Wroten falls down to the third round

Character counts.

That message was delivered loud and clear by NFL teams on the first day of the 2006 draft. Transgress off the field and, it seems, you regress on teams' draft boards.

Just ask Claude Wroten of LSU, rated by many scouts as the most athletically gifted defensive tackle in this year's talent pool but left undrafted on Saturday until the fourth choice in the third round, when Arizona stopped his free-fall.

In a letter sent to all 32 franchises two weeks ago, a supposedly contrite Wroten allowed that he had tested positive for marijuana during his college career. He explained the details of an arrest in early February, when police cited him for possession to distribute marijuana, charges that subsequently were dismissed because of lack of evidence.

During a recent interview with ESPN.com, Wroten insisted he had sworn off marijuana and acknowledged he feared his indiscretions might cost him a professional football career.

And then, shortly after teams received Wroten's letter, they were notified by the league that the former LSU star was one of two players who had tested positive at the scouting combine sessions. And whatever chances Wroten had of salvaging his high-round draft status went up in smoke, literally and figuratively.

"From a pure talent standpoint," agreed one AFC general manager a few hours before the start of Saturday's proceedings, "(Wroten) is probably one of the best tackles I've seen in the last few years. But you make an investment in these guys, and you have to protect it. I'm not going to let a 'character' guy cost me money. Sooner or later, maybe some of these guys will understand how much (money) they're costing themselves. Basically, teams have decided we're going to make examples of these guys."

On a first day in which teams demonstrated the increasing emphasis on selecting prospects as solid off the field as they are on it, Wroten was hardly the only highly-regarded player to pay a steep price.

Once projected as a possible top 10 selection, Southern California tailback LenDale White slid all the way to the 13th pick in the second round, the 45th selection overall, not because of drug tests but rather the perception he lacks a strong work ethic. Complicating the White situation was that he never completed a 40-yard dash for scouts because of a hamstring injury that will sideline him until mid-May. The drop to the second round cost White millions of dollars.

"Right now," said White on Saturday, "I'm looking at a 31-team chip on my shoulder."

A published report Friday claimed White had failed an NFL drug test, but the report was deemed erroneous. The only function at which an NFL drug test is administered is the scouting combine in Indianapolis. And the only player besides Wroten to be flagged for a positive combine test was Missouri State kicker Jon Scifres.

Four general managers or personnel directors contacted by ESPN.com on Friday and Saturday said there was no follow-up letter citing additional positive tests. All four said they were unfamiliar with any league tests that White might have failed.

Teams are not permitted to conduct drug screenings on players when they bring them to their complexes for individual pre-draft meetings. That said, a few franchises skirt the rules and do conduct such tests. Those teams, though, would have no reason, given the competitive nature of the draft, to share or leak the results.

"The reports (on White) were false," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "We just feel that, considering the ability he has, and the production he had (in college), and the running style he brings to this franchise, this was a player too good to pass up."

Still, had scouts not perceived some character issues with White, there is no way he would have been available to the Titans in the second round.

Another former USC star who dropped out of the first round for character reasons was offensive tackle Winston Justice, regarded by many as the second-best prospect in the draft at the position. Some projections had the Philadelphia Eagles grabbing Justice in the first round. But they passed on Justice in the opening stanza, and so did everyone else. Ironically, it was the Eagles who tossed Justice a safety net in the second round, taking him with the 39th overall selection.

Virginia Tech star Jimmy Williams, who entered his senior season with the Hokies rated as the nation's premier defensive back, fell out of the first round, in part because of the feeling of many teams that he had some personality flaws. Williams was chosen by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.