In the modern NFL it has become harder and harder to run a team based solely on principal, rather than taking a risk on at least one player with some character concerns. In the past we had at least a third of the league touting stout, no tolerance policies for players who engaged in infringing behavior which could be construed as detrimental to the team, or the league. This hard line approach was executed two-fold; firstly by suspending, cutting or trading players who brought detriment to the team, and secondly by removing players from the team's draft board based on evidence of misconduct at the collegiate level.
The Carolina Panthers had good reason to follow a strict policy for the better part of a decade. With national, shameful black marks against the team's name with Rae Carruth followed by the tragic death of Fred Lane, coupled with the ludicrous Top Cat scandal of 2005 it led to very strict adherence to an aforementioned two-fold policy that saw the Panthers avoiding players in the draft with bad histories, and quickly dealing with those who stepped outside acceptable behavior whilst on the team. What's not clear is who placed the onus on this policy. Some have pointed the finger at the Big Cat, but the truth is that he has almost nothing to do with football decisions, he leaves that up to GM Marty Hurney. Some have posited that it was a combination of Hurney and Fox working together that made this policy a reality. While John Fox was most definitely a player's coach, he abhorred drama and avoided conflict whenever possible; therefore, it would seem in line with his thinking that the Panthers would avoid players who could potentially rock the boat.
With Ron Rivera taking the helm as head coach things changed. While also very much a players coach, he brought a more authoritative, hard-line stance that was more open to conflict when necessary, with Rivera bringing military discipline to the team. The result was a first draft with two significant risks as relating to character, and one situation that arose during the season.
More after the jump
Regardless of how Cam Newton won over the public in 2011, and did all the right things during the season there were significant character concerns leading up to his drafting, especially for a player the GM and new coach were willing to stake their future's on. Obviously they did the due diligence in vetting Newton and decided the laptop theft and cheating allegations were no longer indicative of the player who won the national championship and Heisman with Auburn, however there was always a chance they were wrong. While I choose not to give credence to the pay for play scandal simply because there isn't any evidence, the fact Cam had a stolen laptop in his possession while at Florida was a source of concern, but ultimately it was an example of a stupid, youthful mistake and one that the QB learnt from.
More recent were the character concerns of 4th round pick CB Brandon Hogan, who even in his final year at West Virginia was involved in some unsavory behavior. Regardless of what happened with his DUI charge the selection of Hogan tips the Panthers' hand in a curious way- Carolina never took him off their draft board. While some teams in the NFL were willing to pass on Hogan, the Panthers weren't and this could help us identify their methods for dealing with players now.
Lawrence Wilson had no noticeable issues coming out of UCONN, but a November 2nd traffic stop resulting in a marijuana possession charge caused the 6th round pick to be promptly cut by the Panthers. Regardless of how you feel about the infraction, what this indicated was that once a member of the Panthers there is no tolerance for this behavior. Some will cynically scoff that if Wilson was a star player he wouldn't have been met with such a stern response, but I like to think this is par for the course for the way the Panthers are currently being run.
Moving forward into the 2012 draft we can now see the rubric the Carolina Panthers follow- they will vet players with past indiscretions, and they're willing to draft players with such issues. However, should these problems manifest themselves once the player reaches the NFL they will be quickly dealt with. Keep this in mind as we approach the April draft and players are most closely scruitinized. Most recently this presented itself with talented CB Dre Kirkpatrick who was given a marijuana charge. Too many have suggested this alone would have removed the Alabama CB from the Panthers' draft board, but the truth is he's probably still very much in play for Carolina. Marty Hurney has openly preached a BPA, impact player plan for the 2012 draft and if Kirkpatrick fits the bill he'll be drafted, personal conduct problem or not.