Dallas The NFL had no questions about Lawrence Phillips on the football field back in 1996.
Phillips was all that the NFL covets in a running back - powerful (5-11, 230 pounds), explosive (4.49-second speed in the 40-yard dash) and productive. In his first season as a starter at Nebraska in 1994, he reeled off 11 consecutive 100-yard rushing games.
Phillips closed his college career in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl with 163 yards and three touchdowns, winning game MVP honors as the Cornhuskers captured a national championship with a rout of Florida.
On the field, Phillips was special. But off the field, he was not. There were anger management issues. Phillips was suspended for six games in 1995 for dragging his girlfriend down a flight of stairs by her hair.
So Phillips was flagged on NFL draft boards as a character risk. But the St. Louis Rams discounted that risk, selecting him sixth overall in the 1996 draft. The Rams believed the possible on-the-field reward outweighed any off-the-field risk.
The Rams were wrong. Phillips was arrested three times in a span of 19 months before he was released by his NFL team for insubordination.
The NFL has long closed one eye to character issues in its evaluation of draft prospects. Like the Rams in their evaluation of Phillips, rewards always seemed to outweigh risks on draft day.
But all that has changed in 2007. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has deemed cleaning up the league's image one of his top priorities in his first full year on the job.
"We believe that we are held to a higher standard," Goodell said. "We believe our players, coaches and everyone involved with the NFL, including commissioners, should be held to a higher standard."
Goodell drove home his point this month.
Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry had come to represent all that's wrong with the league's image. Both have had repeated run-ins with the law since arriving in the NFL in the 2005 draft, Jones as a first-round pick and Henry a third.
So Goodell suspended Jones for the 2007 season without pay and sat Henry down for the first eight games. In unveiling his new policy for personal conduct, Goodell said clubs also could be subject to disciplinary action when their employees stray.
"The (NFL) shield is the most important thing for me, and I believe for everyone else (in the league)," Goodell said. "When you select players, select coaches - when you select anybody to represent your organization - you should do that in the best possible fashion.
"If they do it at a standard less than you expect, we have to deal with that."
The entry point for players is the NFL draft. That's where any philosophical change must come. Character risks such as Jones and Phillips were rewarded with first-round draft selections and first-round money. That figures to change, starting in 2007.
"As we talk about bringing players into our organization, we don't want to know about the player until we know the person," New York Jets coach Eric Mangini said. "That's how we are building our team."
Several players on this draft board have character flags, including potential first-round picks Jarvis Moss, a defensive end from Florida, and Brandon Meriweather, a safety from Miami.
Other players with first-day draft value but character flags include Nevada-Las Vegas cornerback Eric Wright, Texas cornerback Tarell Brown and Florida defensive tackle Marcus Thomas.
NFL teams have spent the last two months trying to figure out where players who might loom as character risks belong on draft boards. The prospects have never been as greatly scrutinized for their lives off the field as they have been in 2007.
"We dig into a person's character and his background," Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "In some cases, we remove a player from our draft board altogether. In other cases we knock him down and consider them risks that we would still take, but with some concern. Still others are minor and don't affect their draft position."
Off the field, Miami's Meriweather shot a gun in self-defense last summer as he and a teammate were being victimized in a robbery attempt. On the field, he was suspended for his participation in a bench-clearing brawl during the Florida International game.
"It was blown out of proportion," Meriweather said of the brawl. "It wasn't what people are trying to make it. It was a bunch of competitive football players who lost their emotions in a game. Unfortunately, a situation arose. We should have known better. Unfortunately, we made bad decisions. I'm sorry for it."
Moss was suspended for a game last season after allegedly testing positive for smoking marijuana.
"It was a humbling experience," Moss said. "It came after the game of my life. It was God's way of bringing me back down to Earth. It was something I definitely learned from. My coaches stuck by me. We stuck together as a family, and I regained their trust. I went on to do some special things."
Brown was arrested last September on misdemeanor charges of unlawfully carrying a weapon and marijuana possession, and again last month for possession of marijuana. Thomas was suspended for two games last fall for failing a drug test.
"It was only the marijuana thing," Thomas said at the NFL scouting combine. "It was me being ahead of myself, thinking they weren't going to drug test me, thinking I was above everything. That made me realize football can be taken away from me. I really took it for granted.
"I've never been arrested, never had any off-the-field issues. That was just me being dumb, hanging around the wrong people. That messed me up a lot. I have to let (NFL) people know that's in the past and has nothing to do with me right now."
Where those players will go in the 2007 draft is anyone's guess. But a player's character off the field will carry more weight on draft day than it ever has in the past.