Drafters play damaged-goods game

Posted: Friday, April 22, 2005

Nearly every draft features at least one. They're damaged goods, real or imagined, players who tumble down the board at great personal expense and get picked up by teams at bargain prices. They're an agent's nightmare and a general manager's fantasy.

Often it's because the timing, testing, weighing, poking, probing, profiling, interviewing and investigating done by the league's teams and their batteries of doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists unearths a nugget that wasn't included in the original bill of goods. Sometimes, all it takes is a rumor.

The discrepancies range from bum knees to bad attitudes, from a fondness for reefer to single-digit scores on the Wunderlic. The player can fall halfway down the first round, the way perpetual bad-actor Randy Moss did in 1998; or a half-dozen rounds, the way Maurice Clarett could this year. Some turn out to be steals; others just steal a paycheck and disappear.

''We're all looking for the perfect guy,'' Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said Thursday, some 48 hours before his team goes on the clock, ''and that guy has never existed.

''Guys drop for all kinds of reasons — character issues, laziness, or they're not as tall or weigh as much as advertised. Or they don't run as fast. But everything is on the table nowadays. The information is there for all of us to make our decisions,'' Smith added. ''Ultimately, every club has to decide how short of the ideal they're willing to accept to fill a need.''

The early nominees to be crowned this year's object lesson are Georgia defensive end David Pollack, Louisville running back Eric Shelton and Northwestern defensive tackle Luis Castillo.

Pollack doesn't figure to fall very far — perhaps from the middle third of the first round to the bottom third — but it's the reason for the slip that earns him some consideration. Never mind that he tore up the SEC, made several All-America teams and rewrote the Bulldogs' record book. Apparently, Pollack's arms are too short, or at least they're not well-proportioned by NFL measurements for a player who stands 6-foot-3.

Shelton's story is even better. He found out on a visit to the Carolina Panthers that nearly 20 teams received background checks on him containing reports of a criminal past. As it turned out, the company hired to prepare the checks confused him with another Eric Shelton.

''The saving grace,'' Peter Schaffer, one of his agents, told ESPN.com recently, ''is that we found out early enough not to have this be a negative.''

Agent Ralph Cindrich hadn't heard that story, but he had an ever better one.

''I had a guy in the 1980s whose stock was falling faster than a company with a convicted CEO. By the time we ran it down, we found out the team that wanted him most was spreading rumors he was a homosexual.

''Ever since, whenever I hear something funny about a guy, I make a point to check it out,'' Cindrich added. ''If you find a source for the rumor, most of the time it's just that — the team that has most interest.''

Nothing quite so malicious happened in Castillo's case. He screwed things up all by himself.

Castillo's prospects rose dramatically at the leaguewide combine in Indianapolis in February when he turned in an eye-popping 32 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press and a 4.79 time in the 40-yard dash. And they fell just as precipitously afterward when he failed a drug test administered at the same workout.

Castillo is, by all accounts, a bright young man and he went a long way toward proving that by owning up to the sin. He admitted taking androstenedione after the season, but before the combine began, because an elbow injury was slow to heal.

Then he provided all 32 teams with his medical history of drug testing at Northwestern — no previous steroid positives — and a letter from coach Randy Walker describing Castillo as a model citizen. His agent, Rick Smith, followed that up by getting in touch with each team, saying in a statement, ''We're comfortable with where we're at.''

Whether the league's GMs feel the same won't be known until Saturday afternoon. Castillo was rated a high second-round choice after the combine — Florida State's Travis Johnson and USC's Shaun Cody top most lists at defensive tackle — and whoever drafts him does so knowing he'll likely be tested up to two dozen times a year, possibly for as long as Castillo is in the league.

''Obviously,'' said Smith, the San Diego GM, making clear he wasn't talking about Castillo, ''you don't want to be embarrassed by a guy after all the hard work you've done. But it's happened and it will happen again. You just hope it doesn't happen on your watch.''

Still, the damaged-goods section of the draft is where some of the most attractive buys wind up: Think Moss, Warren Sapp, and Willis McGahee. Teams pass it by at their own risk.

''It comes down to individual clubs and their philosophies. We all have the same information, but different ideas,'' the Chargers' Smith said. ''But as a rule of thumb, we all take chances on great players, because great players win you ballgames.

''And the longer somebody starts to slide, the sooner someone else will say, ''That's one heck of a player to make it all the way down here.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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