NFL teams forced to evaluate if a player is worth the risk

TAMPA, Fla. — Charley Casserly had a few firm rules when it came to evaluating potential signees. The former general manager knew it was a flawed process to begin with — “It’s humans evaluating humans,” he said — but the science behind studying possible targets required care and perspective.
Each franchise approaches the “Should we or shouldn’t we?” debate differently in the draft and free agency, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and teams throughout the NFL face the question each time they balance the risks and rewards involved when studying potential problem players. Cornerback Eric Wright, charged with misdemeanor DUI July 12 in Los Angeles, proved to be a miss when the Bucs released him following a failed physical after the Bucs and the San Francisco 49ers agreed to a trade that would have sent Tampa Bay a conditional 2014 draft pick.
Meanwhile, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told reporters earlier this summer that troubled tight end Aaron Hernandez “duped” the entire franchise before the player was charged with murder.
During his work in the NFL, which included front-office roles for the Washington Redskins (1977-1999) and Houston Texans (2002-2006), Casserly approached signing questionable free agents in two ways: A basic organizational philosophy matters, but there also must be a grasp of where the team stands.
“If you have a veteran team with a strong locker room, you may take a chance with a veteran player with the idea that the locker room is strong enough where nobody is going to listen to this guy or be influenced by him,” Casserly told FOX Sports Florida. “You won’t tolerate problems, but you may gamble a bit because of the strength of your locker room.”
That gamble may be taken for many reasons, and since choices are made with no guarantee of positive results, there are misses with the makes. Wright and Hernandez are recent examples of risks gone badly. But there are other players with borderline reputations, like St. Louis Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins (73 tackles and four interceptions as a rookie last year), who have made quality impacts for their teams.
In Tampa Bay’s case, coach Greg Schiano said he and general manager Mark Dominik “made an organizational decision with Eric.” Wright also was arrested on suspicion of felony DUI in July 2012, a charge that was later dropped, and he served a four-game suspension starting last November for testing positive for Adderall.
Inside One Buc Place, Tampa Bay coaches quickly moved beyond Wright. Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said, “Any time you lose a player for any reason, in our business, we’re so much into moving on.”
Defensive backs coach Tony Oden added, “I can only talk about the players who are here now. … I’m sure he’ll be fine in whatever he isn’t with us.”
Meanwhile, Schiano allowed, “Part of leadership is doing what’s best for the group, for the whole.”
Teams work to prevent Wright-like situations. In his time as a general manager, Casserly trusted his scouts as the best sources of research on a possible signee’s character. There were some black-and-white stances he refused to deviate from: If a player failed multiple drug tests, he did not want to deal with him; in addition, if a player had a history of abusing women, the interest would end.
But there were other gray areas, possible openings to take a chance. Especially with a veteran player, perhaps one DUI arrest or one failed drug test would be enough for Casserly and his advisers to ask, “Did this guy make a mistake?”
“When I was with the Redskins, we had a strong locker room, a strong head coach (Joe Gibbs), strong veteran team,” said Casserly, now an analyst with the NFL Network. “So you could take a player who maybe had a troubled past. You wouldn’t put up with it once he was there, but usually the player realized, ‘I’m at the end of my career, and I’m going to do it.’
“We saw this with Randy Moss. The guy quit on the Raiders. He goes to New England and is hustling his butt off, etc. … If you have a young team that is a developing team, you absolutely can’t have those guys around, because the players are young and impressionable. There’s no veteran leadership to shut them down.”
To Casserly, the traits studied in possible “risk” cases varied. Each instance was unique, he said, but intelligence was one aspect of a player’s profile that held considerable weight.
His reasoning: Smart players have fewer problems on and off the field. To him, intelligence indicates a higher level of discipline and responsibility. Signing talent is important, but if that skill is squandered because of poor personal choices, mistakes happen.  
“If you don’t think a guy is very smart, he’s probably not going to solve his problems, whatever they are,” Casserly said.
Of course, problems allow a chance for coaches and front-office executives to second-guess their strategy. However, there is no definitive way to determine if a player will become another Wright or a Hernandez, or grow into someone like Cris Carter, who overcame drinking problems and a cocaine addiction to become a Hall of Fame wide receiver with the Minnesota Vikings.
When humans evaluate humans, misreads are possible, the future is unknown.
“Don’t worry about the ones you miss on, only worry about the ones you take,” Casserly said. “We had a certain system with Joe Gibbs were there were some players that we didn’t take (who) went on and were really good football players. They didn’t fit our system. That’s fine. We didn’t worry about them.
“You stick with your philosophy that you believe in. And in the long run, you’re going to hit more correct decisions on taking a guy or not taking them on character than the ones you might miss.”
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