the stance publicly, things are changing a bit privately.
A source who has spoken to the Patriots’ front office on this matter told FOX Sports the team has become sensitive to the fallout from the Hernandez situation and will be more careful in regard to signing or drafting players who have had legal and behavioral issues. The source said it’s been communicated to the scouting and personnel staff the standards for adding players with character and legal concerns have been raised.
To put it succinctly, the source said, "Some of the red flags that used to get through won’t be getting through."
The Patriots have taken their share of chances on players whose issues range from on-field and locker-room behavior to legal concerns. They’ve acquired Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, Albert Haynesworth, Brandon Meriweather, Donte’ Stallworth, Aqib Talib and others who couldn’t be controlled elsewhere, surely with Belichick believing he could keep them in line. In some cases, he was right — if only for a while. In others, he was wrong from the jump.
With Hernandez, there were plenty of warning signs, all of which the Patriots ignored once they were ready to make their sixth pick of the 2010 draft. Teams knew about Hernandez’s dabbling with marijuana, but that’s rarely been enough to knock a player off of a board by itself. Other issues, such as the company he kept, hovered around Hernandez and scared a few teams off.
It’s unclear how much information Belichick and the Pats had on Hernandez and whether Belichick’s friend Urban Meyer convinced him Hernandez’s troubles were behind him. But as it pertains to the Patriots’ future, expect the standards to be much higher.
"We’ve talked about that. We’ve talked about what we want to do on that subject going forward," Belichick said when asked whether the team will change its pre-draft psychological screening. "I don’t think we’re quite there yet. The draft is nine months off or whatever it is. Again, we have a process in place. Can it be improved? Can it be modified? It possibly can. We’ll certainly look at it."
One NFC personnel man said there are three things most teams agree are enough to scare a club off of a player: violence against women, assault with a deadly weapon and intent to distribute drugs.
The Patriots have looked past the deadly-weapon issue before. Meriweather and Talib had gun-related incidents before they were added to the roster.
This week, the Pats brought in former North Carolina Central defensive tackle John Drew for a workout. It was the second time this summer Drew worked out for the Pats, but they decided to sign Anthony White instead. While at Duke, Drew and two teammates were arrested for firing a handgun into the air. The players received a suspended sentence, served community service and paid a $500 fine.
Given Drew’s transfer from Duke after being kicked off of the team, the Patriots surely knew his history. But their decision to work him out twice and then not sign him after a report indicated they were closing in on deal was enough to raise a question to Belichick.
"We had multiple players in," Belichick said, "and we signed the player that we thought was best for our football team."
Does that mean talent-wise? Or a combination of talent and circumstances? Here’s where a somewhat-forthcoming Belichick was vague on a topic during his 22-minute session with reporters.
"Each decision will be done on a case-by-case basis," he said, "and we’ll make the decision we feel is best for the New England Patriots football team."
What’s best for the Patriots is no longer the best player, bar none. What’s best for a franchise that has been rocked to the point of Belichick taking responsibility for every player who has walked into the building since he arrived in 2000 — most of whom have made him "proud," he said — is a combination of skill and character.
Don’t expect a collection of 53 angels. There will still be Patriots with past issues. And in the case of incidents involving current players that are serious but not quite alleged murder (i.e. Alfonzo Dennard’s recent DUI), don’t anticipate players being run off the roster as quickly as Hernandez.
But do expect a change in how the Patriots evaluate players to be added to the team. Those glaring red flags will not be ignored, at least not anytime soon.
"It’s time for the New England Patriots to move on and that’s what our job is," Belichick said, and he surely means it. "Our goal is the same: to have a winning football team, to be a pillar in the community. That’s what our direction is; that’s what we’re going to do."