INDIANAPOLIS — I had the same trepidation writing about Joe Mixon that teams will have with the idea of drafting the Oklahoma running back on the last weekend of April.
In short, I worried there’s something else behind the figurative Door No. 2. And I know that if even there isn’t, something else still could happen.
After all, I don’t want to come off looking like a rube anymore than the NFL’s 32 teams do. Not after reading what was in the police report in the summer of 2014, and not after seeing exactly what was released on video in December. Mixon knows he can’t change the facts on July 25, 2014, either.
The punch he threw fractured bones in Amelia Molitor’s face. The visual evidence that came into the public realm 29 months after the fact is as gruesome as the Ray Rice video—which became public six weeks after Mixon’s incident—that rocked the NFL. Mixon has had to answer for it since. He’ll have to answer for it again, now.
Why are we all supposed to believe that wasn’t the real Joe Mixon in that video?
“Because at the end of the day, I’d never gotten in trouble before that point, and never after,” Mixon said. “You can’t judge someone on a mistake they made. I’m sure you’ve made mistakes, I’m sure everyone’s made mistakes. It’s what you do after and what you learn from it. It’s not like it’s been a string of things after that incident. It was a one-time thing. I made a bad decision, I made a bad mistake.
“If I could take it back, I would. I can’t. So I have to keep moving forward, doing the right things. I can’t keep worrying about something that happened three years ago.”
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll explore the Falcons getting off the canvas after a devastating defeat, check in on franchise tags and the free-agent market, and give you a list of guys with the most to gain or lose this weekend in Indianapolis.
But we start with Mixon, who would be the story of the 2017 combine if he was actually here. And while we can all argue until we’re blue in the face as to why the NFL banned him and a number of others (I personally think it’s to keep the league’s TV show from becoming “Joe Mixon Week”), the reality is he didn’t make the trip, and he’s not going to get much sympathy from the public after what happened in 2014.
When I asked if he’s angry he’s not coming, he said, “Nah, not at all. It’s not in my hands, to make that decision. At the end of the day, I respect the NFL not inviting me. And I’ve got another opportunity to show what I can do, at the pro day.” And when I asked if he asked why, he answered, “No, that’s above my pay grade, to understand what they did. They came up with a decision. And like I said, I respect it.”
Of course, Mixon’s absence won’t stop teams from digging, and it won’t stop some team from taking him. And that bring us back to the original fear that any team would have.
“The thing I’d point to is his actions since,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “Whether it’s coaches or teammates, just look at the way people talked about him the next three years, the positive impact he made on both this program and people’s lives here, and his overall spirit.
“Obviously, the incident was terrible and is nothing you’d ever condone. … But he’s brought so much to so many people here, and you see his character he showed in staying. If you draw the hardest way, that was the hardest thing. Ninety-nine percent of population would say, ‘I’ll just cut my losses and get a fresh start.’”
That mirrored what I heard from those who’ve been through Oklahoma to vet Mixon. “He was public enemy No. 1 on campus,” said one AFC scout. “You heard stories about people staring at him, taking pictures in class, the stuff he’d hear from other fan bases. Some guys would fly off the handle. … And he’s been nothing but a model citizen, a great teammate.”
That’s not to say that he hasn’t slipped up. When I asked around, there were three instances in particular that called his level of contrition into question:
1. In September 2014 during his suspension, Mixon appeared with the football team at a pep rally during an Oklahoma volleyball game. Coach Bob Stoops later said that shouldn’t have happened.
2. During his first press availability—before the 2015 national semifinal—Mixon deflected questions on the incident and decline to publicly apologize. He was following the advice of his lawyers, in an effort to limit his civil liability.
3. A run-in with a female parking attendant in October led to a one-game suspension. Mixon explained that one like this: “I got a ticket. I parked in guest parking, which I was able to do, because I didn’t have a parking pass. So I parked in guest parking, the lady gave me a ticket. So I got the ticket, and I ripped it up, and left.”
I asked Mixon if, after the parking run-in, he immediately had an Oh crap moment, and he answered succinctly: “Correct.” That was a good answer, because the truth is, for most teams, my sense is they’ll have to feel like he’s owning everything and gets the gravity of what he did, to the point where he’ll do everything in his power to prevent messing up again.
Riley arrived in Norman in January 2015, just as Mixon was returning to the program. Riley had his preconceived notions, too, as a husband and a father of two young daughters. Two years later, he says Mixon is his 4-year-old’s favorite player, and tells the story of how Mixon had a flower arrangement waiting for the family when they returned home from the August birth of their second daughter.
“I’ve never had a player do that,” Riley said. He then added, “It’s never been hard to want to go to bat for him. It’s honestly not something I struggled with, once I got to know him, and saw how his attitude kept up. Yes, the kid did something horribly wrong. No one here condones it. But you love the fact that he got a second chance and made the most of it in the hardest environment he could have.”
It probably won’t get much easier when he gets to some team in April, of course. One AFC exec had trepidation about the parking-ticket incident, but he also affirmed what Riley has said. “The reality is they did say good things, and they do believe he’s past a bad mistake,” said the exec. “And they set strict guidelines with the program and university, and he followed every one of them.”
Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill and Seattle’s Frank Clark are two recent examples of players who had their incidents, and still got drafted and became productive immediately in the NFL. The difference here is the video. Will a team be comfortable knowing that will play on the local news on draft night? That’s part of the equation.
And of course, the combine won’t be. But Mixon says he’ll be watching anyway.
“Why would I hide?” he said. “I’m definitely going to watch the combine. I want to see my teammates do their thing. We got Samaje Perine up in there, a great running back. Then we got Dede Westbrook, he’s going to be a great receiver in the league. We got Jordan Wade, a D-tackle, I think he’ll kill the combine as well. And then I want to see the competition, obviously, all the running backs I’ll be competing against.”
Mixon told me he hasn’t watched the video, and doesn’t have plan on it. He also said he hasn’t spoken to Molitor. Would he like the opportunity? “Yeah,” he said. “To apologize.” His focus is on Oklahoma’s pro day, set for next week in Norman. He set a goal for the 40—“I’m hoping to run a 4.39,” he says—but not one for draft position.
Do I know that Mixon is the right kind of guy for a team to roll the dice? The guy I talked to matched up with the guy described by team officials, but NFL teams have to do a lot more research than I did to come to a comfort level with drafting Mixon. Can’t stress this enough: The video changed things.
And some teams, like the Ravens or Panthers or Giants, probably can’t go there because of their recent history with domestic violence. But as Mixon says, “All I need is one team to draft me.”
The next seven weeks will go a long way in determining which team that will be.
1. Good for Lions GM Bob Quinn, explaining how the combine is supposed to be for gathering information in expressing disappointment that Mixon and others with off-field issues weren’t invited.
2. It was raised to me how the non-invited benefit from not being in Indy, which is typically the toughest environment for prospects to answer questions.
3. The availability of Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron will be interesting. As much as he likes Cincinnati, he’s looking for a chance to start. His trade price is tough to figure.
4. Coaches are pointing to league-wide offensive line issues as a reason to loosen practice rules. Less hitting in camp + Not much hitting in-season = Tough to develop young backup linemen.
5. Where could it get the attention of the owners? Quarterback injuries are one place to look. Too many backup linemen just aren’t ready when called.
6. I’m not gonna kill Jameis Winston for what he said. But given what he was accused of in college, he should know he needs to be careful speaking publicly about the opposite sex.
7. The root of the Patriots’ reluctance to deal Jimmy Garoppolo is easy; they think he’s really good. But everyone has a price.
8. Interested to see how far the Ravens go to keep homegrown Brandon Williams and Ricky Wagner. They haven’t been scared to lose their own in the past.
9. Another interesting subplot: If Tony Romo is released, does he take a free-agent tour like Peyton Manning did in 2012? Those are very rare these days.
10. Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith has a tough road to hoe to play with drop foot. But he wouldn’t be the first. Ex-Eagles cornerback J.R. Reed played three NFL seasons with the condition after suffering nerve damage in 2005.
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1. Atlanta’s hangover cure. The Falcons brass had to answer the inevitable questions this week about finding a way to get past the team’s collapse in Super Bowl 51, and after talking to general manager Thomas Dimitroff, I thought of a conversation I had with Seattle coach Pete Carroll three years ago when the Seahawks were coming off their first title. I asked Carroll about handling success, as Seattle bounced back from an uneven start to the 2014 season, and he said that it wasn’t a problem because the Seahawks had built their program with the idea of getting there and sustaining it from the start. In that way, you feel like the Falcons will be alright, because Carroll’s old defensive coordinator is in charge.
As much as Quinn was hired for his football acumen coming from Seattle, his ability to reach people may have been an even bigger factor. That trait, at least on paper, should become a weapon for the Falcons as they combat their Super Sunday demon. “There’s no question it does,” Dimitroff told me. “It’s almost like it was destined to be that way. To deal with two very different seasons, last year, coming off a six-game plummet and ending up 8-8, the way he recovered with this football team, he did a fantastic job. And now this, on the opposite end of the spectrum, coming this close and being able pull his team through that, I have all the confidence in the world he’s going to be able to do it. And a lot of it has to do with his football intelligence, but also his personality and what he believes in, his positivity and resilience.”
I then mentioned to Dimitroff how Quinn didn’t run when he was peppered on the topic Wednesday. “We’re not going to dwell on it, but he’s not going to bury it,” Dimitroff continued. “He is an anti-elephant-in-the-room guy. It’s the last thing he wants. He wants to address it and move on. Our team feels that, and has felt that on any issue.” And one other thing that shouldn’t hurt? The NFL’s No. 1 offense loses Kyle Shanahan, but returns basically intact from a personnel standpoint, and a lightning fast young defense should only get better.
So as the GM sees it, 2016 was just the beginning, and even the most devastating of losses shouldn’t get in the way of that. “This is not one of those where I’m like, We’ll never have an opportunity to be back,” Dimitroff said. “That’s not where I feel we are with this football team or the way Dan approaches it, not one bit.”
2. Leader of the flock. We all saw how good Carson Wentz could be early last season. And while the rookie campaign of the Eagles quarterback did have its ups and downs, it would be hard not to recognize the potential that the second pick in last year’s draft carries. As for what’s next, his coach Doug Pederson has two things in mind.
First, Pederson wants Wentz to get some rest and come back fresh in April. “The whole offseason last year, he threw a ton of balls, he was constantly going from his last days at North Dakota State through this process and on into OTAs and camp. So come back fresh,” Pederson says. Second, when Wentz does come back, Pederson wants the quarterback to begin to assert himself. “I want to see him embracing being a leader on this football team,” Pederson told me. “Now that he’s got a year under his belt, he can be the guy, a guy who can really motivate other players, challenge other players, along with challenging himself.”
If you think that sounds like a tall order for a 24-year-old, Pederson would counter with the experience Wentz got being thrown into the fire after the Sam Bradford trade. “And the way he became the starter. He never worked with the first unit through the entire training camp,” Pederson continued. “Now, he’s thrust in there with Jason Kelce and Jason Peters and he’s working with the starters. They’re all kind of like, ‘Oh boy.’ But after watching him practice, study, just the first week, they were sold. They bought in, they’d do anything for him. Those are the things, going into his second year, he can embrace and grow with.”
The Eagles have some patching up to do around Wentz, and he is spending part of his downtime working with QB coaches Tom House and Adam Dedeaux on his lower-body mechanics. But listening to Pederson, and talking to vice president Howie Roseman for my podcast, it sure does seem like the Eagles are pretty excited about where Wentz could take them.
3. Adrian Peterson’s future may come down to accepting a diminished role. Let’s get this out of the way: Peterson is absolutely, positively an all-time great. He’s 16th all-time in rushing yards, despite missing nearly all of two of his 10 seasons, and going through another one coming off ACL surgery. He may be the first 18-year-old college freshman I ever watched where I could say, That guy could be a star in the NFL right now, which explains what kind of physical freak he was. But he’s 32 now, and he’s already logged more career carries than O.J. Simpson or Jim Brown or Earl Campbell. So what does he have left?
In talking with those who’ve coached Peterson, the operative question is simple: Will he be willing to accept being a role player? Most people I’ve talked to believe he loves football enough to make those sacrifices, but there are some hurdles. While Peterson likes working out, and has been maniacal about maintaining the gifts that got him to the NFL, he’s never been considered as diligent in the classroom. As one coach put it, “Everything he’s done is because he was just physically better than everyone playing against him.” And again, that’s not to say he hasn’t worked at it, because it takes work to remain physically superior into your 30s. But where many veteran players extend their careers is by mastering the mental side of the game, which can allow a guy to reinvent himself by making up for declining physical ability. Those who’ve been around Peterson say he may struggle to do the same. As great as Peterson has been, he’s never had 500 yards receiving or 45 catches. He’s only exceeded 400 yards receiving once, and he’s had two 40-catch seasons.
The flip side here is despite last year’s injury, those who’ve worked with him don’t think he’s lost much physically. It’s just that, because of his age and his bruising, upright running style, he needs to be managed differently. So his ideal role likely will be as a first-down and second-down back, and closer, for a contender. And it’ll be interesting to see if he’s truly OK with that.
4. Eric Berry resets the safety market. An easy way to gauge how the NFL values players is to look at the franchise-tag figures. The quarterback number ($21.27 million) tops the list, with defense ends and receivers next, and then offensive linemen, linebackers, corners and defensive tackles in a cluster. Really, two non-specialist positions have long lagged behind—safety ($10.896 million) and tight end ($9.78 million). At least at the former spot, that’s starting to change.
Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu took advantage of his hybrid status last year to score a deal at $12.5 million per, more than $2 million clear of the next highest paid safety. And this week, the heart and soul of Kansas City’s defense—Eric Berry—had his patience rewarded. Taking advantage of the leverage of a second franchise tag, Berry’s rep’s negotiated a deal worth $13 million per year. And it’s hard to find people out there who wouldn’t say he’s worth it.
“He’s the quarterback of that defense,” said one rival offensive coach. “He sets the tone. It’s difficult to set him up because he’s so sound and intelligent. Hard to find a guy that has the range, plays the ball as well, and is as good a tackler as he is, he’s a blend of all the things you want a safety to be. … He’s as smart as some quarterbacks in how he plays the position. He has the head to bait quarterbacks and the athletic ability to make you pay. It’s hard to trust anything you see all the time (from him) because of that.”
So Berry and the similarly different Honey Badger have raised the bar, and the profile of safeties across the league is likely to keep rising. LSU’s Jamal Adams and Ohio State’s Malik Hooker are ticketed to go in the Top 10 or so picks of April’s draft.
The stuff that matters in Indianapolis is what we don’t see. The combine originally began as an effort to collect apples-to-apples medical information on prospects. Over the years, it’s turned into a television extravaganza, with the theme being “Let’s see just how freakish prospective NFL athletes actually are.” And now you see a slew of copycat events at every level of the sport.
The problem is that the physical testing is so well-coached now that usually teams just go into it trying to confirm what they already know. Fast-looking guy is actually fast, strong guy is actually stronger, first-one-off-the-bus guy actually looks big next to other NFL prospects, etc.
What can’t be gamed as easily is being in a room with trained evaluators actively trying to throw you off in interviews, or looking healthy when you actually aren’t in front of a doctor.
“I would agree that [what really matters is] the medicals and the interviews,” said one AFC personnel executive. “It’s also the first time your coaches come in contact with the prospects, which leads to a comprehensive evaluation of what your scouts and now your coaches have on players. They’ll see them physically for the first time—our scouts have been to campus—and then want to match the info with their own interviews.”
So there’s our lesson for this week: Don’t go too gaga over the physical testing and the field work—because the clubs really aren’t.
OK, now that said, are there guys with a lot on the line over the next few days? Of course. Here’s a quick list:
• Washington safety Budda Baker: Scouts love Baker and the frenzied way he played for a nasty Husky defense. They don’t love his size. So his height and weight will matter here, and could determine whether he sneaks into the first round.
• Michigan tight end Jake Butt: He is a solid all-around player who tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl. Teams will be interested to gauge his rehab progress two months later.
• Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis: One of the draft’s top middle linebackers, he’ll be sidelined in Indy with an ankle injury that hampered him through his final year in Gainesville. So his medical check warrants watching.
• Louisville outside linebacker Devonte Fields: A talented, if light, pass-rusher, the one-time Big 12 Freshman of the Year was kicked out of TCU following a domestic violence incident (charges were filed, then dismissed), and so his interview in Indy will be important.
• Ohio State safety Malik Hooker: Surgery for a torn labrum and a hernia will sideline Hooker—a potential Top 10 pick—in Indy, and so he fits into the “medical update” category.
• East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones: A super productive mid-major collegian, and a star during Senior Bowl week, a strong showing in testing could move Jones to the front of the receiver group chasing Clemson’s Mike Williams and Western Michigan’s Corey Davis.
• Texas Tech quarterback Pat Mahomes: Physically gifted and blessed with great arm talent, the interview will be vital for Mahomes to show his capacity to learn, and willingness to adjust problematic mechanics.
• Michigan safety-linebacker Jabrill Peppers: The drill work will be important for this athlete without a set position, and so will his measureables, as teams try to figure how he’ll be deployed as a pro.
• Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine: Ultra-productive collegian with a Maurice Jones-Drew type build who needs a decent 40. Some teams are afraid he’ll run as slow as 4.7.
• Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk: He only played one year of major college football and pushed through a torn labrum in his hip during that season. He had surgery, and teams will want to see where the potential first-rounder is physically.
• Ohio State wideout-tailback Curtis Samuel: Another player without a position, Samuel was used like Percy Harvin by Urban Meyer, so running well will be important to proving he’s worth cultivating a role in the NFL.
• Ashland tight end Adam Shaheen: Originally a college basketball player, Shaheen returned to the gridiron at Div. II Ashland in 2014 and became a force. At 6-foot-6 and 277 pounds, a strong 40 could turn him into a lot more than a curiosity.
• Alabama outside linebacker Tim Williams: If it weren’t for his rap sheet, Williams would be a good bet to go inside the top 10 picks. As it is, there’s the gun charge from September, and that’s just the start of what he’ll have to answer for in interviews.