FOXBOROUGH — Nick Caserio kept his intentions closely guarded, as usual, when he addressed the media Tuesday to talk about the NFL Draft, set to begin May 8. But if you want to know what the Patriots will do — or at least should do — then John Drew seems like a good guide.
You’ll remember Drew as an undrafted rookie defensive tackle who appeared close to signing with the Patriots last July. He worked out for the team, passed the conditioning test, and thought he had won himself a roster spot. That was until the team reversed course at the last minute and instead signed another defensive tackle, Anthony Rashad White. The Patriots didn’t clarify why they chose White over Drew, but it’s safe to infer the team decided to sign the kid with the clean off-field history over the kid with a gun charge on his record.
It has been more than 10 months since Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, an outcome that forever tarnished the supposed “Patriot Way” and put the franchise’s entire football approach under a giant microscope.
In the last decade, the Patriots haven’t been afraid to take on players who have supposedly bad personalities or problems with the law — Randy Moss, Corey Dillon, Albert Haynesworth, and Hernandez among them. Bill Belichick and his veteran leaders were mostly able to keep those players in check, but Hernandez refused to be reined in, and it ended badly for the Patriots and tragically for Odin Lloyd.
Whether Hernandez is ultimately guilty or not, he put a lot of tarnish on the Patriots’ sterling record in the community. It forced Robert Kraft to promise last summer that changes were coming to the football department and the criteria they use to choose players.
“You can be sure we’ll be looking at our procedures and auditing how we do things,” the owner said at the time.
Choosing White over Drew was a telling moment, but this was for the 90th roster spot. Next week’s draft will really be the first chance the Patriots have to prove that they learned their lesson from the Hernandez fiasco.
As of now, it’s hard to gauge whether they have or not. The Patriots’ 2013 rookies had a solid off-field record in college and were exemplary teammates and citizens last season, but those players were drafted two months before Hernandez was arrested.
Kraft offered few details about the team’s willingness to take on players with troubled backgrounds at the Super Bowl in January.
“We’ve made certain adjustments internally, in terms of our own checking,” Kraft said. “I can promise you we’re being as vigilant as we can be.”
Caserio danced around the subject Tuesday.
“If we feel comfortable organizationally with that player, then we make the decision,” he said. “If we don’t feel comfortable, then we move on to the next player.
“Ultimately, we have to make the decision we feel is best.”
Not that Kraft and Belichick are asking for my advice, but this seems like a good year to stay away from draft prospects with criminal histories and significant off-field issues.
No one’s saying the Patriots need to draft a bunch of Boy Scouts. A certain rough edge is often needed to thrive in a physical sport such as football, and the Patriots shouldn’t automatically disqualify prospects that may have made one or two dumb mistakes as an adolescent.
We’re also not talking about “off-field issues” like Johnny Manziel sitting court-side with Drake or showing up on Instagram with a couple of ladies in his arms. Or even “off-field issues” like the ones facing new free agent cornerback Brandon Browner, who will be suspended for the first four games of the 2014 regular season because of repeated violations of the NFL’s drug policy (for marijuana).
But if the Patriots want to put the Hernandez fiasco in the rearview mirror for good, they shouldn’t bother to gamble on players with noteworthy arrest histories. There are more than 600 draft prospects, and this just doesn’t seem to be the year to look for value in players with spotty off-field issues.
Corner Alfonzo Dennard has been a solid player and the Patriots drafted him in the seventh round, but taking someone like him this year — he was arrested days before the draft for punching a police officer, and slid down draft boards, then served time in jail after being arrested for suspicion of DUI while on probation — would be a public relations nightmare the team doesn’t need.
This just doesn’t seem like the year to target a guy like LSU’s Jeremy Hill, a big, talented running back who would fill a need, but was also on probation until last month after pleading guilty to battery. Or South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton, who attended four high schools in a troubled childhood and was arrested in April following an alleged dispute with his sister.
This isn’t to say that Hill, Hampton, and the dozens of other draft prospects with off-field red flags can’t mature as adults, learn from their mistakes, and have productive NFL careers.
It’s just that the Patriots, with everything they’ve been through with Hernandez, can’t afford to make another mistake on character.