The NFL Draft is like a poker game where teams place there bets on "hands" they think will win the pot. The gambles taken in the past by the Cincinnati Bengals on character issues haven't worked out too well. The team is synonymous throughout the NFL for having more players turn up on police blotters than on Pro Bowl rosters. Most recently, the team has had to deal with WR Jerome Simpson's drug bust and LB Rey Maualuga's assault charge.
With the NFL draft looming in April, the Bengals will once again be faced with the character issue as they contemplate who to draft. While owner Mike Brown certainly has a "soft spot" for reclamation projects, can the team afford any more blowups that lead to negative publicity?
Since Marvin Lewis became the Bengals head coach in 2003, 29 members of the team have been arrested for charges ranging from "boating under the influence" (Eric Steinbach in 2006) to federal drug trafficking with Simpson this past season. In between are a variety of assault charges and other legal missteps that have garnered the Bengals a well-earned reputation and rendered the stripes on their uniforms to fodder for late night comedians.
Heading into the draft, the Bengals are in need of a cornerback. North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins just tore up the NFL Scouting Combine this past weekend and is unquestionably the biggest talent at the position, including LSU's Morris Claiborne. Jenkins brings with him baggage that makes the team's choice of Chris Henry look downright safe. Multiple arrests, four children and one dismissal from the University of Florida (not exactly known for their stern discipline) make Jenkins a risk the Bengals are better off not taking.
To be fair, there are players each year who get labeled as "risky" and slide down the draft board only to have relatively productive and uneventful (off the field) NFL careers. Warren Sapp had a reputation for smoking pot, slid down to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where Sam Wyche picked him and turned into an all pro. For all the negative publicity about Randy Moss coming out of college, one would have thought he was equal parts John Dillinger and Hannibal Lector. Yet, for the most part, Moss avoided serious off the field problems during his career.
When NFL teams ante up with their draft picks, the stakes are high. The Bengals failures in gaging character issues not only have cost them in reputation, but on the field as well. Cincinnati effectively lost a their second and third round draft picks from 2005 with the problems of Odell Thurman and Chris Henry. Combine that with David Pollack's neck injury and virtually an entire draft class was wiped off the board. Even middle and late round picks, which some think are worth the risk, are essentially forfeited when players like AJ Nicholson and Reggie McNeal (2006) run afoul of the law.
The players the Bengals could have chosen with those late picks in 2006 include OT Charlie Johnson, S Antoine Bethea, CB Cortland Finnegan and WR Marques Colston.
The Bengals have made a point over the past two seasons of clearing the decks of players who are character problems and locker room cancers. As they build with a promising foundation, let's hope they've learned their lesson and steer clear of such players in this year's draft.
In the poker game that is the NFL draft, teams only get so many losing hands before they're forced to fold.
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