Off-field issues are a growing concern in the NFL. Ahead of the draft last year, players like La'el Collins, Randy Gregory and Dorial Green-Beckham forced general managers to weigh talent against their own tolerance for trouble. This year's class also has its share of players with red flags. Just this past week, two NFL hopefuls were arrested and will likely go undrafted. Tight end Tyler Higbee was charged with second-degree assault, public intoxication and evading police. Former Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman was arrested Wednesday in connection to a sexual assault investigation.
In December, TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin was arrested for punching a police officer, and although he was apologetic afterward, it could end up being the determining factor in whether he'll be drafted or not. Ole Miss lineman Robert Nkemdiche was also arrested in December for marijuana possession after falling out of a hotel window, but there's no doubt that he will hear his name called at the NFL Draft. However, he went from a sure-fire first-rounder to a possible Day 2 pick.
On-field talent can often outweigh off-field drama -- Nkemdiche is a huge talent, while Boykin is more of a project -- but in the court of public opinion, fans sometimes draw the line, especially when it comes to the draft.
At the NFL Combine, Buccaneers GM Jason Licht spoke on the importance of evaluating a player's character before the draft.
"You know, I would say 90 percent of the guys that the public deems -- or we do -- as ‘busts' in the league, after you draft them, it all has to do with what goes on above the neck," Licht said. "Whether it's a character issue or a mental issue or football intelligence or just being passionate about football, those are things that we put a lot of resources in to find out about a player."
Doublespeak allows for wiggle room
General managers want to leave their options open in terms of taking a risk with a potential problem prospect, but also don't want their organization's reputation tainted as one that values talent over morality.
When asked at the Combine specifically about defensive end prospect Noah Spence -- who was kicked out of Ohio State for drug-related issues, finishing his college career at Eastern Kentucky -- Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell kept it vague. He wouldn't rule players out for past indiscretions, while still having a line for the organization that cannot be crossed.
"Each case is different. We put a premium on character and highly intelligent guys who are tough and well-rounded individuals. We're not going to be perfect and the kids aren't going to be perfect either. They're 21-, 22-year old kids and it's our job to help develop them, not only on the field but off," Caldwell said. "Each issue is different. We have a threshold of things that are acceptable and aren't acceptable."
Executive VP of personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles Howie Roseman had a similar comment that teetered between what is and is not tolerated -- and acknowledging why it varies throughout the league.
"You've got to be careful about taking guys off your board because they went through something when they were young, and kind of not giving them the chance to show how they've changed their lives. At the same time, there are dealbreakers for your organization, and you've got to sit down as an organization and discuss those things and come up with a criteria that's probably more objective than subjective."
People can change
There are some obvious red flags that teams try to avoid, but even Baltimore Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome acknowledged, despite their best efforts, people can change once they enter the league. Former Ravens running back Ray Rice had never shown any signs of trouble before he was arrested for domestic violence in 2014.
"Would we draft someone that has a sexual assault with what we went through [with Rice]? We won't. That came down from my owner. So, those players that have that in their background, we stay away from them. But we look at every case in a very separate and individual manner.
"We've dealt with players who once we get them in the building, they do change."
Change for a player isn't always a bad thing, with some considering an opportunity to play in the NFL as their second chance to get things right. One success story has been Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu. Just three years after being kicked off the LSU football team for repeated drug violations and an arrest in 2012, the free safety was voted into the Pro Bowl for his 2015 performance. Despite being unable to participate due to injuries, Mathieu in three years has all but erased his former reputation, and is known as one of the best secondary players in the NFL.
Colts GM Ryan Grigson said there is no formula for judging players.
"It's an inexact science. Any Hall of Fame GM will tell you or anybody who's been in the business, you're lucky if you hit half the time. You're really doing well for yourself."
Managers succeed and fail based on these decisions
It isn't always a breeze for general managers, who sometimes swing and miss when taking a gamble on someone's character. The Cleveland Browns have had a particularly tough time over the past few years with the well-documented Johnny Manziel saga, and Josh Gordon still serving an indefinite suspension for drug issues. This offseason, the Browns fired GM Ray Farmer.
The Bucs drafted Jameis Winston with the first pick last year, despite a sexual assault investigation and a shoplifting incident during his time at Florida State. Winston has stayed out of trouble in his first season in the NFL and started every game for the Bucs as a rookie. Licht described it as intuition more than anything.
"You look for some humility, a sense of humor -- just being genuine and owning up to their mistakes, if they've made some, which most of them have," Licht explained. "So, it's just kind of a gut feel, between myself, Coach Koetter and whoever is in the room doing the interviewing together."
It's a tough decision, whether to draft based on talent or on character, but there are still plenty of NFL prospects who have both.