Skill and ferocity get the attention of NFL executives, but character counts, too.
Arik Armstead and Shaq Thompson were thoroughly scouted and researched before last week’s NFL draft, like every other prospect.
What NFL personnel learned about Armstead was he was a campus leader at Pleasant Grove High School , as big in stature and big on faith as he is in size.
“How many 6-7, 295-pound men do they make?” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke asked after selecting Armstead with the 17th pick in the first round.
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Thompson, NFL executives found, mentored impressionable youths in Del Paso Heights while attending Grant. He chatted with kids after games, urging them to stay in school and involved in sports, and he visited children in the hospital. Thompson attended classes at Washington leading up to the draft, in which he was selected 25th by the Carolina Panthers.
“It’s exciting for (Armstead) and me,” Thompson said. “We want to put Sacramento on the NFL map. It’s a big thing, being a first-rounder.”
Said Armstead: “I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of pressure on us to do well as first-rounders, but there are big expectations. We like that.”
Safety Jordan Richards shares similar expectations. After graduating from Folsom, he excelled at Stanford, where teammates called him “Coach” for his ability to lead and read offenses. He was selected in the second round by the New England Patriots. During Richards’ early-morning workouts in the Bay Area leading up to the draft, the Super Bowl champions learned he avoided the Dumbarton Bridge and trekked an extra 12 miles to avoid the $5 toll. Yes, upon full inspection, Richards came up all roses.
“Everybody you talk to, they rave about it: about his communication, his leadership, his character on and off the field,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick told New England media Friday. “I don’t think there’s any issues with that.”
The NFL has had numerous players make headlines with off-the-field incidents, so many teams are putting more time into researching character.
“It’s a carryover from the field to the classroom, and it’s not just coincidence that (Armstead, Thompson and Richards) went high in the draft beyond their skills,” said Folsom co-coach Troy Taylor, who coached Richards, coached against the other two and played quarterback with the New York Jets. “NFL teams don’t have time to deal with guys who are not focused, who are a distraction.”
A high-round selection guarantees nothing but a signing bonus, as illustrated by the other first-round picks from this region:
Gordon King, Bella Vista/Stanford, Giants, 10th, 1978: The offensive tackle played 10 seasons. When Giants fullback Larry Csonka met the 6-foot-6, 275-pound King, he said, “It's good to have a lineman you can look straight in the belly button.” King works in commercial real estate in Sacramento.
Dan Bunz, Oakmont/Long Beach State, 49ers, 24th, 1978: The linebacker, who played eight seasons, is best known for his game-turning goal-line tackle in Super Bowl XVI in 1982. Bunz, a longtime teacher at Sutter Middle School, is concerned about trauma suffered by NFL players as he deals with short-term memory loss and a battered body.
Gerald Willhite, Cordova/San Jose State, Broncos, 21st, 1982: The running back suffered at least eight concussions in seven seasons. Now retired in Sacramento, he struggles with short-term memory loss, and his knees and back ache even when he walks across a room. He has joined a lawsuit filed by former players against the NFL.
Tony Eason, Delta/Illinois, Patriots, 15th, 1983: He was part of the famed quarterback draft class headed by John Elway. He started Super Bowl XX and played eight seasons, throwing 61 touchdown passes. Eason once coached at Delta High.
Ken O'Brien, Jesuit/UC Davis, Jets, 24th, 1983: He also was in that quarterback draft class and had a solid career, passing for 25,094 yards and 128 touchdowns in 11 seasons. He works in commercial real estate in Southern California.
Don Rogers, Norte Del Rio/UCLA, Browns, 18th, 1984: The safety, the 1983 Rose Bowl MVP and the Defensive Rookie of the Year, died at 23 in 1986 from a heart attack caused by a cocaine overdose on the eve of his wedding.
Trevor Matich, Rio Americano/BYU, Patriots, 28th, 1985: He played every offensive-line position during his 12-year career. He works as a college football TV analyst based on the East Coast.
Reggie Rogers, Norte Del Rio/Washington, Lions, seventh, 1987: The defensive tackle was shaken by the death of his brother and idol, and his career later unraveled. When he died at 49 in 2013, toxicology reports indicated he succumbed to cocaine and alcohol intoxication.
Rae Carruth, Valley/Colorado, Panthers, 27th, 1997: The wide receiver’s NFL career ended after he was convicted in 2001 for his role in the death of Cherica Adams, who was pregnant with his son, Chancellor, when she was shot in 1999.
Donte’ Stallworth, Grant/Tennessee, Saints, 13th, 2002: The wide receiver had a mixed 10-year career. In 2009, Stallworth pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter after striking a pedestrian who was racing across a road to catch a bus. He speaks to NFL rookies about the dangers of drunken driving and recently completed a national security fellowship with the Huffington Post.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.