has surprised those who thought he might fail in the NFL. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
When the Arizona Cardinals spent a third-round pick on former LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu in the 2013 draft, it was seen as a calculated risk at best -- and a wasted pick at worst. Mathieu had been one of the NCAA's most versatile and dynamic players until his off-field history caught up to him, and he was kicked off the LSU roster on Aug. 10, 2012, following multiple failed drug tests. He sought counseling from former NBA player and head coach John Lucas, who had fought his own demons, and stayed with former LSU teammate and current Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. Mathieu made a very positive impression at the 2013 scouting combine by running a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and looking dominant in coverage drills. Moreover, he seemed genuine during his inevitable media interrogations, talking frankly about a bad road that cost him an entire college season and millions of dollars.
"I didn't have everything together back in college," he said back then. "I had everything together as far as football, but when it came to my social life, my personal life, I didn't have everything intact. I didn't have my emotions intact. Spiritually, I wasn't intact. Once you take football away, you are able to work on the person. These last six months, that is all I had was Tyrann the person. I attacked the person, I attacked my issues. I think that is why I am here at the combine ... Back when I was the Honey Badger, I didn't have everything intact. Going forward, I am going to focus on being Tyrann Mathieu and that is the person I want to control right now."
As Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians told me on Tuesday, the process of evaluating Mathieu from a personal perspective was helped by Peterson's vociferous endorsement.
“Well, [general manager] Steve Keim and I sat down and visited with him at the combine and we also brought him in to Phoenix, but I think what sealed the deal was when Patrick Peterson knocked on the door, walked into my office and said, 'I’ll stand on the table for this guy,'" Arians recalled. "He’s a good kid, and he deserves a chance. After I met him those two times I agreed with [Peterson]. I thought he was a wonderful young man, he knew his mistakes, owned up to his mistakes and he was just looking for an opportunity. The football part spoke for itself, and he’s been nothing but a dream to coach ever since.”
It's been that way on the field as well. Limiting Mathieu to a specific position is a bit of a folly, though he most closely resembles safeties who can play both deep and in the box, and slot cornerbacks who have become more and more important as the NFL transitions to more multiple receiver combinations. That said, you'll see Mathieu play everything from center field to blitzer from the line to occasional outside cornerback, and he's been pretty exceptional most of the time. Per Pro Football Focus' metrics, he's allowed a 63.7 opposing quarterback rating in slot coverage -- 121 yards on 19 targets and 13 catches with no touchdowns and one interception. He leads all cornerbacks listed in PFF's metrics with 13 tackles against the run, and he's amassed six stops among those tackles. He's got a sack, a quarterback hit, five quarterback hurries and three passes defended. He's missed three tackles, but none in his last three games -- all of which were starts.
His teammates are certainly on board. Quarterback Carson Palmer compared Mathieu to Troy Polamalu in the preseason, and after Mathieu put up a Week 2 bravura performance against the Detroit Lions in which he shut Nate Burleson down in a slot role, defensive lineman Darnell Dockett put it more succinctly when talking about his new teammate.
"That boy is a baller. You cannot tell him he's not the best at what he does. Any time he steps on the field, it's personal for him."
How has Mathieu mixed the personal and professional? Let's take a closer look at the different aspects of his game.
You will see Mathieu as the sole deep safety at times, and he's generally running from side to side to help with coverage in those instances, However, where his on-field speed really shines is when he's asked to transition from slot/inside coverage to seam and post concepts on the fly. It's the rare player who can do this consistently, but Mathieu proved that he could in his very first regular-season game, against the St. Louis Rams.
With 2:42 left in the first quarter and the ball at his own 45-yard line, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford threw a deep pass to tight end Jared Cook, who came off the line and ran up the left seam with linebacker Karlos Dansby on him.
Cook lost Dansby when he clicked inside with a little skinny post move and caught the ball at the Arizona 35-yard line. At that point, Mathieu was outside the left seam, about five yards away, covering slot man Tavon Austin. He caught up to Cook at the 7-yard line, punched the ball out, and Dansby recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchback.
More impressive was how Mathieu not only covered Austin on a lockdown level on the play (and through most of the game), but also how he faked a blitz look pre-snap. The more you saw of Mathieu even in his first game, the more you saw a player who was eager for more responsibility at all times.
Mathieu's sole interception came against the New Orleans Saints in Week 3, and it showed his ability to recover from his nebulous technique when it shows up. He was late turning his hips out of bail technique to cover Lance Moore from the left slot, but managed to get ahead of Moore in the end zone to grab Drew Brees' overthrow.
Brees was asked about Mathieu before that game, and asserted which side of the risk/reward issue the Cardinals were on at this point.
“He is much more on the reward side. He is a playmaker. He is a ballplayer. He is extremely instinctive. So many things he does you just can’t teach. They are just there and he just has that football moxie, [that] ability to make plays around the football and [can] just do things that you just kind of shake your head at. I don’t know if you saw that play he made against the Rams where he chased the tight end down and dove and knocked the ball out -- just the timing of that, but more impressive than that is if you watch him hit the ground. I’m not sure if he ever touched the ground when he fell because he was up back on his feet -- so fast, like a cat or a honey badger.”
At 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds, Mathieu is built like the ideal slot corner, and that's where he's spent a high percentage of his time this season -- 138 of his 196 coverage snaps (70.4 percent) through six games. He's got more than enough quick-twitch to stay with any fast slot receiver, but he's also strong enough to take on tight ends and bigger receivers. He proved this last Sunday against the 49ers, when he broke up a pass to Anquan Boldin with 7:49 left in the first quarter. Mathieu moved from middle linebacker depth to the left slot when Boldin motioned over, and he won a one-on-one battle with perhaps the league's most physical receiver by timing his deflection perfectly ... and jumping on Boldin's back for good measure.
Run Reads and Tackling
"We’re playing him in a lot of different spots," Peterson said of Mathieu in September, sounding as much like a coach as a teammate. "Like I said, once we drafted him, he was going to be one of the guys that [could] help us get over the hump by taking the ball away from offenses and getting those key stops when we need to get off the field. He brings energy to this defense. He’s such a little guy, but plays with so much energy and passion, and that’s what we love about him. He seems to always come to play on Sundays. He never seems to amaze us because we know what type of player that we have in our locker room in No. 32.”
If there's been one really unexpected and encouraging part of Mathieu's play in the NFL, it's been his ability to not only tackle running backs in the backfield, but to make outstanding reads off coverage to do so. In this regard, he reminds me of an embryonic Antoine Winfield, the former Minnesota Vikings outside/slot cornerback who's been outstanding against the run for years. Arians told me that he didn't expect a guy of Mathieu's size to be so good against the run, but he saw it happening from the first preseason game.
"I was a little concerned with his size, but he plays bigger and he plays faster because his instincts are so good.”
Judging from the general accounting of Mathieu's day-to-day, it would appear that his performance so far is not a fluke -- he seems to be one of those guys who went the wrong way for a good long time, but finally figured it out before any long-term damage was done.
"I think the one thing that's surprised me about him is his maturity," Palmer told me on Tuesday. "To be a rookie, and to have his name run through the mud as it was for a long time ... to see someone compete every day, to work his butt off every single day, to try and learn every single thing he can from Patrick Peterson, and not feel like he's already got it, because he's already made this play or that play. He's come in and been an absolute professional from the time training camp started. He's tried to absorb as much as he can from veterans, he takes good care of his body, he sticks around and watches extra film -- he's been an absolute pro. You don't know what to expect when you hear so many things about somebody, but it's great to see a guy come in and be like that from Day 1."
Both on and off the field, Tyrann Mathieu has been one of the NFL's pleasant surprises this season.