Sean Pendergast

The Aaron Hernandez Effect: NFL Teams are Getting Pickier in the Draft — or Not

As Robert Kraft sat on the witness stand, his neatly combed gray hair and immaculate blue sport coat belied his unsettled demeanor. The 73-year-old New England Patriots owner was fidgety and awkward as the prosecuting attorney in the Aaron Hernandez murder trial asked him what the then-accused, now-convicted former tight end told Kraft when he asked Hernandez if he had anything to do with the murder of Odin Lloyd.

“He said he was not involved,” Kraft replied. “That he was innocent and that he hoped that the time of the murder incident came out because he said he was in a club.”

As it turned out, in the eyes of at least a couple of jurors, Kraft’s testimony, which exposed one of a sea of lies Hernandez has been living the past few years, was instrumental in their decision to convict. Hernandez would be sent away for life without parole (pending a state-mandated appeal), perhaps the ultimate cautionary tale when it comes to the NFL’s pre-draft vetting process for college players.

So while the image of the uneasy Kraft represents a symbol of justice for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it ironically represents the ultimate nightmare for personnel decision-makers around the NFL. Could there be a bigger horror than your boss having to testify in a murder trial for a player that you chose?

The past 15 months have been an ordeal for the NFL’s image in the community, the ongoing Hernandez saga just one prong in a rampant criminal fork. Ray Rice’s domestic violence incident last February, Adrian Peterson’s child abuse case last summer and the usual offseason of weed and DUI arrests have left the NFL in an ongoing self-evaluation phase.

Roger Goodell’s harsh revisions to the league’s conduct policy last fall were the league office’s reaction to its spate of off-field turmoil. The reactions of the 32 teams themselves would be manifested months later as teams vetted college prospects for the 2015 NFL Draft.

“Would there be an Aaron Hernandez effect on teams’ evaluation processes?” we wondered. The early returns show that, at the very least, some teams may have adjusted their approach to certain transgressions that have traces of similarity to those of Hernandez, who in addition to being a convicted murderer, was revealed to be a chronic marijuana enthusiast, smoking on a near daily basis the last several years.

Prior to failing a drug test at the NFL’s scouting combine in February, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory was thought to be one of the top five players in the draft. After that fiasco, along with reports of other failed drug tests while he was in school, he plummeted to the 60th overall selection in the draft, by the Dallas Cowboys, a precipitous tumble for someone with elite on-the-field traits.

Similarly, Missouri defensive end Shane Ray was caught in a traffic stop with a small amount of marijuana just three days before the draft. Like Gregory, Ray was at one time seen as a top ten draft choice, and while his fall wasn’t as profound as Gregory’s — Ray went to the Broncos with the 23rd overall selection — it was most certainly for similar reasons.

Anecdotally, it’s easy to tie some semblance of Hernandez paranoia to players who are chronic drug abusers. However, there’s little doubt that the Hernandez trial and all of its graphic imagery were factored in as teams determined how to handle the case of LSU offensive tackle La’El Collins.

Like most expected first-round picks, Collins was in Chicago during the week leading up to the draft when he was summoned back to Baton Rouge for questioning in the murder of a pregnant ex-girlfriend named Brittney Mills. (Her unborn child was delivered after her death but died a few days later.) In a case of horrible timing, Collins had not been eliminated as a suspect when the draft began on April 30. Consequently, all 32 teams passed on him, and not just in the first round but in all seven rounds.

After he was questioned by Louisiana authorities, it was determined that Collins’s alibi checked out and he was indeed not a suspect in Mills’s murder. However, the damage was done, since Collins lost millions of dollars in guaranteed money and will now receive the league minimum as an undrafted free agent. In years past, a few teams might have taken a mid-round flier on Collins, but not now. Not post-Hernandez.

John Harris has covered the NFL Draft for more than a decade, and he now works for the Houston Texans as their sideline reporter and draft expert for the team’s website. The Texans have always been arguably the least crime—tolerant team in the NFL when it comes to selecting players. Harris thinks that with the intense scrutiny teams are now receiving, more of them will operate that way.

“There have always been teams that typically take ‘red flag character’ guys straight off of their draft board. The Texans aren’t the only one,” Harris said. “But more teams now than ever will avoid guys with any issue, completely and outright.”

The Texans’ philosophy of virtual zero crime tolerance goes back to Charley Casserly’s days as the team’s first general manager. Casserly listed some of the things that would immediately put a red line through a name for the Texans.

“If a player failed a drug test at the combine, he was off our board. We assumed a guy that knew a test was coming and still failed couldn’t manage his life,” Casserly said. “Anything with domestic violence that we were sure of, off the board. Multiple failed drug tests, off the board. Selling drugs, off the board.”

While the league appears to have re-evaluated how it’s handling players guilty of certain infractions, desperation to either climb from the NFL’s dregs or maintain NFL dominance will still drive some teams to draft unsavory characters.

“Teams still need to win, so some teams get desperate and rationalize that the players will change or that they can change these players,” said Harris. “As such, players with a checkered off-the-field past still find a home.”

Harris points out two players drafted fairly high in 2015 who clearly show that at least a couple of teams in the league still have a disturbing blind spot for one particular area of player misconduct — domestic violence.

“(Seattle’s) Frank Clark and (Tennessee’s) Dorial Green-Beckham, they were both kicked off their respective college teams for domestic violence issues, yet were taken in the second round,” Harris points out.

To Harris’s point, Green-Beckham was drafted in the second round by the Tennessee Titans even though he had not played football in more than a year and had allegedly shoved a woman down the stairs during his days playing wide receiver at Missouri. (He would eventually transfer to Oklahoma but never played a game there.)

Clark’s case is even more disturbing. A defensive end at Michigan, Clark was kicked off the team in November after an incident at a hotel room in Ohio in which he was arrested for allegedly punching and choking his then-girlfriend. This didn’t stop Seattle from taking Clark in the second round of the draft, and it didn’t stop Seahawks General Manager John Schneider from claiming the team had done its due diligence on Clark.

Unfortunately for Schneider, anyone with Internet access and working fingers can request a police report, and the details and photographs from Clark’s arrest are graphic and disturbing. Additionally, witness accounts obtained by the Seattle Times say that Clark’s then-girlfriend was “unconscious” and “definitely beat up.”

As it turned out, in doing their due diligence on Frank Clark, the only person the Seahawks interviewed who was there the night the incident occurred was Frank Clark. Such is the hubris of a front office with the equity of two recent Super Bowl appearances.

Indeed, oddly and depressingly, the one blind spot that appears to exist still for some NFL teams is in the area of domestic violence against women, which is ironic considering the wave of negative publicity caused by the Ray Rice incident last year, in which his blasting his then-fiancée (who’s now his wife) with a closed fist to the cheek was captured on an elevator security camera in an Atlantic City casino.

The NFL is a cutthroat business, and for every team that feels societal accountability is important, there’s a team willing to give Greg Hardy an eight-figure contract. Hardy was convicted of domestic abuse last year before the case was thrown out when his accuser (with whom he’d settled for an undisclosed sum) failed to show for the appeal hearing. The Dallas Cowboys signed Hardy in March.

“Teams have a philosophy. Some teams are more willing to take risk than others, some teams have stricter guidelines, some teams feel like they have a locker room that can take on some issues. Dallas clearly feels like they’re one of those teams,” Casserly said when asked about Randy Gregory and Greg Hardy.

“It’s as if some teams know what the issues have been, and they think they can fix it or that the support system is strong enough in the building to not allow that type of conduct to happen again,” Harris adds.

Still, the question remains, are teams trying to fix player misconduct or just processing it differently? Or are they selectively ignoring some things?

Unfortunately, the glacial speed of intolerance is probably best summed up by Buffalo Bills General Manager Doug Whaley. Whaley used middle-round draft picks on Florida State cornerback Ron Darby and Florida State running back Karlos Williams. Darby was a witness to the encounter in which his college teammate, quarterback Jameis Winston, was accused of rape. Williams was investigated for domestic violence in October but not charged.

When asked by the local media what types of indiscretions would eliminate a player from draft consideration, Whaley said, “For me, the one [where] I would not even want to sit down and talk to a player would be if a guy stole from his teammate. To me that is stealing from your family, and that to me is just not something I can deal with for what we’re doing. We’re trying to build a team and a family, and that locker room is sacred. And for that, I have a hard time with that. Obviously, there are some other things that if they’re guilty for murder and all that stuff, of course, but the indiscretions we’re talking about, yes, that would be it.”

So if you’re keeping score at home — stealing, murder and all that stuff. Those are the showstoppers for Doug Whaley. Kind of makes all those “No More” anti-DV commercials ring a little hollow. The wheels of change in evaluating player conduct are grinding in the NFL, but clearly they are grinding ever so slowly.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at or email him at [email protected]
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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast