Published November 20, 2014
NFL general managers looking for an edge in next week's draft scour folders thick with information and base their decisions on the slimmest of margins — a tenth of a second in the 40-yard dash, an extra inch in height, the last 5 pounds on a barbell being bench-pressed two dozen times or more.
But a provocative new study suggests an almost surefire way for any GM to maximize the value of his pick: Choose a player who's already had a run-in with the law.
"So if you're on the fence about a player and worried about his criminal record," said Stephen Wu, an economics professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., "the data says take a chance."
That sounds strange, but makes sense when you consider the study found that players with so-called "character issues" get drafted, on average, 15 to 25 spots lower than players who performed similarly during their college career and at the NFL's annual scouting combine but had zero entries on their rap sheets. Apparently, it's already a consideration during draft-day planning in Arizona, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Chicago, where teams led the league in making shrewd picks out of problem children during the five drafts covered by the research.
"It sounds like an interesting breakdown, but I rely on our guys to do their own homework," Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said. "Besides, plenty of 'clean' guys come in, get the money and go 'Hollywood,' and cause trouble until the day you off-load them. So we do it our way, hope we don't make mistakes and clean up the ones we miss as fast as we can."
Those sentiments were echoed by Buffalo GM Buddy Nix.
"I wish I could tell you it's scientific, but it's not," Nix said. "It's more of a gut feeling. There are some things kids do ... they do it their first year, freshman and sophomore year, and then you say, 'Well he's changed.' But most of that comes from learning about life and how to act, so we think that doesn't really eliminate a guy.
"But if it's a repeat offender and if it's the wrong kind of trouble," he added, "then we stay away from it."
Take cornerback Janoris Jenkins, for example. He was kicked out of Florida a year ago after two arrests for marijuana possession in four months, which is why he played his final season at North Alabama. But even there he had problems, getting ejected from a game for throwing a punch at an opponent. He was also arrested in a 2009 bar fight. Lots of scouts see Jenkins as a first-round talent at a critical position, but most mock drafts already have him slipping into the second round because of that checkered past.
"I'd just as soon not get into that," Nix said about Jenkins, then added, "But if you mean whether we'll take him or not, I think ability-wise, obviously, you would. This is a political answer I'm fixing to give you, but probably otherwise, you wouldn't. You get enough trouble without getting one that you know is a problem."
On the other hand, despite an early blot on his record, Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff is exactly the kind of guy Nix and plenty of other GMs would grab with a Top 10 pick. As an incoming freshman visiting campus, Reiff, then 19, stripped in an alley and led eight police officers on a 20-minute drunken foot chase. He paid a hefty fine and never appeared on the police blotter in Iowa City again.
The study was done by Hamilton student Kendall Weir as his senior thesis for an economics degree and is being overseen by Wu. It included every player (around 1,200) taken in the 2005-2009 NFL drafts and their results at the scouting combine. Then it divided players into four groups based on comparable results and tracked their performance through the 2011-12 season. The four groups:
1.) Players with no suspensions or legal problems in college;
2.) Players suspended one game or more for violating team or university rules;
3.) Players arrested and charged with a crime;
4.) Players arrested, but not charged.
If you wanted the biggest bang for your buck and this were a multiple-choice quiz, the best answer would be No. 4.
Players in that group are usually drafted in the same spot as comparable players in the No. 1 group, yet wind up averaging two more starts per season. Suspended players dropped the farthest in the draft, 25 spots on average. They also fared the worst in performance terms when compared to the "clean" players, averaging two fewer starts per season, as well as having shorter careers. Players in the arrested-and-charged group tended to perform exactly the same as the clean group, but ended up being drafted 15 spots lower.
Of the teams mentioned above, Arizona used 27 percent of its picks during the five-year span on players in the last three groups. Cincinnati, which has become a sort of "Boys Town East" for troubled free agents as well as draftees, was second at 25 percent, with San Francisco and Chicago tied for third at 20 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, Seattle drafted no players with character issues, followed by Atlanta (2 percent), Baltimore (3) and Green Bay (6).
Asked about the conclusions of the study Thursday, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello quit laughing long enough to say, "Any comment should come from the individual clubs."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.