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Meriweather a questionable character

Safety's past may impact draft status

BRANDON Meriweather's interviews with NFL teams at the league's scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February were conducted in $185-a-night hotel rooms. But the line of questioning was more suited for an interrogation room down at the cop house.

The University of Miami safety is considered one of the top defensive backs in the draft. Strictly on the basis of talent, a definite first-rounder.

But with a tougher personal-conduct policy now in place that allows commissioner Roger Goodell to throw the book not only at misbehaving players, but also the clubs that employ them, teams are going to be more mindful of the character issue when they make their draft-day choices.

For that reason, some teams may have some trepidation about selecting Meriweather in the first round on Saturday, even though he's considered by many scouts to be the best cover safety in the draft.

Last July, he fired three rounds from a handgun at an assailant who had shot his Miami teammate, Willie Cooper, in the buttocks. He was not charged because he had a permit to carry the gun and police determined he had acted in self-defense. But the fact that he even had a gun to fire set off alarm bells in NFL personnel offices.

Then, 3 months later, Meriweather, one of the Hurricanes' team captains, played a starring role in an ugly on-field brawl between Miami and crosstown Florida International University. Cameras caught Meriweather stomping on the heads of several FIU players during the fight. He was suspended for one game.

Meriweather was grilled about both incidents at the combine and again this month in personal visits with teams. He hopes that he has put their fears to rest, though he thinks the fact that he played at Miami makes that more difficult than had he played at, say, Notre Dame or Michigan.

"When you think of a Miami player, the first thing you think of is 'thug,' " he told reporters last week during a visit with the New York Giants. "But I'm not a thug. I'm not a bad guy. I can only let people think what they're going to think until they meet me and realize, 'This isn't a bad guy. This is a good guy.'

"If it was a Michigan guy who did it, it would have gotten pushed under the rug. They would have said one or two things about it, then they probably would have let it go. But since it was Miami who did it, my name and a couple more names got blown up with it."

Meriweather offers no apologies for the shooting incident last July. He said he was simply defending a friend who had been shot. His actions in the Florida International game, though, are a different story.

"We got caught up in the emotions of the game, and we should have known better," he said. "Unfortunately, we made bad decisions.

"I was a leader and I should have known better. I should have done a little more to prevent it from happening. Will it hurt me on draft day? We'll find out on draft day."

The Daily News talked to five NFL scouts about Meriweather. Four said the two incidents last year weren't enough to cause them to take him off their draft board or move him out of the first round.

"He's got some issues," said the fifth scout, who works for an NFC club. "We're not looking for a safety that early, but if we were, we wouldn't take him in the first round. Not because of ability, but because of the other stuff. You've just got to be careful with those Miami kids."

One AFC player personnel director said that because of the new personal-conduct policy, there probably are a few more teams that have "red-flagged" Meriweather and other players with off-the-field issues this year than would have been the case last year.

"I think the red flags might come out a little bit faster this year because of all the trouble the league's going through," he said. "And nobody wants trouble. It's hard to take known trouble. You're going to take some by mistake. But when you already know about it, you're going to be hesitant.

"In Meriweather's case, I don't think [his issues] are going to wipe him off the board. But if there were 20 teams that wouldn't have had red flags on him last year, there might be only 10 or 12 this year."

There certainly are other players in the draft with more serious character questions than Meriweather.

Florida defensive tackle Marcus Thomas once was considered a potential top-15 pick. But he flunked two drug tests for marijuana last year and later was thrown off the team for skipping a drug-education class. If he gets drafted this weekend, it almost certainly won't be until the second day.

Eric Wright, of UNLV, may be the best cornerback in the draft. But a 2004 arrest for suspicion of rape and the presence of the drug ecstasy in his apartment when he was at USC have teams running scared. Even though no charges were filed in the rape case and he repeatedly has claimed the ecstasy belonged to his roommate, he likely won't get taken until the second round.

"If he had a clean off-the-field record, we'd be talking about him as the No. 1 corner," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, a former NFL cornerback. "Right now, some teams at the bottom of the first round are sitting there trying to convince themselves that [Wright] is not that bad of a guy because he's so physically gifted."

The Eagles' opinion of Meriweather's character is important because safety is a direction they could go in Saturday with their first-round pick, the 26th overall. Eagles general manager Tom Heckert has said that Meriweather is a "good guy" and suggested that the shooting incident and the kid's role in the brawl with Florida International wouldn't make them reluctant to draft him. And while that may be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the fact of the matter is, if the Eagles have indeed red-flagged Meriweather, it would be foolish for Heckert to admit it right now.

Strictly from the standpoint of how he was used in college, Meriweather is more "ready" to step in and play in the Eagles' defensive scheme than Florida's Reggie Nelson, who also is expected to be taken in the second half of the first round. Nelson was used mainly as a centerfielder at UF and has little in-the-box safety experience.

"You've seen [Meriweather] do more of the things our safeties do," Heckert said. "He's played nickel, so he's played in-the-box type of stuff. You see more out of Meriweather [than Nelson]. Not to say the other guy can't do it. We just haven't seen him do it."

If last year's incidents don't end up hurting his draft stock, there's a good possibility Meriweather could be off the board Saturday by the time the Eagles pick.

"In this day and age of the NFL where early-round safeties need to be interchangeable between strong safety and free safety, [Meriweather] is a kid that can play both,'' Mayock said. "He's the best cover safety in the draft. He can cover the slot guy man-to-man with no help. Some people think he's too small [5-10 1/2, 195], but he's tough enough to play in the box. He's not a big hitter, but he will tackle and bring you down. To me, he's a top-20 pick."

Meriweather likes the sound of that.

"I'm not the biggest, I'm not the strongest, I'm not the fastest," he said. "But I can play corner and I can play safety. I'm versatile. When people ask me what I am, I just say that I'm a difference-maker." *