The next group of prospective NFL draft prospects and veteran free agents will be the most heavily scrutinized athletes ever. Character and personal issues will take on a foremost role in making draft decisions. The Aaron Hernandez, Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases sent a shivering chill through coaching staffs and front offices across the league. Teams will be hyper-agressive in ensuring that the players they select do not have conduct that puts a season or franchise reputation in question.
The Personal Conduct policy issued by commissioner Roger Goodell last week lays out with crystal clarity which off-field behavior will not be tolerated. It is a long and expansive list of proscribed actions. It also reaffirms that an incident or arrest is enough to give an independent committee the right to hear the facts and act. The presumption of innocence that guides criminal courts is divorced from the standards the NFL will use. An incident will be investigated and punishment assigned if findings warrant -- immediately. The player will have the right of appeal, but will immediately be placed on leave with pay or on a commissioner exempt list.
The salary cap plays a critical role here. The cap deprives a team of the room to have high draft picks and valuable veterans as backups to starters. This means that when a talented starter is taken off a team's active list for personal conduct -- his cap space is frozen. The team has no real ability to go out and sign an equivalent player. It is not a matter of financial wherewithal. It is dead cap space. Even if they could find a replacement available, they can't sign him. For a team in the playoff hunt, the spector of off-field behavior destroying its chances has raised major anxiety.
How can a franchise guarantee for itself that it doesn't draft or sign a player with behavioral risk? The best predictor of future behavior is past conduct. Teams will use their own personnel and outside investigators to delve deep into a athletes past -- from grade school to the present. They will conduct interviews with coaches, friends, teachers, law enforcement to look for red flags. The players will be re-interviewed over and over again on questionable behavior during scouting.
Is there a reliable metric or test that can predict later problems? Dave Blanchard of the Og Mandino group in Salt Lake City has developed a test that can spot problematic behavioral tendencies. A team could either pass on the player, or take him knowing there is psychological work that must be done. Professor Josh Gordon of University of Oregon has done pioneering work in crisis prevention and intervention.
With the financial and performance stakes as high as they are in the NFL, psychological methodology is going to take center stage in evaluations. I have tried to profile prospective clients for years with great success, but it did not prevent us from representing QB Ryan Leaf.
The era of character has arrived.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.