WHEN NFL SCOUTS attend Pro Days at various colleges, they are just as apt to be interested in a prospective rookie's performance in one-on-one interviews as they are in his time in the 40-yard dash or distance in the standing broad jump.
Having a clean rap sheet and high marks for good citizenship might not gain a college player a significantly higher place in the draft if he doesn't demonstrate the athleticism to play at the next level, but questions about his character can cause his stock to drop like the Dow Jones in a bear market. No one wants to burn a high pick on this year's version of Lawrence Phillips, the former Nebraska running back whose undeniable talent on the field was shrouded by his penchant for slapping women around and other violations of societal mores.
At Penn State's Pro Day, two players who had off-the-field problems during their stay in Happy Valley admitted they spent as much or more time addressing those transgressions as they did being clocked, weighed and measured. Even seven-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Warren Sapp cost himself millions of bonus dollars in the 1995 draft because he tested positive for marijuana beforehand and was deemed by some teams to be too much of a high-first-round risk. He finally was taken with the 12th pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, several slots lower than anticipated.
Outside linebacker Navorro Bowman and tight end Andrew Quarless each said he was interrogated thoroughly by the NFL talent evaluators whose reports could determine the outset of their professional future.
"Regarding the off-the-field issues, I was going through some things and hard times," said Bowman, who is skipping his senior season with the Nittany Lions and is projected to be taken in the second round. "We, as men, have to mature and learn from the mistakes we make. The scouts, I think, could see I'm a different person than I was then.
"I don't do some of the things I used to do. I work a lot harder and focus more. I'm glad I had a chance to sit down with the scouts and put things in perspective."
First-team All-Big Ten in both 2008 and '09 as a redshirt junior, Bowman was suspended for the final regular-season game of the 2007 season and for the Alamo Bowl game against Texas A & M for his participation in an on-campus brawl. He also was charged by Penn State police with smoking marijuana in April 2008.
Quarless, who caught 87 passes during his 4-year career, took his turn in coach Joe Paterno's spacious doghouse after he was charged with driving under the influence and underage drinking in 2008. It took time for Quarless, who most see as going anywhere from the fifth to seventh rounds, to regain Paterno's trust.
"[The scouts] know the talent is there," Quarless said of his Pro Day performance. "They're more worried about the alcohol incident. That's always going to be a big thing. But I spoke from the heart. I told them I was 17 years old when I came [to Penn State]. I had gotten some fame early and lost track of why I was there.
"Since my DUI, I haven't had a drink for over 2 years. Once I told them that, they seemed pleased. What they want to see is personal growth. I feel I've grown a lot as a player, but also as a person."
Mike Mayock, a talent evaluator for the NFL Network, said each of the league's 32 teams do background checks to make sure they won't get stuck with an unredeemable bad actor.
"Every team uses some individual or entity to do research on draft-eligible players," Mayock said. "The more talented the kid, the more thorough the investigation because there's more money tied up in the first- and second-round kind of guys.
"But, really, anybody with so-called 'character issues' is going to be scrutinized. It doesn't matter if it's at the Senior Bowl, the combine, his school's Pro Day or a meeting with representatives of individual teams. Once there are documented incidents - whether they're out there publicly or were unearthed privately - teams are going to delve into that player's life to see what makes him tick, if possible."
Not that an investigation always yields conclusive proof. People can change for the better - and for the worse.
"A guy like Warren Sapp went one way, Lawrence Phillips went the other way," Mayock said. "If you guess right, you can change the course of your franchise. And if you guess wrong, same thing, but in a negative way." *