PHILADELPHIA -- Every year when the NFL draft rolls around, we end up talking about "character" at some point.
This year, the subject seems especially relevant, given the dominant story of the Eagles' offseason -- the stunning release of 27-year-old Pro Bowl wideout DeSean Jackson.
Of course, Eagles coach Chip Kelly said last week that jettisoning Jackson was purely a football decision, and team chairman Jeffrey Lurie talked about Kelly reconfiguring what the Eagles want from the wideout position. Still, it's hard to credit getting rid of a dominant player in his prime, even if his cap number was $12.75 million this year (for a team that can't possibly spend all its 2014 cap room) strictly because you want to see a bigger, stronger receiving corps.
"Character" can mean just about anything. In Jackson's case, the headlines were about reported gang associations, but sources close to the situation have denied there were serious concerns there, and the Washington Redskins surely would not have leaped to sign Jackson three days after his release had that been a pressing issue. The non-football problems with Jackson might have been more about culture than character -- Kelly is embarking on his second season of trying to imbue the Eagles with his values and personality, and Jackson seemed to be a highly visible obstacle to that. It's not a stretch to say the Eagles will make "culture fit" a big part of the evaluation process during this year's draft, which starts Thursday and concludes Saturday.
"Culture's really important to us. Culture and chemistry is a huge part of building a football team," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said last week. "When you talk about 53 guys trying to come together, which I think we saw towards the end of last year, the second half of last year, you're talking about people from diverse backgrounds, different parts of the country, and they're all trying to fit together. So getting that chemistry -- this is the one sport where one guy is not gonna make the difference. You need to have a team. It's very important to us when we talk about guys and having the right fits here in our building ... We're really excited about the energy we have from our football team. So for us to go out of leftfield and bring someone in who doesn't fit, I look at it that our players look at us when we bring in draft picks. They look at who we put in front of that podium, and if that guy's not a fit for us, that's my responsibility. They're gonna look at me and say, 'We have a good thing going here. We have good chemistry. We have a good culture. Why would we ruin that by bringing in somebody who doesn't fit?' "
Part of the Jackson-Eagles drama involved various Twitter and Instagram images, one with a friend who raps for Jackson's label who'd just been acquitted of murder charges. Twitter was barely an NFL factor in 2008, when Jackson was drafted. Social media has become a bigger and bigger part of the predraft process over the past several years, along with psychological screenings.
"It's a judgment question," Roseman said, meaning a question of the player's judgment. "For us, it goes back to when we look at social media, it's are they doing it (responsibly) now because they know we're watching them? What were they doing when they were freshmen, sophomores and juniors? Because, in this city, there's going to be a lot of distractions. How are they going to be able to handle that? The only thing you can look back (at) is their past actions. By the same token, we also all know that when you're 19, 20, 21, you don't always make the best decisions. Is that something that's just youthful indiscretions, or does that speak to their character?
"I think that's a much harder projection than is the play on the field, is seeing if a guy can meet their potential, because you don't know. I'm sure that if we went around this room and talked about how all of us were, 21 and 22, and how we are now, it's much different. So when are these guys going to develop, when are they going to grow up? Are they going to come and realize, 'This is my job, this is my livelihood, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I'm going to do whatever it takes'? There's no insurance for that."
It'll be interesting to see how these concerns play out in the draft. Kelly seems fond of his former Oregon players; one of the draft-eligible Ducks this year is tight end Colt Lyerla, who once was projected as an early-round talent, before being arrested and pleading guilty to cocaine possession, and before he tweeted about the Sandy Hook massacre being a possible government conspiracy. Hard to see the Chipper bringing Lyerla to Philly.
The Eagles have been all over the landscape on this issue over the years. For quite a bit of the Andy Reid era, they had an affinity for well-rounded, solid-citizen types who often ended up not producing on the field. Sometimes they just weren't that talented (Barry Gardner, second round, 1999). Other times, classroom smarts didn't translate into football instincts (Chris Gocong, third round, 2006). And they learned the hard way that being a clean-living, decent person doesn't mean you have a true passion for football, will compete tirelessly and spend every waking moment trying to improve (Danny Watkins, first round, 2011; Trevor Laws, second round, 2008; Reggie Brown, second round, 2005; L.J. Smith, second round, 2003; and on and on and on).
So the Birds loosened their criteria. They knew exactly why Jackson was available 49th overall in the 2008 draft, after having been projected to go in the top 20, despite his slight frame. It wasn't that all the other teams were stupid, it was that he was hard to handle, difficult to keep engaged, more concerned with his own situation than how the team was doing. Still, the Eagles were happy to be congratulated for their draft-day "steal" as Jackson blazed to stardom.
By 2011, when Jackson got upset over still playing under his rookie contract after making two Pro Bowls, it seemed they'd forgotten what they'd known at draft time, and were scandalized that he wasn't Jason Avant with more game. It was Roseman who smoothed over that impasse, gave Jackson a five-year, $48 million extension after a year in which he acknowledged he'd let his contract situation affect his play. Not a great moment for instilling locker-room culture, there.
In evaluating a draft prospect, it's not as easy as saying you just don't have room for a guy who did questionable things in college, or wasn't completely dedicated to his craft. Sometimes those guys become fine players. Two years ago, NFL insiders were abuzz about concerns over Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who'd wandered through his final season with the Sun Devils, showed up out of shape at the scouting combine, tested poorly. Burfict, who'd gone into the 2011 season as projected first-round pick, wasn't drafted. The Bengals signed him after the draft. Last season, he led the league in tackles and was Cincinnati's only Pro Bowl player.
Of course, Burfict has played only two NFL seasons. It isn't clear he will have a long and productive career. Maybe the issues that made him undraftable will resurface, just as the Eagles ended up having to deal with the parts of Jackson that teams didn't like in 2008.
Did the Eagles do the wrong thing by drafting Jackson in the second round that year? Hard to argue with three Pro Bowl appearances in six seasons, regardless of the messy parting. But the Birds have only six selections in a deep, talented 2014 draft pool. You'd think they might not be in a mood to take any chances, as they strive to build the culture Kelly envisions.
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