The Eagles and the Joe Mixon dilemma

The Eagles and the Joe Mixon dilemma

Last year, the Eagles took chances on a number of college athletes with checkered pasts. Wendell Smallwood, Jalen Mills and Alex McCalister were all followed by off-field issues, largely legal in nature. Now, with the 2017 NFL draft quickly approaching and Oklahoma prospect Joe Mixon becoming a hot topic, the question becomes where does the franchise draw the line?

Mixon rose to a level of infamy few college athletes ever achieve -- or many pros, for that matter -- when video of his 2014 misdemeanor assault went public in December. Security footage shows the running back punching a woman in the head, a strike that resulted in a broken jaw, eye socket and cheekbone. If it sounds at all like the video that derailed the career Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, that's because it is.

The timelines of the incidents are eerily similar as well, as both occurred months apart in 2014. Rice was eventually released by the Ravens once his video emerged, and he never played football again, nor even granted a tryout. Mixon's draft stock is damaged, perhaps irreparably, yet odds are high he will be in an NFL camp come May, and the expectation is his name will be called at some point during the draft.

After all, there's no denying Mixon is talented. He carried 300 times for 2,027 yards for a 6.8 average and 17 touchdowns in two seasons with the Sooners, plus tacked on another 65 receptions for 894 yards and 9 scores. At Oklahoma’s pro day -- Mixon was not allowed to attend the NFL Scouting Combine -- he measured 6-foot-1, 228 pounds, and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds.

Were it not for the assault charge, Mixon might be a first-round pick. It's impossible to predict where he’ll go now, but rankings suggest he might not slip past the third. Even there, Mixon would be an incredible value to a team, provided he can stay out of trouble.

That is, if said team can weather the fallout. Plenty of football fans are mortified a person could commit such a terrible act and would be unable to support Mixon or whatever club drafts him. Protests are not entirely out of the question, either.

The Eagles have demonstrated a willingness to confront such a backlash head on, and in just the past year.

Smallwood and McCalister were not involved in violent crimes, but Mills -- in a case not nearly as high profile as Mixon's -- was charged with misdemeanor battery for allegedly striking a woman in '14 as well. Mills was allowed to enter a pretrial diversion program, although the biggest difference is the lack of video evidence, so the public outcry was somewhere between minimal and nonexistent.

Which doesn't mean the Eagles are only willing to take on a player with character concerns when it won't result in overwhelming negative publicity. This is the same organization that took a chance on Michael Vick in 2009, fresh out prison for his role in operating an interstate dog-fighting ring.

Signing Vick sparked protests and turned off fans, some permanently. Seven years later, it seems the Eagles were vindicated in their decision. Vick never got into a whiff of trouble from that point on, and has probably done more to aid animal causes and other charitable efforts since serving his time than the majority of his detractors will in a lifetime.

Yet, human beings had a right to view Vick critically so soon after his incarceration, just as they do Mixon now. The Eagles or some other NFL team must figure out whether a kid who turns 21 in July deserves that kind of benefit of the doubt, or whether he'll turn around and make a fool of the franchise.

For what it's worth, Mixon didn't do himself any favors last year by getting into an altercation with a parking attendant. For anybody else, the ensuing one-game suspension might be considered minor. Mixon, on the other hand, couldn't really afford another black mark on his reputation. It was a sign of immaturity and that he doesn't understand his actions are under the microscope.

While the Eagles have shown a tendency toward leniency in the past, even as recently as the 2016 draft, they may not be in the same position this year. The arrests of Nigel Bradham and Josh Huff were big stories for the club last season, eventually prompting Huff's release.

Smallwood, Mills and McCalister may have stayed out of trouble, but it seems the front office might be out of second chances to give for the moment.

Regardless, somebody is going to give Mixon the opportunity to play in the NFL, no matter where you stand on the subject of second chances and the particular crime he committed. In the past, the Eagles have not been opposed to bringing in a player they feel has been rehabilitated, which is the right thing to do.

But it's a case-by-case situation. Mixon is a gifted athlete and a potential Pro Bowl talent, and at a position of need for the Eagles no less. Then again, has he truly learned from his actions? Because it’s not just an athlete's skill the Eagles are taking a chance on -- it's a person, and if he still hasn’t grown up, as recent events suggest, it may be best to let someone else find out.

Eagles draft targets at No. 14: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey

Eagles draft targets at No. 14: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 202 lbs.

40-yard dash: 4.48 seconds
Bench press: 10 reps
Vertical jump: 37.5 inches
Broad jump: 121.0 inches
3-cone drill: 6.57 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.22 seconds
60-yard shuttle: 11.03 seconds

2016: 253 ATT, 1,603 YDS, 6.3 AVG, 13 TD
2015: 237 ATT, 2,019 YDS, 6.9 AVG, 8 TD
2014: 42 ATT, 300 YDS, 7.1 AVG, 0 TD

While splitting carries for his first four NFL seasons, it was often said Brian Westbrook was too slight to be an every-down back. Finally, in 2006, the Eagles couldn’t hold the third-round pick from Villanova back any longer. Westbrook rushed for 2,550 yards and 14 touchdowns total in '06 and '07, tacking on another 1,470 yards and nine scores through the air. Only Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson had more yards from scrimmage during that two-year window.

Westbrook was already 28 by then, and his body began to betray him not long after, so we’ll never know what might have been. Yet, if the Eagles learned anything from that experience, it's not to assume a smaller running back can't handle a full workload.

That, in a nutshell, is the debate over Christian McCaffrey right now.

Arguably the best all-purpose back in the 2017 NFL draft, McCaffrey's skill set is like that of Westbrook reincarnated. What the consensus All-American lacks in burst and pure speed, he makes up for with a smooth, patient running style and tremendous vision. He's an elite receiver out of the backfield, with 82 receptions for 672 yards and 8 touchdowns over the past two seasons alone. McCaffrey even returns punts and kicks, with a touchdown doing each.

The case could be made the Eagles will not find a better running back to fit the West Coast offense. If his ceiling is Westbrook, his floor is probably Darren Sproles. McCaffrey will hang around the NFL for years because he's intelligent and versatile, with the ability to take a handoff or line up as a wide receiver.

Although, if McCaffrey is more Sproles than Westbrook, it's difficult to justify using the No. 14 pick on such a situational player. For much of his NFL career, Sproles has been more receiver than rusher. He was never afforded the same opportunity as Westbrook. Sproles' greatness is undeniable, but if you could go back and redo the 2005 draft, he probably isn't a first-round pick, much less top 15.

McCaffrey isn't nearly as diminutive as Sproles (5-6, 190), so perhaps a direct comparison is not apt here. The point is the number of touches McCaffrey can handle at the next level -- specifically as a ball carrier, between the tackles -- is central to whether he can be a consideration for the Eagles.

Honestly, there's very little evidence to suggest McCaffrey can't do it. After all, the 2015 AP Player of the Year registered over 750 total touches between rushing, receiving and returns over the past two years alone. He did miss two games with an undisclosed injury last season and may have been slowed by the ailment for longer, but McCaffrey finished the '16 campaign strong, averaging 26.6 carries for 198.2 yards per game over the final five outings of his collegiate career.

McCaffrey's combine performance received some unwarranted attention when he managed just 10 reps on the bench press. Still, that doesn't necessarily speak to durability.

Plus, McCaffrey shined in other aspects of the combine. His 40- and 20-yard shuttle times ranked fourth among running backs, while his three-cone drill was far and away the best at the position -- a true indicator of what a dangerous threat he can be in the open field.

Westbrook didn't blow anybody away at the combine. He just did that on the football field. And while he probably would've achieved success anywhere in the NFL, Westbrook thrived in Andy Reid's version of the West Coast offense, especially once the Eagles stopped limiting his touches. It's a testament to how important finding the right fit is.

McCaffrey might not be worth the No. 14 pick to just any team, especially with more explosive runners like Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook in the mix. To the Eagles, with Reid disciple Doug Pederson running the show, McCaffrey might be the most sensible choice as far as backs are concerned.

 

Other Eagles draft targets at No. 14:
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
LSU RB Leonard Fournette

Eagles draft targets at No. 14: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

Eagles draft targets at No. 14: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 210 lbs.

40-yard dash: 4.49 seconds
Bench press: 22 reps
Vertical jump: 30.5 inches
Broad jump: 116.0 inches
3-cone drill: 7.27 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.53 seconds

2016: 288 ATT, 1,765 YDS, 6.1 AVG, 19 TD
2015: 229 ATT, 1,691 YDS, 7.4 AVG, 19 TD
2014: 170 ATT, 1,008 YDS, 5.9 AVG, 8 TD

There is no denying Dalvin Cook has the talent and versatility the Eagles are seeking at running back. Florida State's all-time rushing leader, Cook gained 3,456 yards and scored 38 touchdowns on the ground over the past two seasons alone. The first-team All-American posted 79 receptions for 935 yards and 2 touchdowns during his college career as well.

Cook is a true dual threat, and a perfect fit for the Eagles. He has the ability and skill set to follow in the footsteps of Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy, who made their names in the west coast offense.

At the same time, Cook represents a huge risk with the No. 14 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Ball security is a serious issue, more so than most prospects. Durability is a concern as well, with a history of shoulder injuries that required surgery. Cook, who will turn 22 in August, has also run afoul of the law on numerous occasions, though the charges were either dropped or he was found not guilty in all instances.

Fumbles, injuries, arrests -- each taken individually might be easy to overlook. The combination of the three, on the other hand, is a lot to digest.

Problems with ball security are not uncommon coming out of college, even around the NFL these days. It's an area that can be an improved upon, and is often overlooked if the back is talented enough. Still, with 13 career fumbles, Cook is worse than most. He put the ball on the carpet 6 times in 2016 alone, or once in every 63.8 touches, according to CBSSports.com. That's roughly every 2.5 games.

Keep in mind, fumbles cost the Eagles last season. Ryan Mathews coughed up the rock while trying to put away a win over the Lions. Two weeks later, Wendell Smallwood gave life to the Cowboys with a second-half turnover. The Eagles led both teams with under four minutes to play in the fourth quarter, and both games ended up as losses. It matters.

Cook's shoulders warrant closer inspection, too, which is no doubt why the Eagles reportedly had the ball carrier to the NovaCare Complex for a visit. Three operations to repair torn labrums -- once in high school, on his left shoulder; and twice at Florida State, one each on the front and back side of the right shoulder, per CBS -- should raise questions as to whether his body can endure the punishment of an NFL workload.

Even if Eagles doctors give Cook a clean bill of health, this is a red flag. We’re not talking about a random or fluke injury here. It's been a recurring theme, requiring surgery as recently as last April.

Far more difficult to quantify will be Cook's character and discipline, which could make or break the evaluation. Two of his arrests were seven or more years ago in high school, and the charges were dropped in each case, according to NFL.com. However, Cook was found not guilty of misdemeanor battery in 2015 after allegedly punching a woman outside a bar.

What actually happened is unclear. Regardless, Cook was involved in some type of altercation, and the Eagles must ask themselves whether these are the types of situations a young man will find himself again in the future. It's not unimportant, either, especially considering the scrutiny the franchise faced after Nigel Bradham and Josh Huff were in the news for the wrong reasons.

On the field, Cook needs work in pass protection, which along with his fumbling problem, are serious knocks on a prospect at No. 14. Otherwise, there may not be a more gifted running back in the draft. That's not hyperbole, either. In 2015, Cook was named the Jim Brown Award winner for best running back in the nation.

Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how good a player is if he’s never on the field for one reason or another, or giving wins away when he is. The questions with Cook are more about the finer points than fit or ability, and without clear answers, it's difficult to conclude that he's worth the risk.

 

Other Eagles draft targets at No. 14:
LSU RB Leonard Fournette
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey