Carolina Panthers

How 5 analysts evaluate the NFL draft’s most polarizing prospect – Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon

Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon (25) runs into the end zone with a touchdown against Ohio State during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon (25) runs into the end zone with a touchdown against Ohio State during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki) AP

Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon declared early for the NFL draft, less than a month after the release of a graphic video that showed him punching a woman in the face in 2014, breaking her jaw.

The video was released as a part of an ongoing court battle between Mixon and the woman, Amelia Molitor. Mixon received a year suspension as punishment after the incident originally occurred from Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, which was controversial for its lenience back then and even more so now that the violent video is public record.

Mixon is also one of the most promising running backs in the 2017 NFL draft class.

He was not invited to the 2017 NFL scouting combine, which takes place from Tuesday through March 6 in Indianapolis. NFL policy bars players with assault-related incidents from participating. A likely draft pick, he will be the most notable player absent from the combine.

For analysts around the country, five of whom I spoke to this month, his record presents some conflict. His talent is unmistakable – he rushed for 1,274 yards last season – but how does his off-the-field resume factor in?

How on earth do you evaluate Joe Mixon?

The analysts: NBC Sports/Rotoworld draft writer Josh Norris, writer, analyst and creator of Reception Perception Matt Harmon, Senior NFL Draft analyst for NFL Draft Scout and CBS Sports Dane Brugler, NDT Scouting director Kyle Crabbs and Walter Football draft analyst Charlie Campbell. Each first shared their own process of player analysis leading up to the draft, which is used as a “control group” when Mixon factors in.

Q. Does your player evaluation process change when you evaluate Mixon? Why or why not?

Norris: I am human and work through and with bias. I used to dismiss my bias, but it is better to recognize it. I do my best to not let it interfere, but to some level it is natural and impossible to prevent. My “process” states that Mixon’s past should not interfere in my on-field evaluation, no matter how horrible the event was. And now I feel horrible for writing that sentence.

Harmon: Evaluating him as a football player? No, that process remains the same. I’ve watched several showings of Mixon and it’s easy to see he’s an incredible running back. He’s agile with great balance and has strong abilities in the passing game. Mixon also mixes in nuance with his tantalizing physical skill set, showing great patience and timing in his cuts. I’m not a draft analyst by trade nor do I work for a team, so I don’t have to project where he’s going to go on draft day, but his talent is more than obvious.

Brugler: I’ve learned not to change my process for any player, regardless of what I know beforehand. In the past, if I knew about a serious injury or off-field incident, I might not have given that player enough of a look because of those perceptions. However, that player went on to have a long, productive NFL career. So while none of this happens in a vacuum, I try to stick with the same process. And that doesn’t change with Mixon. Regardless of my feelings about the incident or how NFL teams view the incident, the first step for me is to figure the player out on the field. Past performance will predict future achievement – in football and in life. Each player has his own background and set of circumstances, which is why not all issues should be viewed the same. Each deserves individual attention. But first and foremost, I want to get the player right on the field.

Crabbs: In terms of the systemic approach, I will put Mixon through (evaluation) in comparison to any other player. That will not change. But there is a section of my evaluations that factors in items of interest such as injury history or off the field problematic behavior. This is where Mixon’s evaluation will be different, as there’s subjective room to penalize prospects for what would be considered “Red Flags” which Mixon’s incident must be noted as.

Campbell: For Joe Mixon, the evaluation doesn’t change outside of the off-the-field part of the grade comes into play more with him than your typical prospect. With a player that hasn’t had off the field issues, you don’t have to downgrade them because of a risk of suspension, fitting in a locker room, etc.

Q. Is there a “right” or a “wrong” way to evaluate Mixon, in your eyes? Should the off-the-field tape be considered alongside the on-the-field, or are the two separate?

Norris: I’ve learned that everyone has a different process and way to create content. 1,000-word scouting reports, regurgitating NFL sources, grading against a checklist and averaging those numbers for a final grade or even identifying “where he wins.” The only wrong way is to not admit bias has an influence. But bias is not just in Mixon’s instance, it can also sprout from remembering a “miss” from a school and using that against a future prospect, or not liking how a player responded to criticism at an all star event, etc.

Harmon: That’s a tough question because you can compartmentalize the two factors when having a discussion about Mixon, but at the end of the day I think not mentioning both is being disingenuous about the whole picture. Openly acknowledging that Mixon did something disgusting while also being dazzled by his football ability is uncomfortable, and it should be. In my opinion, we flirt with a dangerous line when we just try to brush by domestic violence in the discussion of a player like Mixon, and we certainly do a terrible disservice to the victims when we do that. To me, that’s what’s most important and more often than not is handled clumsily, at best, by the sports media world at large.

Brugler: It can be tough to separate the on and off field, but they should be separate. A player should have a grade for on-field ability and then the background, character and medicals are added, which affect the overall grade. This is true for Mixon the same as it is for a no-name fullback from Appalachian State.

Crabbs: I think, and this is just a personal opinion, that Mixon’s on-the-field tape is one product. And who he is as a person is a different product. I feel like my own personal processes illustrates that belief as well. Mixon is a supremely talented individual in regard to his ability to run the ball. But we’ve seen endless times in college stars transitioning to the pros that supreme talent alone is not a meal ticket to NFL success. Players can be their own worst enemy and a lot of casual fans will overlook that there is a human element to these athletes that MUST be accounted for. That is especially true when you’re talking about the folks who are entertaining the idea of investing draft capital in him and making him a part of their franchise and their locker room.

Campbell: I would say the wrong way to evaluate Mixon would be to ignore the off-the-field issues. They also aren’t the end all be all necessarily. Definitely his off-the-field problems should be considered when grading him for the NFL. The on the field and off the field definitely are not separate. Off-the-field problems can lead to players being suspended and that takes them away from contributing on the field. So the off-the-field issues are going to impact what a player does on the field and their availability to contribute to the team. Hence they can not be ignored.

Q. Does your own evaluation get more complicated knowing that teams are also looking at off-the-field issues with Mixon?

Norris: Don’t tell anyone, but I do not let NFL opinions, via private sources or public anonymous quotes, sway my evaluation of a prospect. I am confident in my ability to project a football player in comparison to NFL personnel members.

Harmon: While it doesn’t change the legitimate high potential in his range of outcomes, again, I think it’s disingenuous to not let it be part of the evaluation. The team that drafts Mixon is going to have to deal with the negative PR and backlash from doing so. And I think they should have to deal with that criticism, you don’t get to take the good without welcoming the bad. At the same time, I can’t fault a team for welcoming Mixon into their ranks if they truly believe he has progressed as a human being and want to develop him as both a person and football player.

Brugler: Honestly, no. When I write up my report on Mixon, I stick to the facts and give all the details about his off-field and on-field. And then I give my opinion on the player. The fact that he would be a first-round pick if not for the off-field incident and video. The fact that every team will view it differently. I try to paint an accurate picture of who the player is in my reports with the information I have.

Crabbs: In terms of understanding what his on-the-field product is, no. And you’re beginning to see a grassroots trend in NFL draft analysis to focus more on getting the career projection correct as compared to properly forecasting when a player will be selected. That lends itself to a lot less headaches regarding Mixon. With that said, I do consistently wrestle with the idea of “how do you quantify this issue in terms of a score penalty?” Three quarters of the league may not even consider touching him but it only takes one out of 32 for him to get drafted. That’s a lot of unknown, and I do certainly wrestle with how to factor that.

Campbell: The evaluation for Mixon doesn’t get more complicated because of the off the field issues. What gets more complicated is projecting what teams will take him. Some are very strict on character issues. ... Thus for a player like Mixon, the challenge and complicated part is finding out which teams are still willing to draft him despite the off-the-field problems.

Q. Is it difficult to remain unbiased about Mixon? Why or why not?

Norris: Yes. Of course. So the best maneuver is to not claim a lack of bias, but rather embrace it and be honest about it. Mixon is an extremely talented football player. Almost rare in an area or two. I would not argue with an evaluator who considers Mixon the most talented running back in the class, a class loaded with running back talent.

Harmon: I’m not in the business of instructing people how to feel, but for me personally, it is impossible to be unbiased. I think what he did is wrong. Inexcusable, period. Should he develop into a fantastic NFL player, I’m going to be uncomfortable when he dazzles me while watching him. To forget and not acknowledge what he did does a disservice to the victim and all assault victims, in my opinion. ... I believe in rehabilitation, redemption and second chances. Those concepts are important to me, as well as a strong stance against violence toward women and often feeling dissatisfied with the tone sports media takes toward talking against the issue. ... Yet, I think being open about that bias and discomfort is the first step in giving proper credence to the matter. For me, it’s OK that I’m enthralled at the athletic accomplishments of players like this, as long as I don’t somehow allow that to make me think they are somehow redeemed because of that alone.

Brugler: I can understand why it would be, absolutely. But speaking just for me, I don’t let it. I was taught that every player deserves his due based on the tape and ability – then you factor in the non-football variables. While the Mixon incident is well-documented, that isn’t always the case and we don’t always have every detail about past issues with every player.

Crabbs: Certainly you have a hard time getting the imagery of the unfortunate incident he was involved with out of your head. It was an ugly, brutal (incident). I don’t envy those with a job on the line for having to make a decision on Mixon but the fact that I have no “skin in the game” takes some pressure off for me to simply watch on the field and then double back to grasp that there’s some significant troubles here. Again, going back to my personal philosophy on draft assessment for any player; there’s an on-the-field product and an off-the-field product. It’s an easier line for someone who is on the outside of the league to draw than for those NFL decision-makers.

Campbell: This is a tough question. For my job it is not difficult to remain unbiased because I know some team in the NFL will give him a chance and the question is which teams would be open to it and when would they be willing to draft him. I think it is hard for NFL evaluators to be unbiased because teams have their own policies on what they are willing to consider. The video and the events leading up to it are so disturbing.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue