In 2014, the star running back punched a female student, fracturing four bones in her face. In December, the video was made public. Now, NFL teams are figuring out what to do about the talented back with the troubled past. Plus, more on who impressed at the Senior Bowl
MOBILE, Ala. — That dateline isn’t entirely true. I’m back in Chicago, but as I flipped through my notebook during the flight home—and yes, I did carry around an actual red, five-by-eight-inch notebook all week—I realized just how much information I gathered at the Senior Bowl. I’ll use this column to share some of those nuggets, and I’ll begin with a player who was not in Alabama, though his name was mentioned often and his presence will be a polarizing one from now until April: Joe Mixon.
Mixon, a redshirt sophomore running back from Oklahoma, is a supreme talent. He was suspended for his freshman season, 2014, for punching a woman at a local restaurant, breaking four bones in her face.
Mixon entered an Alford plea on a misdemeanor assault charge (meaning he did not admit to the charge, but did admit the prosecution could likely prove the charge)* and was ordered to serve 100 hours of community service and undergo counseling. The case resurfaced in December when Mixon’s attorneys released video of the incident (in advance of a court order for the city of Norman to release it), and the story might have run out of steam if not for Oklahoma coach Bob Stoop’s awkward handling of the video release—the coach said Mixon would be off the team if the incident had taken place in 2016, rather than in 2014.
In the post-Ray Rice era, a case like Mixon’s is perplexing for NFL evaluators. On one hand, every incident is unique. On the other, Mixon’s case fits into a familiar pattern: There was little outrage until visual evidence surfaced. How does an NFL team reconcile Mixon as a player and Mixon’s as a person who once assaulted a woman, and how does a team determine whether Mixon has been rehabilitated and is worthy of a second chance?
When Mixon declared for the draft, he said he received a first-round grade from the NFL’s college advisory committee. Though as Tom Pelissero of USA Today reported last week, this is not actually true: Oklahoma never submitted Mixon’s name. Mixon’s agent, Peter Schaffer, clarified to Pelissero: “I’ve since been able to confirm that with a number of teams—that from a talent evaluation perspective, he has a first-round grade. Some teams have him as the top running back, second running back, third running back on their board.”
I went down to Mobile under the assumption that Mixon would fall mightily in the draft, not because of talent or the NFL’s moral high ground, but because teams didn’t want to deal with the public relations headache. I left feeling more confused. I heard that some teams would likely remove Mixon from their draft boards altogether. However, there seemed to be a stronger sentiment that Mixon could follow the model set by Tyreek Hill, who was picked in the fifth round by the Chiefs because the Kansas City organization felt they did their diligence and had a system in place to support Hill. I got a strong indication that Mixon might not plummet that far, and be picked up by the third or fourth round. As it was explained to me: “Had this incident just happened, no doubt Mixon would dive. But teams have had enough time to do their homework.” Scouts who visited Oklahoma this past year say that the coaching staff has endorsed Mixon glowingly. While that factors into the draft decision, ultimately I believe a team will take Mixon for one reason only: They are willing to withstand public backlash because they know he can help them win.
• BIG ARMS AND BIG RISERS AT THE SENIOR BOWL: A quarterback being tabbed as the next Kirk Cousins, a linebacker catching everyone’s eye by doing it all, and a small-school receiver with a Manning connection who’s just catching everything.
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A few other entries from a week in Mobile…
• BYU’s Jamaal Williams was by far the most impressive running back at the Senior Bowl, though remember, most of the top-rated backs were not in Mobile. (That list: Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, D’Onta Foreman, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel). While all of the aforementioned players have split out wide and contributed to the pass game—even Fournette had 15 receptions for 146 yards last season—at BYU, Williams was your straight-up, downhill power back. This past year he had only had seven receptions. But Williams, BYU’s career rushing leader (3,901 yards), is patient when waiting to hit holes, and bruising. His vision was complimented often in Mobile. One scout suggested I watch tape of the Poinsettia Bowl, where Williams bulldozed Wyoming for 210 yards on 26 carries, bolstering himself on what the scout called some “nasty stiff arms.” Williams is being trained by Luke Neal in Arizona; Neal, who I had a chance to meet briefly in Mobile, is also his uncle. I’m curious to see how Williams tests at the Combine and how teams envision he can be used in the NFL.
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• On our podcast this week, Albert Breer mentioned how struck he was by Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram—strictly by the eyeball test. Breer says Engram reminds him of Aaron Hernandez (football skill set and body only) as a guy with good hands who can run well up the seam. Engram flashes the ability to create mismatch opportunities and also huge yards-after-catch potential. The 6' 3", 236-pound Engram led all FBS tight ends last season in receiving yards, with 65 catches for 926 (14.3 per catch) and eight touchdowns. And in any other year, I’d pencil him in as a second-round pick. But this year…
• …the tight end class is loaded! Even more so than I thought. Yes, Alabama’s O.J. Howard leads the field, and cemented his position as the top tight end in this year’s class with a strong week of practice in Mobile, but the rest of that class is damn strong. I feel sheepish in making this his long-overdue College Column debut, but one tight end who has skyrocketed over the past month or so is Miami’s David Njoku. A junior, Njoku was not in Mobile, but I heard his name mentioned at least a half-dozen times. The word on Njoku: He’s very long, very raw and very fast. What does this translate to? An explosive deep threat with a high ceiling. He averaged more than 16 yards per catch last season and became one of quarterback Brad Kaaya’s favorite targets. Many didn’t know if Njoku would declare until late in the process, and that’s why I think his name has only surfaced recently. I wouldn’t be shocked if he ends up as the second or third tight end off the board.
• Defensive backs, defensive backs, defensive backs! You’re probably sick of me gushing about the deep pool of tight ends in this year’s draft, and you’re going to hear plenty about the plethora of talented running backs, but the secondary selection is equally noteworthy. I’ve heard some estimate there could be as many as 10 corners taken in the first two rounds. And that’s not to get into the safeties. LSU’s Jamal Adams and Ohio State’s Malik Hooker are both Top-10 candidates, flanked by a half a dozen starting-caliber safeties. Even with the abundance of talented running backs and tight ends, no doubt this is a defense-heavy draft year. (Don’t worry, we’ll delve into edge rushers in a column coming soon.)
• What is it about those LSU wide receivers? This has become one of the odder trends in the college football-to-NFL transition: Tigers receivers don’t truly maximize their potential at Baton Rouge, but explode as superstars at the next level (see: Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry). The latest examples could be Malachi Dupre (a junior) or Travin Dural. Dupre, a downfield playmaker, is the higher-rated prospect. Dural, 6' 1", 206-pounds, probably won’t hear his name called until at least Day 2 of the draft, but showed off some amazing, athletic grabs in Mobile. Neither posted great numbers in college—Dural’s stats actually regressed since his best season in 2014, though he battled injuries. I posed this question to a Southeast area scout and he conceded there’s nothing scientific about it. LSU centers its offense on the run game and has been plagued by middling to not-great quarterback play.
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GET TO KNOW A PROSPECT
A quick Q&A with a prospect generating some buzz. This week, Iowa defensive back Desmond King. There are plenty of corners to get excited about in this year’s draft class, and the 5' 11", 200-pound Iowa product holds up among the best. A first-round candidate if he declared as a junior — and 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top corner — King returned to Iowa City for his senior season. His interception tally dipped from eight to two, but no knock on King: many quarterbacks didn’t throw his way. The Detroit native is not expected to test well in the 40 and some scouts are concerned about his closing speed; a few teams are considering King as a free safety.
Give me a scouting report of yourself…
I’m a very humble guy. I’m the guy willing to do whatever it takes on the field. I’m hardworking. I put myself in position to make plays. I have really good instincts, that’s something I really work on—to be instinctive on the field, and playing the ball at the highest point.
Why did you return for your senior season?
Honestly it was as simple as me just wanting to get my degree. I wanted one more year to play with my brothers, but to graduate… that’s something I take pride in, my mom takes pride in. I was the first in my family to go to college and now graduate in December and now I’m ready to take my career to the next level.
Who is the toughest wide receiver you have gone against?
Odell Beckham. That’s a guy who has improved his game so much in college and now in the pros. I was a freshman and it was the Outback Bowl. He was a highly touted guy at LSU and obviously now he’s making noise in the NFL. That was definitely a challenge early in my career. One play stood out to me, but it was on the opposite end of the field, he made a spectacular catch on the sideline. I know in the NFL guys make catches like that a lot so you need to know how to defend it.
What do you eat for breakfast every morning?
That’s literally what everyone has said…
That’s what gets me going!
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THE COLLEGE COLUMN ALUMNI UPDATE
With draft season officially underway, let’s check in on a few players I wrote about this season—call them The College Column Alumni—and see how they’re faring…
Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
As expected, the first-year starter at UNC cashed in on his skyrocketing stock and declared for the draft. At this point—and remember, it’s still early in the draft process—the consensus on Trubisky seems to be this: Can he take the reins of a franchise on Day 1? Maybe not. There’s still plenty of unknowns about a guy with 13 college starts, who sat most of two years behind non-NFL prospect Marquise Williams. However Trubisky has the traits to lead a franchise, and to get exited about, and I expect him to be the first or second quarterback off the board. The Browns are obviously in the market for a quarterback, and with two picks in the Top 15, I received a boatload of questions after my story ran about how Trubisky would feel about playing for his hometown team. The Mentor (Ohio) High School alum is a bit of a legend in Northeast Ohio, and here’s a quote from Trubisky that didn’t make my story: “I root for Cleveland everything. I love where I’m from. No matter what, everyone still believes in the Browns and that's so cool. It’s different being from there. Nobody knows why we love Cleveland so much unless you’re from there."
My draft prediction: Middle of the first round.
T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin
This draft declaration was more of a surprise, though not altogether shocking. Though Watt had a stellar season at Wisconsin he is nowhere near his ceiling; he has been playing linebacker for less than two years (he initially joined the Badgers as a tight end). Obviously Watt has the pedigree, and I think scouts are going to fall in love with his drive during the draft process. If you remember, the youngest Watt brother embraces his, uh, singular interests. “After games, I’ll literally sit in my apartment and watch football,” he told me in October. “I have it instilled in me from my brothers, J.J. especially, minimal gains and marginal gains, you can be one percent better. I honestly believe that if I stay in, there’s probably a player from Michigan State or Ohio State going out drinking beer, and I have to be getting better than him.” In my piece from October I wrote: “Two evaluators said that if the 6' 5", 243-pound junior enters this year’s draft, he will have, at minimum, a second-round grade.” I took the temperature on Watt at the Senior Bowl, and I feel confident in reporting that second-round grade still remains true. But don’t let Watt surprise you again, he might sneak into the first round.
My draft prediction: Late first to early second round.
Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
After I profiled Davis in September, he set career highs with 97 catches for 1,500 yards, 19 touchdowns and a handful of gawk-worthy highlights. Davis declined his Senior Bowl invite, which was a bummer but understandable. In my story, I wrote that Davis could have been a first-round prospect if he had declared in 2016, and his stock has not dipped at all. Davis was competing with Clemson’s Mike Williams and Washington’s John Ross to be the top receiver to be taken in the draft. Everything was going swimmingly for the Western Michigan wide receiver—until this past week. NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported that Davis injured his ankle during training, and he might not be able to make the combine. That’s certainly disappointing, though until we know the full severity of the injury, let’s assume (and hope) it won’t affect his stock.
My draft prediction: Late first to early second round.
Zach Banner, OL, USC
I enjoyed seeing Banner down in Mobile; he’s maintained the same bubbly personality even through the early grind of draft season. When I featured Banner in November, the focus was his weight: at 6' 9" and once weighing nearly 400 pounds, Banner was on a quest to shed some weight and keep it off. At weigh in, Banner measured 6' 8 3/8" and weighed 361 pounds. At one point during the season, Banner was in the 340s and says he would like to shed a few more pounds before the combine. The goal, he said, is to be at least in the 350s. This is something NFL teams will certainly be monitoring. Another thing about Banner: will teams project him as a guard or tackle?
My draft prediction: Fourth to fifth round.
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FACTOID OF THE WEEK
Signing day was on Wednesday. So guess what happened on Tuesday? Clemson showed off its dazzling new $55-million, 142,000 square-foot football complex. You’ve probably already heard that the building includes a slide (for reasons I will never be convinced have to do with practicality). But I’m more astonished by the one-and-a-half acre “athlete village” in which it appeared Dabo Swinney literally decided to create an amusement park. The features: a mini-golf course, fire pits, horseshoes pit, turf Wiffle Ball diamond, a covered basketball court and an outdoor kitchen with a wood-burning fireplace. Anything that can help the student-athletes, am I right?
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I would be remiss not to reprise a favorite section of the column after spending a week in Mobile, Ala.—home of the South Alabama Jaguars! (And when I say favorite section, shoutout to the half-dozen or so emails I received from those upset about Campus Eats’ multi-week absence. I had no idea y’all cared so much about this wannabe foodie’s unrefined palate!) I ate very well in Mobile. My two favorite dinner spots were Dumbwaiter and NoJa, where I ate some really good local fish. However, on my last day I visited Brick Pitt, a few blocks from campus, and holy smokes that was some good barbecue. They use pecan wood in the smoker and it was the best ribs I’ve had since… visiting Tuscaloosa in August.
However I’ll end this column with one leftover travel note. On Tuesday, I took an Uber from practice and got to chatting with my driver. When he found out I was from out of town, he asked if I wanted a lunch recommendation.
“Sure,” I said. “I already ate lunch but I’m always game for local spots to check out later in the week.”
“O.K.,” the driver said. “You have to go to Jimmy John’s and ask for the sandwich on the lettuce wrap. It’s just delicious.”
I sat quietly for 30 seconds, dumbfounded. The guy went on. “It’s so refreshing. Really, on a hot day, nothing is better.”
I’m still unsure if this guy knows Jimmy John’s is a national chain, or perhaps he’s just really proud of his sandwich shop hack. I actually considered going to JJ’s later in the week, but chickened out when I wondered if ordering “the lettuce wrap” was actually code for picking up drugs.
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