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The world of NFL scouting is always a tale of the tape when looking for prospects who will change the course of your franchise. Every now and then, outliers will occur to disrupt the foundational principles that scouting was built on. Kansas Chiefs safety, Tyrann Mathieu, has done all of that and so much more. Mathieu is not simply an outlier; he has carved out a prototype for what his body type is capable of being in the NFL. He has brought a new meaning to what a nickel defender is at the NFL level while still being an elite starting safety. Every team is now looking for their version of the Honey Badger, a versatile defender with the elite instincts to change a football game on any given play.
Overcoming the Odds
Tyrann Mathieu burst onto the scene in 2010 as an impact true freshman at LSU, where his nose for finding the football bestowed the nickname “The Honey Badger” upon him to accompany his blonde mohawk. In 2011, as a true sophomore Mathieu went on a historic run that saw him collect Consensus All-American honors along with the Bednarik award and a fifth place finish in the Heisman. After a successful season he found himself dismissed from the LSU football team and out of football for a year before declaring for the 2013 NFL draft. Character concerns hampered the reports of arguably the most instinctual college football player we had seen in a decade. He entered the draft process with a lot of question marks after being out of the spotlight for a year and would have to answer a lot of questions at the NFL Combine. Measuring at 5090 and 186 pounds, he did not run fast or jump high enough for what evaluators yearn for from a player of his stature. Now, facing an uphill climb with character concerns and a subpar Combine performance, Mathieu had to cross his fingers on draft day. The Arizona Cardinals took a chance on Tyrann Mathieu in the third round and made the decision to move him from cornerback to free safety where his college legend was reborn.
The move to free safety was not the only rebirth of Tyrann Mathieu’s career on the field but he was also put in the perfect locker room in Arizona to rebuild his image as one of the NFL’s faces of the league. On the field, Mathieu started building on what the NFL’s new prototype position would be. He changed the role of the NFL nickel position to no longer just be a spot for the slot corner or a spot for the third cornerback on a depth chart. The nickel position now represents the most versatile player in an NFL defense if a team can find the right one. Mathieu’s ability to double as a starting safety and starting nickel has landed him three First-Team All-Pro honors while also forcing the NFL to add a “Defensive Back” spot to the All-Pro teams in 2016. His career destinations in Arizona, Houston and now Kansas City have been slowly building upon his legend that is approaching rarified air towards the second half of his career.
Mathieu’s generational instincts to diagnose plays in the run game and the pass game is breaking the barriers of NFL scouting and creating a new position to scout. His underdog mentality exudes a level of relentless passion in his game like no other before him. What will follow him the most is the ones who have come after him, aspiring to take on the weight of his role in a defense even if they were told their shoulders were not quite big enough. The Honey Badger’s college highlights gave birth to a generation of defensive backs who stopped going to the wall in their bedroom every day to mark their height. Instead, he carved a path for how the smallest dog in the yard could still run the whole yard himself. He showed that you cannot put a measurable on a good football player because you cannot coach toughness to run fit at 186 pounds.
You cannot put a value on the innate ability to be where you are supposed to be at the right times. There will always be a premium for finding the football but the way Tyrann Mathieu has done it for so long is different than what we have seen. Shooting gaps in run support to accelerate a running backs mental clock is finding the football. Cutting off in breaking routes when a quarterback thinks he has a cornerback in ome-on-one coverage and forcing a coverage sack is finding the football. Sifting through blocks in the open field to get the ball on the ground and make the offense snap the football one more time is finding the football. Tyrann Mathieu finds the football before he ever even creates a takeaway, all while being in a frame that many believed could not hold up in the NFL. Lacking size and raw athleticism, the outlier has now become the prototype defenses need to keep pace with evolving offensive football.
Tyrann Mathieu’s college success made him legendary, his NFL success has made him one of the best pure football players we have ever seen. The ability to dominate the NFL while falling short of almost every measurable has sent scouts and defensive coordinators back to the drawing board. He has now reached the point where there will never be another Honey Badger but there will be a slew of players who get their chance in the NFL from what he has done. Without Tyrann Mathieu, we do not see the likes of a Kenny Moore II or a Mike Hilton who went from undrafted to arguably the most important players on their respective defenses.
Their ability to cover up multiple holes, is what allows teams to focus on putting others around them in positions based on their strengths without placing too much stock into their weaknesses. Mathieu’s success has given us the chance to see a player at Budda Baker’s size get the opportunity to play the safety position and turn into the highest paid player at the position while donning the number 32. The Honey Badger’s college legend is the reason why we see Jamal Adams and other defensive backs drape their arms in sweatbands every Sunday and fly around the field. Mathieu is the reason Derwin James can be All-Pro at two different positions and play anywhere on the field on any given down.
Examples like these exist because at some point, every defensive back after Mathieu’s 2011 LSU season, decided that they wanted to grow up into the next Honey Badger. It has only been 10 years since that legendary LSU season, yet his fingerprints are all over the game’s best defensive backs. These next few draft classes will be where we really see the Honey Badger’s disciples begin to file into the NFL. The group of kids whose first taste of football was watching his highlights on repeat before their middle school games.
The age group of kids who allowed the Honey Badger spirit to fuel their on-field persona when they stepped between the white lines. From lunch money stealing forced fumbles to explosive breaks on the football and exhilarating punt returns, this was the Honey Badger experience. His evolution from Honey Badger into the Landlord is a path that many will follow but will not quite duplicate. Nonetheless, his maturation forced the NFL to mature and grow as well while carving out a pipeline of many more like him to have a place in this league.
The Next Disciples
Washington’s Elijah Molden fits the mold of what could be the next Honey Badger. Lacking long speed and length, Molden wins with his ability to have natural instincts finding the football. He is the best run supporting cornerback in this class with a quick trigger to set a firm edge in the run game and be an efficient tackler. He has an excellent feel for taking away the football not just in the air but forcing fumbles in a way that in a manner similar to vintage Tyrann Mathieu. Molden will win with elite instincts at the next level that is mixed in with a competitive nature to fill the role as both a starting nickel with value to give you snaps as a two-high safety.
TCU safety Ar’Darius Washington is cut from different cloth athletically than Molden because Washington is a dynamic athlete but his size is more concerning. Years ago, Washington’s 5075 frame would have been a death sentence for a defensive back prospect. Now on the right side of the NFL’s evolving game, he finds himself in a position where scouts are focusing on his strengths. He is an elite ballhawk with explosive range to be a top tier safety blanket for a defense. Controlled eye discipline is one of his best traits, with his ability to transfer his eyes in coverage while leveraging routes. A fearless cut tackler that triggers in run support as a safety and is not afraid to set an edge as a nickel, Washington looks the part of a game changer at the next level.
These are just the two biggest examples that this draft class has to offer based off the path that Tyrann Mathieu has carved. The NFL is a copycat league, so everyone is searching through film to find the hidden gem that can be the nickel in their defense. Pretty soon the value of the nickel position will go up and they will go earlier in the draft. The two prospects mentioned above can set a new precedent in how the league views the importance of the nickel, seeing that it has become a starting position for many teams.
If Tyrann Mathieu never wins another All-Pro, his stamp on the game has already been left. With a Super Bowl ring in his back pocket and another one possibly on the way, his legend will no longer be defined by his on-field performance. Everything about his legacy will now be seeing what he has left behind for the guys who did not meet the thresholds. Tyrann Mathieu will have a place in NFL history long after his career is over because the Honey Badger’s disciples are here and there are more coming.