Panthers GM Dave Gettleman: 'Character does win football games'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The player had a questionable background -- he'd never been caught doing something wrong but was always there when incidents occurred -- and Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman wanted to see if this was enough to make him undraftable.

So Gettleman, director of player personnel Don Gregory and a few other members of the Carolina staff sat down with the player at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Gettleman wouldn’t name the player or say what year this happened. All he would say is that after the 50-minute interview ended, the player walked out the door and Gettleman turned to Gregory and declared that the young man never would be with the Panthers “because you knew he was full of crap."

That’s instinct.

Forty times and other measurables will get a lot of headlines over the next week as the top draft prospects work out for NFL teams, but it’s what goes on behind closed doors that most interests Gettleman.

What matters to him is how a player responds in an interview.

“The biggest thing we’re looking for is we want guys that understand the game. We want guys that hate to lose and quality people," Gettleman said on Wednesday at the combine. “One of the biggest things I have to do as a general manager is eliminate distractions.

“We can’t bring players into our building and we’re worrying what they’re going to be about when the lights go down. We’re looking at character, because character does win football games."

That could elevate a player such as Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey over Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, who on paper is considered the better prospect. But Cook was involved in a battery case in 2015, and although he was found not guilty, that still could play a role in whether the Panthers consider him with the eighth overall pick.

The last time Carolina had a top-10 pick, by the way, it selected middle linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 9. When Gettleman talks about instincts, he starts with Kuechly.

That doesn’t mean the Panthers would wipe a player off the board because of a questionable past. They made quarterback Cam Newton the first pick of the 2011 draft amidst questions about his character.

That was before Gettleman, but the fifth-year general manager drafted Daryl Worley in the third round last season even though the cornerback had pleaded no contest to a battery charge in 2014 while he was at West Virginia.

What’s important here is how the player addresses his past when talking to Gettleman. The one Gettleman passed on didn’t do well. “He couldn’t look me in the eye," Gettleman said. “We had information he was lying about. Some guys, you can tell. I’m a city kid. You can tell."

Instinct doesn’t help just with questionable backgrounds. It helps one decide if a small-school player can cut it in the NFL, as James Bradberry showed he could after Gettleman selected him in the second round out of Samford.

The best example Gettleman can recall was in 1996, while he was with the Denver Broncos. He recommended they use their first-round pick to select linebacker John Mobley out of tiny Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. Mobley was named All-Pro in 1997 after recording 132 tackles and four sacks. He helped the Broncos win two Super Bowls.

“The biggest thing about small-school guys is you have to picture them," Gettleman said. “Say I’m at Kutztown, Pennsylvania. I’ve got to picture that guy playing at Penn State. If I’m at Kent State, I’ve got to picture this guy starting at Ohio State.

“They have to be man among boys."

Gettleman has shown good instincts for most of his time at Carolina, drafting players and making free agent moves. He was instrumental in creating the 2015 team that went 15-1 during the regular season and reached the Super Bowl.

“What happened in ’15 in our locker room was real," Gettleman said. “That was 63 guys committed to doing the right thing every day all day long. That was real, and you need that. That’s what we’re looking for."

For Gettleman, it all comes down to instinct.

“At the end of the day, if I make a whole lot more right moves than wrong moves, you might say I’ve got some instincts," he said.

His instincts apparently were spot on regarding the player he wouldn't name. “He’s in the league," Gettleman said. “But the team’s had all kinds of problems."