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NFL 25 at 25 | No 9 Cardinals DB Tyrann Mathieu

AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

NFL 25 at 25 is FanRag Sports’ list of the top 25 players in the NFL age 25 and younger, as voted on by 15 members of the FRS staff.

No. 9: Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals

When Tyrann Mathieu broke into the NFL out of LSU, some teams worried about trouble once again knocking on his door.

Now, he’s the one who knocks.

“Any time I’m healthy I feel like I’m the best defensive player in the NFL,” Mathieu said last week a promotional event in London.

While that may be a stretch, he’s not far off.

In 2015, Honeybadger was Pro Football Focus’s top-ranked defensive back, and the site’s top-ranked corner despite being listed as a safety by the Cardinals. That season, when Mathieu played the most games of his career (14), he was the 10th-highest graded player in the league by PFF.

That injury qualifier for the former LSU standout has been the NFL equivalent of “But other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

He had fallen in the draft due to off-field concerns about his maturity and some questions about his drug use after he had to leave the LSU program and enter a rehabilitation program.

Mathieu tore his left ACL and LCL in 2013 as a rookie after flashing his undeniable talent. In 13 games, he picked off a pair of passes, defended nine more to go along with a sack, a forced fumble, and 68 total tackles.

We saw in the desert what we had seen in Death Valley.

Using the versatile defender near the line of scrimmage, then-defensive coordinator Todd Bowles deployed Mathieu in the slot as a corner, but also deep as a safety, and even as a de facto linebacker at times. He was the queen on the Cardinals’ defensive chessboard.

One of the reasons Bowles engineered such an aggressive defense, the most blitz-happy team in the league, was because he knew Patrick Peterson and Mathieu could hold up in man coverage on an island.

29 September 2013: Arizona Cardinals Safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) in action during the first half of the NFL game between the Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

During the 2014 season, Mathieu played 13 games but was clearly hampered by his injury recovery. As a slot corner in particular, that short-area quickness a serious knee injury can rob a player of is critical to staying with a receiver. Mathieu’s instincts, already among the best in football, can only go so far if he’s not as explosive in clicking and closing off a read. Interceptions turn to batted balls, and batted balls could turn into catches with just a split second of lag time.

Then 2015 happened — Mathieu put on a show. In 14 games, he grabbed five interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, defended an incredible 17 passes, and posted 89 tackles, playing nearly 68 percent of his defensive snaps at corner. It was an All-Pro season, his first — and so far only — such year.

Even then, during the best year of his career, injury cut it short. Mathieu tore the ACL in his right knee after an interception, a brutal but emblematic play for one of the most dynamic players in the league.

Even when he’s excelling, the specter of injury looms large.

Moreover, it was the second time in his career a serious late-season injury seeped into the next campaign. Mathieu played only 10 games in 2016 and clearly appeared to be feeling the effects of his recovery before a shoulder injury ended his season after 10 games. It was the third time in four seasons Mathieu ended the year on IR.

Head coach Bruce Arians said earlier this summer he thinks Mathieu’s knee is at about 96 percent, an indication that although players can come back from ACL injuries within a year, it usually takes longer than that to regain anywhere near full strength.

Given how deep we are into the 2017 offseason, it’s fair to conclude that for most of 2016 Honeybadger played on a knee that was barely 50 percent.

Arians did add Mathieu’s shoulder is back to 100 percent. Mathieu, for his part, says he’s feeling great.

Still, the Cardinals lost major pieces from a perennially great defense: Tony Jefferson, Kevin Minter, and the anchor on the defensive line, Calais Campbell.

The 25-year-old Mathieu will have even more pressure to produce, to be the fulcrum of the Cardinals’ defensive machine, which added pedigreed rookies Haason Reddick and Budda Baker, the latter drawing comparisons to Mathieu coming out of Washington.

No team has prioritized versatile, athletic pieces the way Arizona has, by making moves such as drafting safety Deone Bucannon and playing him at linebacker. Baker will no doubt play a similar all-over game relative to Mathieu, lining up in the slot, on the outside, deep as a safety, and perhaps even some as a linebacker.

Mathieu has to be the centerpiece to it all. Patrick Peterson will do his job and lock up the opponent’s No. 1 WR. Chandler Jones and Markus Golden are going to get pressure. For the Cardinals to once again create an elite defense, Mathieu has to be the wild card, the field-tilting player who can line up anywhere and everywhere.

He can’t be in danger of missing time.

Tyrann Mathieu has to be the danger.

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