October 2, 2014

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Problem picks? Browns’ Heckert has to decide on players with issues

BEREA — The NFL Draft, by its nature, is filled with questions.

Does the cornerback run fast enough? How strong is the lineman? Can the receiver catch consistently? Who’s good enough to compete against NFL talent?

Most of the on-field questions can be answered by watching game film and attending individual workouts. The tougher questions come when a general manager evaluates the character of 300 men in their early 20s.

These future millionaires are also college kids who do stupid college things. It’s the job of Browns general manager Tom Heckert to determine who learned from his mistakes and who is likely to mess up again.

“It’s unfortunate that we do have to deal with a lot of this stuff,” Heckert said Thursday in a predraft news conference. “If you say you are not taking anybody that has anything, then you aren’t going to draft very many players. It’s a case-by-case basis.

“A lot of this stuff is typical college stuff, especially when it happens as a freshman or sophomore. We are not condoning anything, but they are young kids and it’s going to happen.”

Former Browns coach Eric Mangini was adamant about drafting guys with clean backgrounds. His critics said he preferred intellect over talent, and it showed in the win-loss record.

Heckert doesn’t have his list of core characteristics painted on the practice field, but he’s also a strong believer in finding guys with good character. In his second draft with the Browns, he expects to strengthen the locker room as well as the talent pool.

“It is very important for us,” he said last week during a conference call with season-ticket holders. “When Eric was here, it was important to him. It’s important to Coach (Pat) Shurmur.

“Probably the toughest part of our jobs as evaluators is finding out about character. You try to talk to as many people as you can, the strength coach, other players on the team.”

The top of the 2011 draft, which begins Thursday, has its share of off-the-field questions. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley has been accused of taking plays off and delivering cheap shots. North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn was suspended for the 2010 season for accepting improper benefits from an agent. Georgia receiver A.J. Green was suspended four games for selling his jersey to an agent. And Auburn quarterback Cam Newton has too many red flags to condense into a sentence.

“You have to talk about each individual thing because there are a zillion of them,” Heckert said. “We try not to just take a guy off the board because of an incident without at least trying to find out about it.”

Heckert is laid-back in his dealings with the media, but showed some fire when asked about the perception that Fairley didn’t always play hard at Auburn.

“The stuff that is being thrown out there, it really bothers me,” he said. “Some of the stuff you hear about is legit, but they toss around a lot of stuff way too easily and I do think it affects the kids. I personally don’t like it.

“As a scouting whole in the NFL we bring it on ourselves and it’s not a good thing. The scouts talk too much about their opinions to other people and I don’t think they should. It’s not an issue for us.”

Trying to decipher whether a player will be trouble in the NFL is a consuming process. The teams run extensive background checks, interview former coaches and teammates and meet with the prospect personally.

“We try to do as much homework as we can,” Heckert said. “Mistakes are going to be made. But the mistakes we aren’t going to make is stuff we know about guys and take them anyway.

“That doesn’t work very often. You think they’re going to change. I’ve been around a long time, they usually don’t change.”

Not only does questionable character put millions of the franchise’s dollars in jeopardy, it adds unnecessary stress to the coaching staff.

“I hate to bring in a guy you know is high-maintenance,” Heckert said. “The staff spends more time with him off the field than on it.”

The draft is like the stock market. The correct balance of risk and reward is needed.

An incident of recreational drug use in the dorm room may not be considered as serious as an assault arrest. An NCAA suspension for accepting gifts from an agent may not even register.

The ultimate decision often comes down to the impression Heckert gets when he meets the prospect.

“You really have to try to get to know the player that has had an issue and kind of find out if you trust the kid,” he said. “If you think it’s over with and it was a one-time thing or an immaturity thing, and now he knows obviously he can’t do this, it’s a gut feeling, I guess.

“I’m not saying that we would take anybody, but there are circumstances. A guy might have a little character thing and we feel good enough about it and we’ll take the kid.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.