As if evaluating prospects for pro football isn't tricky enough, the NFL's intense focus on social science is adding a pervasive layer of difficult consideration for scouts, general managers and owners as they prepare for the 2017 draft that begins Thursday at 8 p.m. (ET) in Philadelphia.
It is a logical extension of commissioner Roger Goodell's increased actions and reactions to players' involvements -- or even accusations of involvement -- in activities that are unacceptable in society and, it seems, even less acceptable in the NFL.
Such issues -- violence, drugs, breaking the law -- have always been a concern, of course. No team wants to waste a draft pick on a prospect that might be unavailable for any number of reasons, including potential suspensions, or worse. But the 2017 draft is already impacted by more of these considerations than ever before.
While there is no diminishing the importance of such matters, the constant chatter about such things sometimes seems to overwhelm aspects of the sport that made it the most popular in the U.S. The unfiltered contribution of social media seems to accentuate the negative. Even the Hall of Fame selection committee seems to dwell unduly on negatives, such as in the case of Terrell Owens.
So, it should be no surprise that the draft itself should be impacted.
That was first obvious at the Indianapolis combine, which did not invite at least four players due to off-field concerns and sent one home from Indy due to erratic behavior during a medical exam. In all, according to ratings by NFLDraftScout.com, at least eight of the top 100 players are under such close scrutiny heading into the draft and six may have first-round potential.
So never mind the annual brain drain centered around quarterbacks -- whose ratings this year are tantamount to a blind-folded, dart-throwing exercise -- the NFL's blotter of players with potential character issues will be a major factor in this draft, and possibly critical to how the first round plays out.
The NFL's 2017 draft blotter:
Reuben Foster, linebacker, Alabama. Rated as the draft's best inside linebacker with top-10 potential, Foster is the one who freaked at the combine medical test and was sent home. It was later revealed that his drug test was diluted -- tantamount to a failure -- and he explained he needed extra water to hydrate.
Gareon Conley, cornerback, Ohio State. Rated a late first-round pick. Accused this week of a rape in April. He sent a letter to all teams vehemently denying accusation and left the Philadelphia draft gathering Tuesday to see investigators next Monday.
Joe Mixon, running back, Oklahoma. Rated all over the top 100, with some putting him near the top of the best in a class of running backs in recent drafts. Before his freshman season, the day after his 18th birthday, Mixon hit a female, causing serious injury, and it was caught on videotape. He was charged with misdemeanor assault. He was not invited to the combine, but numerous teams protested and he visited many for workouts.
Jabrill Peppers, safety, Michigan. Rated to be taken in the middle 20s overall, Peppers did not pass his drug test at the combine because his urine sample was diluted -- too much water. On one hand, players often dilute their sample to mask the presence of a drug. On the other, Peppers is a hybrid defender who worked out as a defensive back and a linebacker and certainly might have needed to hydrate a lot. He otherwise has no history of failing a drug test.
Garett Bolles, offensive lineman, Utah. Rated by NFLDraftScout.com's Dane Brugler as the second-best tackle prospect, Bolles had a checkered youth that included trouble with the law and being kicked out by his father. He is 24, did not do well in academic tests and some scouts marked him as a reject despite his athleticism. To me, Bolles overcame self-inflicted problems as a teen, managed to get into college and show athleticism and a nasty streak as a tackle, but may not be able to handle that position in the NFL. So, move him to defense and turn him loose.
Cam Robinson, offensive tackle, Alabama. A first-round prospect some list as the best tackle in the draft. Last June, Robinson was arrested and charged with felony possession of stolen firearms and misdemeanor possession of narcotics in West Monroe, La. The district attorney, Jerry Jones (no, not that Jerry Jones!) chose not to prosecute, saying, "I refuse to ruin the lives of two young men who have spent their adolescence and their teenage years working and sweating while we were all home in the air conditioning." Goodell would not have been so forgiving.
Caleb Brantley, defensive tackle, Florida. Rated as high as a second-round prospect. He is facing a misdemeanor battery charge from an altercation with a woman on April 13 that ended with Brantley allegedly knocking the woman unconscious.
It seems the draft can't get here fast enough. Conley's pre-draft accusation is reminiscent of that of La'el Collins in 2015. A projected first rounder, he was only on the periphery of an incident when his ex-girlfriend was murdered just before the draft. Although Collins was never considered a suspect, he was considered too hot to handle on draft day and was not selected. The Cowboys signed him as a free agent.
Last year, offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil was projected as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Mere hours before the draft began, a video surfaced on social media of Tunsil smoking marijuana in a gas mask. He slid to No. 13 where the Miami Dolphins stole him. Turns out the video was years old, but popped up with no time to explain.
While some of this may seem petty, the whole focus on off-field character concerns has changed scouting. Several NFL regional scouts told NFLDraftScout.com that they previously spent 30 to 40 percent of their time researching a prospect's character. Now they report spending up to 70 percent on character and "too little" time evaluating them as players.
Against that background, the draft begins Thursday with character issues impacting the procedures more than ever before. Every time one player slides due to an off-field issue, another moves up. All this makes predicting the 2017 draft somewhat of a crap shoot.
Regardless, certain things are obvious.
There is no consensus on the best quarterback or if any of them deserve to be selected No. 1 overall or even in the top 10. While 12 teams list quarterback as a top-three need -- especially Houston and Cleveland -- none named a specific prospect as a "Best Fit." The latest trend has North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky as the best of the top five.
According to NFLDraftscout.com, this draft is rich in defensive backs, with 25 among the top 100, including 16 cornerbacks. Safety Jamal Adams, a versatile strong safety/linebacker from LSU is the top-rated defensive back (No. 3 overall) with Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore next at No. 4.
Overall, there is excellent talent in this draft through the fourth round and maybe beyond. But quarterbacks are always the focus, so don't be surprised if one is drafted too high, even with a top-five pick.
As long as he stays out of trouble before his name is called.
Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 25th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.