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.