The word "character" pops up on plenty of evaluations for individuals talented enough to warrant consideration in the rapidly approaching 2022 NFL Draft. That single word can make, or break, the financial fortunes of so many of the eligible prospects, but what does it actually mean on the field of play, or in the locker room.
There are multiple definitions for the word "character", but most are comprised of terms like disposition, integrity, and reputation. All of these descriptive terms are extremely important in any team building situation, but incredibly difficult to identify and impossible to measure through testing.
Based on the aforementioned descriptions, every prospect has some form of character. For some, that is an admirable characteristic. For others, it can represent a lack thereof.
Disposition covers the emotional and mental makeup of the prospect. Some are driven by personal accolades, while others are team-first players. You can never have too many team-first players on your roster. Individuals willing to do the dirty work on the field, often out of the public spotlight. These players are far too often taken for granted, at least until they are no longer around and their immense contributions are sorely missed. Look up former Steelers slot corner Mike Hilton for a quick point of reference.
A team-first player's value is most effectively measured in the success of others. Troy Polamalu couldn't have achieved all of his Hall of Fame accomplishments without the support and sacrifice of running mate Ryan Clark. Many team-first guys will never sniff the Hall of Fame, but are immensely respected by their teammates and around the league. A player like Polamalu, who was a superstar with a team-first mentality, become living legends.
Integrity is another type of character. How you behave when nobody is watching reveals who you really are. Some individuals are one way when the cameras are rolling, something totally different when they aren't.
The whole football obsessed nation witnessed an example of perceived integrity during the early stages of the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine. The prospect was Liberty quarterback Malik Willis engaging in a moment of kindness with a homeless person on the streets of Indianapolis.
During the biggest and most intense job interview of his life, he took the time to acknowledge the individual and then share some of the items he had on his person. Considering the circumstances, few among us could honestly criticize the young man if he never even recognized the opportunity to make a difference in the situation.
I would be willing to bet that the majority of us would simply walk on by, totally distracted by the magnitude of the opportunity. The skeptic in me immediately assumed the whole encounter had been expertly staged by a brilliant sports agent, with Willis starring as the leading man. You can be certain that every prospect has been warned to mind their P's and Q's, because the paparazzi and team personnel are everywhere.
Upon further review, after additional reports of Willis behavior have surfaced, the whole incident doesn't seem out of character for the young man. Seems like the type of character you would want as the face of your franchise for the next decade.
That brings us to the third quality of character: reputation. As the old saying goes "You only get one chance to make a first impression". Najee Harris made a great first impression as a Pittsburgh Steeler, as his team-first attitude and competitiveness were as advertised, matching his reputation.
Every year there are multiple prospects that fall completely off many draft boards due to past indiscretions and legal issues. I am as guilty as the next guy when it comes to this line of thinking. There are always prospects I not so secretly hope that the Steelers have removed from consideration prior to the start of the draft.
Some miscues are far more damaging than others obviously. That is merely my opinion, from the outside looking in. The Steelers always do their due diligence, and act accordingly.
Franchises conduct extensive background checks on the prospects they are especially interested in. They perform multiple interviews with many at the Senior Bowl, Combine, and Pro Days. Some are casual encounters, while others are quite personal. Many general managers and head coaches will try to catch the young men off guard with an unexpected out of left field type of question or activity, in hopes of witnessing how they will handle the off script scenario.
So much of this concerted effort has nothing to do with ability or athleticism, and everything to do with character. Character matters, especially when you are preparing to bring a talented young man into the fraternity of the franchise, and grant them a seat at the table.