Heading into the 2010 draft, NFL scouts took a long look at Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez, and the red flags were undeniable.
He had first-round talent but also a reputation for frequent marijuana use, a hot temper and an unsavory group of hometown friends who made regular trips to Gainesville, Fla., to visit him.
Hernandez was summed up in an NFL scout's report obtained by the Boston Globe: "Self-esteem is quite low; not well-adjusted emotionally, not happy, moods unpredictable, not stable, doesn't take much to set him off, but not an especially jumpy guy."
That description is particularly ominous after Hernandez's conviction Wednesday on first-degree murder for the shooting death of Odin Lloyd in 2013. Hernandez received an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The situation underscores the risk-reward choices NFL teams face as they evaluate players available in the draft and free agency.
But the Hernandez case is more a reminder than an eye-opener for the league, which has long accepted that rolling the dice on talented character risks is part of the game. Hernandez is a worst-case scenario and a reminder that every team is susceptible — even the buttoned-down New England Patriots, who have a reputation of getting the best out of hard-case players.
Playing catch with these human grenades is irresistible in a league where the pressure to win is high and coaches are supremely confident they can succeed where others have failed in keeping a problem player on track. The vast majority of NFL players are good guys, but every locker room has its problem players.
That's a theme all over the league, with spotlights trained on a collection of troubled talent, including:
—Dallas' signing Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, found guilty during a bench trial of assaulting and threatening to kill his girlfriend. (Charges were later dismissed upon appeal when Hardy's girlfriend failed to show up to court)
—Buffalo's signing Pro Bowl guard Richie Incognito, the main instigator in the Miami Dolphins' bullying situation.
—Denver Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib, who has a history of character issues, now being investigated for his involvement in a physical altercation outside a Dallas nightclub that included someone firing a gun.
And, after the NFL's most turbulent season, dominated by the off-the-field transgressions of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, the player expected to be selected No. 1 by Tampa Bay in the draft is Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, yet another high-risk, high-reward talent. He was accused (though never charged) of sexual assault, arrested for shoplifting crab legs and suspended for standing on a table in his school's student union and screaming obscenities.
"You're not going to have all choir boys on your team," Cleveland Browns Coach Mike Pettine said.
The Browns understand that more than most. A year ago, they used a first-round pick on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was a risk on two fronts. Not only were there questions about his free-wheeling style of play being successful in the pros, but his history of partying was a red flag. He turned out to be a flop on and off the field, and spent part of the off-season in a treatment facility that specializes in drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
It's not as if the Manziel experience has caused the Browns to dramatically alter how they evaluate prospects, though.
"You don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction and say there were some things that happened to us, so now all of a sudden anybody with that type of background issue is instantly off our draft board," Pettine said. "That would be a pretty thin draft board."
Rex Ryan, the new coach in Buffalo after six seasons with the New York Jets, brought Incognito on board, along with the combustible Percy Harvin. Seattle was more than happy to unload Harvin last season, trading him to Ryan's Jets for a late-round draft pick after the receiver had multiple fights with teammates.
Hernandez and Harvin were teammates on Urban Meyer's Florida team before they were drafted.
"There's not one person that's perfect, and that's you, me, everybody else sitting here, and everybody in the locker room," Ryan said last month at the NFL owners meetings when asked about Harvin and Incognito. "People make mistakes. But we feel great about both of those guys."
If a player is talented enough, and can stay out of jail, there is an NFL team for him. Hardy is a prime example, signing a one-year deal worth $11.3 million. His guilty verdict in North Carolina for beating his girlfriend was set aside when he requested a jury trial. Eventually, after receiving a financial settlement, the woman refused to cooperate with the district attorney's office and the charges were dropped.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was among those sharply critical of the Cowboys after the signing.
"I'm a big Cowboys fan; I love them to death and I want them to beat the Eagles every time they play," Rawlings told reporters last month. "But at some point, being a sports fan gets trumped by being a father, husband, wanting to do what's right for women, so this is not a good thing. I don't think I'm going to be buying Hardy jerseys any time soon."
Maybe so. But, even with the supreme cautionary tale of Hernandez, teams have long established that the stopwatch tops the moral compass.
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