RB prospect Joe Mixon fits into two categories for NFL teams: too toxic or too talented to ignore

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports US

If it was left up to the talent assessments, there’s little question where Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon would be landing in this spring’s NFL draft. It would be high, maybe the first round, depending on the appraiser.

“He’s the third-best running back in the draft,” one NFC talent evaluator told Yahoo Sports this week, placing Mixon’s on-field grade behind only LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. “Someone is going to take him. He’ll be off a lot of [draft] boards, but he’s too talented to fall out of the draft. Someone will take him.”

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For months, these will be the warring assessments surrounding the most controversial player in this NFL draft.

He’ll be off a lot of draft boards.

He’s too talented to fall out of the draft.

Thirty-two NFL teams will be divided into those two camps as the next several months unfold for Mixon. That much has become certain since mid-December, when a 2014 video of Mixon punching a female Oklahoma student in the head was made public. Shortly after the release of the video, Mixon held a news conference where he expressed contrition for the act – also sending direct apologies to the victim, Amelia Molitor – and then took questions from reporters. A lawyer for Molitor released a statement afterward acknowledging that Mixon was “taking full responsibility” and expressed optimism about “obtaining closure.”

Almost two weeks later, the Sooners running back declared for the NFL draft, thrusting himself into an evaluation process that will publicly and privately examine his character like no other time in his life.

Thus far, the collective summary of thoughts from the scouting and executive community hasn’t strayed far from a singular orbit – one that paints Mixon’s talent as special, but also recognizes the video puts his draft selection into an impossible to justify category. This is part of the unfortunate but very real qualities of the NFL draft process. A player can be accused or even convicted of something, but a video of the incident can dramatically alter the way pro teams perceive that same player.

The video can throw the draft landscape into a frenzy because it’s a piece of tangible and easily accessible evidence of a red flag. It also lasts on the Internet forever, ready to be summoned at the first sign that the chosen pick was a mistake. And once a team drafts a player with a negative video tied to him, that team’s logo is seemingly watermarked onto the footage for however long it remains relevant.

Look no further than Mississippi offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, who had a video released of him on the night of the draft in 2016 smoking a bong and wearing a gas mask. Most teams were aware that Tunsil had previously smoked marijuana, but the video’s release still caused him to slide from top-five consideration all the way to the 13th pick. That clip cost Tunsil millions and instantly became something the Miami Dolphins had to defend on draft night.

And that was a video of Tunsil smoking marijuana, a minor offense in most NFL draft rooms. Mixon on the other hand, finds himself in the category of Ray Rice, who hasn’t found a job in the NFL since elevator footage of him punching his then-fiancee surfaced in 2014. After that ugly video surfaced, no NFL team was willing to tie itself to Rice. In some NFL franchises, Mixon will face some of the same owner sentiment that Rice has dealt with. Specifically, a line that swerves franchises away from domestic violence, especially when there is video of the incident. The distinction of having video of an incident versus only allegations or convictions exists, fair or not. It becomes harder for front offices or coaching staffs to plead for a draft pick in the face of footage that can unilaterally sway ownership or a fan base all by itself.

Some franchises have recently navigated a minefield of red flags to select players. Naturally, those are the franchises that are already being highlighted in the scouting community as potential destinations for Mixon.

“There are only a few of them with [leeway] to take that risk,” said another NFC evaluator. “Seattle has a history with [Frank Clark]. I could see the Seahawks taking a chance on him. Kansas City is another one – Tyreek Hill, [Marcus] Peters, [Justin] Houston were some guys with some different [red flags] in the draft. That’s three stars – a lot of success taking chances.

“Tyreek Hill punched a pregnant woman. He actually pled guilty to it. The Chiefs took him in the fifth round and people were protesting outside the stadium. By the end of the season he was a star. So if Joe Mixon is there in the fifth round, I could see the Chiefs taking him. … It’s still a bottom-line business. It’s people saying, ‘I’m paid to win games. Either I take Mixon or someone else takes him and beats me with him.’ That’s the business. I know people don’t want to hear that, but it’s how some guys get drafted.”

Tyreek Hill was kicked off the Oklahoma State football team after a violent incident with his pregnant girlfriend. The Chiefs drafted him in Round 5 last year. (Getty Images)
Tyreek Hill was kicked off the Oklahoma State football team after a violent incident with his pregnant girlfriend. The Chiefs drafted him in Round 5 last year. (Getty Images)

As it stands, teams are still compiling reports on most prospects. Most have yet to create their “sub-boards” – draft boards reserved for players with red flags who are considered on a risk-reward basis depending on how far they fall in the selection process. Sub-boards are complicated, usually viewed inside a matrix that pits risk against talent. Depending on the type of red flags involved, selecting players from a sub-board can factor in public relations fallout and also require some level of approval from ownership. Mixon will find his evaluation mixed into all of this.

In some places, Mixon won’t make the sub-boards of NFL teams. Because of the violent incident, he will be removed from draft consideration altogether, placed into a strict “no-draft” zone. And the video might actually widen the swath of teams that won’t touch him. The process of determining that will continue right into April.

For now, there is strong sentiment out there that Mixon will indeed be selected. His on-field talent is too special to ignore. And lest anyone forget, some of the teams that took chances in recent years (like the aforementioned Seattle and Kansas City franchises) have been postseason staples at least partially because of the returns on their risks.

NFL teams will see that. They’ll frame Joe Mixon’s past inside it. And it will allow one of them to use a draft pick on Mixon because of it.

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