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High-risk picks

Sports | Four NFL teams spent first-round picks on players with suspect character

Issue: "Playing with capitalism," May 23, 2009

The NFL draft is always a gamble. But in this year's selections of the top college talent, several organizations raised the stakes.

The Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, and Miami Dolphins each spent first-round picks on players with reputations for suspect character. Such willingness to weigh athletic ability over moral fiber is nothing new in the NFL. But the recent rash of high-profile blowups in the league-Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Adam Jones, and Terrell Owens among them-had some analysts predicting a more character-conscious draft.

In the end, four of the five most worrisome players according to a Pro Football Weekly survey of NFL executives still earned first-round picks, two of them going in the top 10. The Packers selected defensive tackle B.J. Raji out of Boston College at the No. 9 spot, despite a past that includes a failed drug test and reports of a marginal work ethic. The 49ers took Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree with the 10th pick, despite concerns over work ethic and an unstable mental makeup that led him to repeatedly demean training staff.

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The Vikings rolled the dice with receiver Percy Harvin of Florida (22) and the Dolphins gambled on cornerback Vontae Davis of Illinois (25), despite both players' reputations for being difficult to coach and bad influences in the locker room.

Only linebacker Rey Maualuga from USC, the last of the five most risky players, dropped into the second round, going 38th overall to the Cincinnati Bengals. Most mock drafts had projected Maualuga as a mid-first-rounder.

The tactic of overlooking character issues has often blown up in the face of talent-drunk organizations. In the 1999 draft, coach Mike Ditka famously traded all of the New Orleans Saints picks for that year and two high picks from the ensuing year to secure Heisman Trophy-winning rusher Ricky Williams. The deal proved too costly as Williams failed to produce many victories, struggled with personality disorders, and went on to sabotage his career with drug use.

In the 2002 draft, Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren set aside his longstanding philosophy of taking only players with solid character when he spent a first-round pick on tight end Jerramy Stevens. The University of Washington star had a record that included an assault conviction, illegal drug use, and an arrest for sexual assault. Holmgren's gamble backfired as Stevens' run-ins with the law continued and hampered his on-field productivity.

Of course, not all character risks go bad. Many analysts warned teams against spending too high a pick on defensive superstar Warren Sapp in the 1995 draft. Accordingly, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got a steal when they nabbed the All-American with the No. 12 pick. All they got was a future Hall-of-Famer-and the runner-up last year on ABC's Dancing with the Stars.

Second look

There's international relief after drug testing from Olympics catches no big names

By Mark Bergin

The retesting of blood samples from last summer's Beijing Olympics for an illegal booster called CERA has turned up six positives. But that bit of unfortunate news is mixed with international relief over the names not included among the dopers.

Much of the track-and-field world awaited results of this retesting with bated breath, fearing what positives among its biggest names would mean for the future of the sport. Had Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt turned up dirty, for example, all the attention and good will of his record-shattering performances might have crumbled in a heap of irredeemable public mistrust.

Similarly, had any U.S. athletes tested positive, all the exhaustive anti-doping measures and accompanying assurances of clean competition would have proved impotent-a public-relations disaster from which the United States Olympic Committee might never have recovered.

Alas, the names trickling out thus far represent smaller countries and more obscure events, evidence perhaps that anti-doping campaigns are working.

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