Here's more from my interviews with former Browns and Jets coach Eric Mangini, former Colts, Bills and Panthers general manager Bill Polian and former Redskins and Texans general manager Charley Casserly on red-flagged players in the NFL Draft. Polian and Mangini are now ESPN analysts, while Casserly is with the NFL Network.
Q: Do red-flagged players get debated weeks ahead or does it come down to draft week?
A: “Everybody does it a little bit different. In New York and Cleveland we spent a lot of time on that. We talk about ‘em, but even with these things like the Honey Badger or Manti Te’o, other issues outside of general intangibles, you want to get to the truth. My discussion with the coaches and scouts is always "if we make a decision to take this guy, we’re making a decision based on the facts and we can live with that.' But what we didn’t want to do is not have all that information and be surprised by a guy when he got there.
“The other thing you’re trying to figure out is, ‘Is this a mistake because we all do dumb things, we all do things we regret. Is it that or is it a pattern of behavior that’s not showing any signs of changing?’ That’s an important distinction, too.”
Q: If you were debating a player like the Honey Badger, do you discuss how high you’d pick him if he falls?
A: “That’s another thing that comes into play where you say, ‘OK, this guy has first-round, second-round, third-round talent. We’re not going to take him there because we think the risk of him repeating this behavior is too high.’ If he’s there in the sixth round, where it doesn’t cost as much to get him or to move onto him if we have to, that’s where we’ll take a chance.
“A lot of times you have very clear discussions with the player prior to him coming in, what expectations are, what the reaction’s going to be if there’s repeat behavior so there’s no ambiguity.”
Q: Can you think of some of the weird cases you’ve heard of?
A: “Any issue you can think of has probably come up, whether it be drug use or arrested with someone who was using drugs or had drugs in the apartment. It could be theft, where they didn’t go out and rob somebody, but they knew what they were doing was wrong. Guys charge extra money on their college accounts or they bought college textbooks and then sold them on the open market. There’s ticket stuff.
“There’s things that guys haven’t been caught for, but they’ve got some beautiful car they’re driving around on campus that obviously they can’t afford or they have an apartment … things that don’t add up. People know about it, but it’s never been reported, they’ve never been caught for any of this.
“When you go through these background checks, things come up where you go, ‘Oh, my God.’ You wonder with some of the kids and they’re background, how they’ve stayed as straight as they’ve stayed. Gang background, drug abuse, physical abuse, foster homes. The fact they’re being considered and they’ve gotten out of college, you’ve almost got to give them extra extra points for that.”
Q: Have red-flag players increased or the issues gotten worse?
A: “I don’t think the issues have gotten worse, I think the amount of information available has gotten a lot greater. Now most of the things kids do are out there; they’re putting some of those issues out there themselves with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Everything gets recorded. If it’s not recorded on a national level by beat writers, it’s on a blog. It’s harder for guys to get in trouble and it not be found out.”
Q: Does the league investigate some of these issues or is it just the teams?
A: “I don’t remember getting very much information from the league. A lot of it’s scouts. There are computer programs where you can put names into the program and it has I don’t know how many keywords – robbery, assault. If there’s ever been an article written about it with that guy in the article, those things come up. Typically you run all the guys through background checks, so you know if they have parking tickets or DUIs or outstanding warrants. Then you can go deeper and send an investigator to a guy’s hometown and have them go to a job they’ve had, go to the high school, talk to their friends.”
Q: Do you investigate all the guys you might pick, even way down the list?
A: “As you go through the meetings, you don’t know how they’re all going to shake out. You try to gather as much information that your scouts have exposure to. It starts their work as juniors after the draft. It’s building up this database. How they fall on the draft board changes dramatically over the course of this process. If you don’t do it for everybody, a guy you thought might be a fifth-rounder bumps up to a second-rounder, as things shake out you do more work on the guys in the early rounds.”
Q: Do you do any of this in between nights of the draft?
A: “That’s pretty much all done.”
Q: How did you handle it on your draft board?
A: “You’ll have tags on a card. A guy may get a ‘C’ tag for character. You may use a color code. 100 players into the draft you’re not going to remember everybody. But if you’ve got something on that card, saying, ‘Before you draft this guy, remember.’ You can pull up the reports on your computer, ‘This is what happened, this is what we said about it, this is what we know, this is where we feel comfortable drafting him.’
“When you stack the board, the guys with higher round talent and problems, you say, ‘This is where his ability is. This is where we’d be willing to bring him in.’
Some guys you take off the board completely.”
Q: Are teams more sophisticated now in the way they identify and deal with this?
A: “We’ve been dealing with it kind of the same way for about 10 years because lots of information is out there in the public domain, which can be researched and which teams routinely do. You’re dealing with young men of college age, none of us would like our lives scrutinized at that age. General managers and head coaches and personnel directors know the difference between what is serious and what is nothing more than a typical college student and act accordingly.
“The only thing that’s different in the last 10 years is that so much more of it becomes media fodder, the epitome of which was the Te’o situation.”
Q: In the draft room have you fought for a guy who was red-flagged?
A: “We wouldn’t red flag him on the board until we made the final decision, but that’s really a detail.
“The issue is discussed on a case by case basis and there were many times when we reached a consensus where we said, ‘This guy is not a problem. He had a little dust-up, got a speeding ticket, he wasn’t responsive to some parking tickets, we’re not going to hold that against him.’ That’s what we have player development people for, to help them recognize that the NFL is a workplace and not college any more and you can deal with that. You have other issues and you discover the background of the player is incredibly difficult. Every once in a while you’ll come across an off-the-wall situation like the Te’o situation.”
Q: Could the Browns’ situation with Jeremiah Pharms happen today?
A: “I doubt that would be the case.”
Q: Does the organization decide where you stand on these types of players?
A: “Yeah. It’s no different than any other employer. Some employers will not worry about any person’s outside-of-work life as long as they don’t break the law. Others are more concerned about it. It’s a value judgment each organization makes.”
Q: Are there more red flag players this year or just more high-profile ones?
A: “ I don’t see anything different this year than in other years. There’s always a few players who have issues. Obviously Manti Te’o, that’s a first-timer. That’s a little different, that’s the age we live in.”
Q: Is the investigative level more sophisticated?
A: “There are a number of levels of things that people do and we did a lot of them. We subscribed to an investigative firm, they could research players. We did a LexusNexus search on terms, we had like 70 terms we could put in the computer and put up each name, it could be arrest, theft, suspension, things like that, see what was ever printed on a player like that. The league office would do investigations in a general sense that would be available. What I honestly found was your best research mechanism was your area scouts. They dig up a lot. You want to keep cross-checking things with other methods.”
Q: Has Twitter and Facebook changed this process?
A: “That’s probably what’s changed. People research Facebook, research Twitter to get a profile on a player. You can learn a lot by that.”