One personnel man said 10 or 11 1st-round prospects have been flagged for pot
Teams try to determine whether prospect's use is experimental or frequent
New breed of NFL decision-makers perhaps not as concerned as the old guard
ORLANDO -- There's a widespread belief within the NFL that the 2010 draft represents one of the deepest and most promising pools of collegiate talent in years. But in addition to the vast potential of this year's draft class, numerous NFL personnel evaluators told SI.com they are concerned about the increased number of prospects who have a history of marijuana use in their background, with players often acknowledging a failed drug test for pot in college in interviews with team executives.
SI.com interviewed four NFL head coaches, four general managers and two other high-level club personnel executives for this story. Due to the sensitivity of the topic, all requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the issue.
According to one veteran club personnel man, 10 or 11 players who carry first-round draft grades on their board this year have been red-flagged for marijuana use in college, an estimate echoed by two clubs' head coaches. Another NFL head coach estimated that "one-third'' of the players on his club's draft board had some sort of history with marijuana use and would thus require an extra level of evaluation as part of the pre-draft scouting process.
"Marijuana use is almost epidemic, with more guys having tested positive for marijuana at some point in their college background than I can ever remember,'' said a longtime team personnel man. "It's almost as if we are having to figure out a new way to evaluate it as part of the character and background report, because it's so prevalent. There're enough instances of it that it's hard to know how to set your board. You can't throw out that many guys. You have to go case-by-case and do your homework on them.''
It's important to note that NFL club officials in this case are only referencing failed drug tests administered by the prospect's college that wind up on his background report, not the drug tests the league conducts as part of the scouting process at last month's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Players with drug test failures in college are not automatically enrolled in the NFL's drug-testing program upon being drafted, but those players can be added at the league's discretion, depending on the type of drug used, how recent the failed test occurred and if there were multiple failures.
"It's something that's concerning to all coaches and general managers in this league,'' one veteran NFL head coach said at the league's annual meeting in Orlando. "It has been trending the wrong way in recent years. But it's something that has to be dealt with from on high, at the league level, and not just dealt with on a club by club basis. It's partly a societal issue, but it's something we're having to deal with more and more.''
In many cases these days, club officials say, players are much more open to admitting to past marijuana use or experimentation in college as part of their pre-draft interviews with NFL teams.
"The kids are admitting it much more now, and part of that is what they've been coached to do [by their agents or handlers],'' one club general manager said. "They want to get the truth out and give you an explanation for their use. That's seen as better than letting someone else put it out there for you and making you look like you were being evasive.
"But we've had that same conversation internally on our club: 'Wow, there's a lot of kids this year.' It seems much more common now, across the draft.''
One NFL head coach told me this week that in this era of some states decriminalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, he has interviewed potential draft picks who didn't even seem to recognize their marijuana smoking constituted drug use in the eyes of the NFL.
"It's pretty significant as a trend,'' the head coach said. "But if you knocked everyone off your board who has experimented with weed, you'd lose about 20 percent of your board, not to mention disqualify a few recent presidents. A third sounds a little high to me, but it's not a rare occurrence to have a player with some pot use in his background. You have to make a judgment on each individual guy.''
That same head coach said that earlier in his NFL coaching career, if a player had failed a drug test for pot in college, his name would be quickly removed from the draft boards of most teams. But times have changed. Clubs are doing more work to try and identify whether a prospect's pot use falls under the experimentation heading, or is done with regularity.
"It's a matter of figuring out which ones smoke, and which ones have to smoke, because they really [are addicted],'' another head coach said. "It's like the drinking issue. You want to know if a guy drinks, or if he has a drinking problem. You're trying to find out and make that distinction with some guys.''
The reaction to a prospect's collegiate marijuana use varies from club to club, team executives and coaches said. The mentality of personnel evaluators and coaches making case-by-case decisions on players with marijuana use in their background has grown more prevalent with the league's infusion of younger coaches and general managers in recent years.
"Overall in the league there's a bit of a different generation of decision-makers and people doing the evaluating,'' one team's general manager said. "Even among those of us who didn't [smoke pot], we had some friends who did and we didn't judge them that harshly. So for some, it's a less damaging red flag for a player to have that on his record. Now, maybe [longtime Colts president] Bill Polian's perception of that is different. Maybe those players are still completely off his board. But it can be generational in that sense, yes. Definitely.''
Even among the club officials who expressed the most concern about the prevalence of prospects in this draft who have failed at least one test for marijuana in college, none said they would automatically remove any such player from their draft board.
"There are probably different shades of red to the red flag you give that player these days, different degrees of how it impacts their grade,'' one head coach said. "I know of one guy who told me he smoked with his mom. It was just something they did together. You have to find out something about the specifics and see if it was a habit, and or if it was experimenting in college. For one thing, it could be a case of colleges testing more, and having better tests. It may not be that use is up, but detection is up.''
Some players suspected of marijuana use in college in recent years, Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson and Minnesota receiver-return man Percy Harvin most notably, have been two of the top offensive players in the draft the past two years. Their early success in the NFL has possibly led some teams to take a more lenient approach to drafting talented players who are suspected of collegiate marijuana use, one team front office executive said.
"If you passed on Jackson and you passed on Harvin the past two years, maybe you can't afford to just completely write off that kind of prospect every time, or you won't have a job at some point because you won't win any games,'' one team front office executive said. "But you don't want to take guys and see them be in the [league's drug] program the whole time, because they may never get out of it. You want to determine if it's in their environment and if they're bringing that environment with them [to the NFL]?''
One team's head coach said organizations are doing more and more extensive background checks on draft prospects every year to find out as much information as possible about the practices of their potential employees.
"You have to, because some guys aren't telling you the whole truth about their habits and things that have happened while they're in college,'' the head coach said. "It depends on the team's individual approach, but you can get in trouble if you're just overlooking everything when it comes to that kind of history in their background.''
Another NFL general manager interviewed this week said he has a discussion with his team's owner every time the club is even considering a player who has a red flag on their record for marijuana use in college. And you can't have too many of those talks on a year-in, year-out basis, he said.
"That's a topic of conversation for a lot of GMs with their owners,'' the general manager said. "You have a number of prospects who are quality people, but who might have [screwed] up early on in college. As long as it's not a habitual thing, there's more of a discussion about those players, rather than just jettisoning them off your board. Which is what a lot of teams have done in the past. But I think we're all a little more realistic these days.
"I've gone and scouted players at colleges and their coaches really talk them up, but then they add that 'He has this in his background.' It's definitely something we're going to have to get to the bottom of, but what are you going to do? If the kid has one thing in his past, are you going to throw away a third of your board? That's the reality of the situation we face.''
March 24, 2010