Football

Controversial Joe Mixon looking for a place to fit in the NFL

Scenes from the Cowboys draft party at AT&T Stadium

Loyal Dallas Cowboys fans flocked to Arlington on Thursday night for the first round of the NFL Draft, where the home team took Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 pick.
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Loyal Dallas Cowboys fans flocked to Arlington on Thursday night for the first round of the NFL Draft, where the home team took Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 pick.

Based on his college statistics and measurable physical skills, Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon ranks among the most talented running backs available in the 2017 NFL draft.

But multiple NFL teams, led by the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots, have made it clear they will not include Mixon on their draft boards after watching police video of a disturbing 2014 incident when he punched a woman in a Norman, Okla., restaurant.

Mixon, who played the past two seasons for the Sooners, received one year of probation through a plea agreement with prosecutors in the criminal case. But the court of public opinion has no statute of limitations, and video of the incident has been readily available for football fans, as well as NFL owners and general managers, since December.

There also have been allegations surfacing this week that Mixon might have assaulted a girl when he was in high school.

It remains unclear how many teams would be willing to spend a pick on Mixon, and in which round they might spend it, when the NFL draft begins its three-day run April 27 in Philadelphia. But it is clear that Mixon (6 foot 1, 230 pounds), a consensus late first- or second-round talent in the minds of NFL scouts, might have to wait longer than his physical skills would suggest to hear his name called.

All signs suggest Mixon, who has issued a public apology for his actions, projects as a consideration for less than half of the league’s 32 teams because of the backlash an organization would receive for adding a player with a history of violent behavior toward women.

“He might be on only 10 draft boards,” said Dane Brugler, NFL draft analyst for CBSSports.com. “But the teams looking at him know … if you’re willing to draft him on Day 3, you’re going to get the same pushback as if you take him on Day 1. So you take him when the value seems right for your team. He’s not going to have trouble landing a job.”

During a recent interview with NFL Network, Mixon told listeners to The Rich Eisen Show that he’s visited with “around 15 teams” in advance of the draft and expressed remorse for his action. He said he’s matured since making what he called “a huge mistake” as an 18-year-old and hopes some team will give him a chance to play in the NFL.

But the Patriots and Miami Dolphins, based on published reports, have scratched Mixon as a draft-day option. Several former league executives have said they would not consider Mixon if still working for an NFL team.

Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys vice-president of player personnel (1960-88) and current senior analyst for NFL.com, said Mixon “would not have been a consideration” for the Cowboys during the coach Tom Landry/general manager Tex Schramm era. But he called it “a realistic number” to believe half of the league’s teams will consider Mixon at some point during the 2017 draft if he remains on the board long enough.

“He’s got to go someplace where ownership is willing to bite the bullet,” Brandt said, noting that part of the equation rests with how much of a signing bonus each club would be willing to invest in a player unlikely to be an instant hit with his new fan base.

Brandt said the highest he could see Mixon selected would be the second round, because most NFL teams would not spend a first-round pick on a player deemed a character risk.

On the flip side: The Kansas City Chiefs took Tyreek Hill, a running back/kick returner, in the fifth round of last year’s draft after Hill pleaded guilty to felony domestic violence and battery by strangulation of his pregnant girlfriend in August 2015. As a rookie, Hill scored 12 touchdowns for the Chiefs (three rushing TDs, six receiving touchdowns, three touchdowns on special teams) and helped the team win the AFC West Division title.

Brandt sees a significant difference in the two situations.

“Tyreek Hill’s incident was not on tape and this guy’s was,” Brandt said of Mixon. “It never goes away when it’s on tape.”

But the off-field spotlight tends to diminish, said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, when the player is productive on the field and remains off the police blotter in his new town.

“This country gives you a second chance if you handle yourself the right way,” Reid said, reflecting on Hill’s situation in Kansas City. “There’s no room for errors for some of these situations. So, you have to do your homework and make sure the kid is focused in on making sure he does the right thing. ... That’s what we did with Tyreek, and it’s worked out so far.”

Asked what he’d tell a team with Mixon on its draft board, Reid said: “I would just say that you have to do your homework.”

Mixon, who was not invited to the NFL combine, shined during a March 8 Pro Day workout at Oklahoma that drew rave reviews from NFL scouts. Although several teams attended, only the Minnesota Vikings sent both the head coach and general manager to OU’s pro day session. NFL Network reported Mixon held private meetings with four teams (Detroit, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Cleveland) before his Pro Day workout in Norman, Okla.

The Denver Broncos also had a visit with Mixon. Afterward, Broncos coach Vance Joseph said: “I thought Joe was a nice young man. Obviously, he had an issue … but he’s owned it. We brought him in and talked to him for a day. He’s been remorseful for his mistake and he’s a nice young man.”

Yet it remains anyone’s guess how such a visit would impact a team’s thinking on draft day. Brugler ranked Mixon as the No. 65 prospect among the Top 100 players in this year’s draft, but conceded the off-field issue pushed down his final ranking of a player who rushed for 2,027 yards and caught 65 passes for 894 yards in his two seasons at OU. In 25 college games, Mixon scored 26 touchdowns in scrimmage situations and also returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

Brugler said Mixon “would be a first-round pick” without the off-field incident and might push LSU’s Leonard Fournette (No. 17 prospect) as the top running back taken. Dropping him to No. 65, Brugler said, is a concession to the fact that individuals who follow the NFL draft have “never seen anything like this before” with another prospect.

But in an era dominated by social media, Mixon’s character-related issues remain “a very, very, very hot topic” in the minds of NFL owners, Brandt said. In Brandt’s estimation, Mixon could have boosted his draft stock by taking part in anger-management classes immediately after playing his final college game and circulating that information to NFL executives.

That did not happen. What happens next, in regard to Joe Mixon’s NFL future, is anyone’s guess.

Jimmy Burch: 817-390-7760, @Jimmy_Burch

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