Think Honey Badger cares yet?
Tyrann Mathieu electrified college football in 2011 as he helped lead Louisiana State toward a spot in the BCS Championship Game. During that campaign, Mathieu earned a seat in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist and took home the Chuck Bednarik Trophy as the country's best defensive player.
2012 was not as prolific a year for the cornerback.
Mathieu was dismissed from the team in August for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel wrote in October that Mathieu had failed multiple drug tests, spent time in rehab and endangered his eligibility by receiving improper benefits from a night club.
Mathieu disputed the report, accusing Thamel of both bribery and harassment. He did not play football in 2012 but remained at LSU as a student—hiring an agent in December and forfeiting any eligibility he may have had.
Tyrann Mathieu: "I was scared of responsibility. Wasn’t man enough.Wasn’t a true young man. Didn't have my priorities in line."— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) January 6, 2013
While I can't speak for every NFL team, let me assure you that kind of resume is not ideal.
However, as we've seen countless times in recent memory, the bottom line is always how a prospect performs on the NFL field. Teams will trust in their ability to mentor a player (Janoris Jenkins). They will trust the player's ability to turn his back on his past (Percy Harvin). Coaches will want a player they think can help them win football games (Dez Bryant, Justin Blackmon). Personnel men will take any player once the potential reward outweighs the perceived risk (Vontaze Burfict).
(Update: Click here for a breakdown of Mathieu's performance at the NFL Scouting Combine.)
The risks around Mathieu are pretty obvious—how much willpower will he have once he gets into the league? Once the pre-draft posse around him dissipates, will he need the 24/7 supervision that the Dallas Cowboys are giving Bryant, or will he wise up? Will he need a suspension in his rookie season to make him see the light like Jenkins?
The potential rewards around the Honey Badger are more uncertain.
The Positives of Mathieu's Play
It's almost impossible to watch a game with Mathieu in it without being drawn to him. He's constantly in the frame of play because he's consistently putting himself in position to make plays—both against the run and the pass.
Time and again, offenses would try to run Mathieu off deep and go underneath, but he showcased tremendous ability to click and close, using both his instincts and his athleticism to make plays that other cornerbacks could not.
At times, it seemed as if Mathieu's mind was working faster than his body; he rarely took false steps but would slip or stumble as he changed directions to make a play. For many players (even elite athletes), it would be game over at that point, but Mathieu was often able to recover because he both reacted quicker and had the speed to make plays most couldn't.
The other standout attribute (and the one that makes the most headlines) is Mathieu's ball skills. When a quarterback threw to Mathieu's side of the field, he just had to assume there was some chance the Honey Badger would come down with it. This was especially true in zone coverage, where Mathieu had the ability to react to the quarterback's eyes, make breaks on the ball as it was thrown and cut off passes before they reached their intended target.
It didn't end there, however, as Mathieu's ball skills didn't just equate to making plays on balls as they were thrown. Once a ball was in the air, Mathieu showcased incredible ability to track it during its flight, after it was tipped or once it was caught.
While it would be hyperbole to state that Mathieu came down with the ball more often than not, it wouldn't be too far to suggest that he made plays on passes of which no other cornerback in college football could've dreamed.
Mathieu is also a willing tackler who can lay the wood on offensive players both bigger and smaller than he.
Overall, Mathieu is a talented athlete who can move both linearly and laterally. He is not pigeonholed into a specific scheme and can play in both man and zone. Although he is smaller for a cornerback, some teams have expressed interest to me that Mathieu could be a candidate for a position switch to safety. He is also a gifted return man and can be a plus contributor right away to every special teams unit.
The Negatives of Mathieu's Play
Let's not sugarcoat this (honeycoat?). Mathieu is small, and that could significantly impact his ability to play at the NFL level. To be clear, his size does not preclude him from playing in the league; rather, it is a significant obstacle that Mathieu needs to clear on the merits of his other skills.
The comparison to Russell Wilson would be apropos. Watching tape, it's clear that Mathieu is a special player, but that doesn't change the fact that NFL personnel men like their prospects to fit within some reasonable physical criteria. So, you have to find a team that is willing to think outside of that box for a player of Mathieu's talent.
Another quality comparison would be Javier Arenas, who lit up the SEC while at Alabama. Drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs, Arenas was immediately utilized as a special teams player and return man with only a couple of starts before this season. When given some solid time this season, he responded with quality play. Certainly, not every smaller cornerback is so lucky.
One comparison I see often is Antoine Winfield, and I just can't buy it. After covering Winfield for over two years as a radio host in Minnesota and watching every single one of his games over the past two years for my job at Bleacher Report, I have never seen him struggle as much physically as Mathieu did in the SEC.
When asked to move closer to the line of scrimmage, Mathieu was often unable to press his receiver and drive him off his route. Instead, receivers could often shuck him (sometimes without slowing their route) to gain separation, which gave them a considerable advantage over the speedy Honey Badger.
Speaking of separation: While we often talk about separation as something down-the-field vertically, we also have to think about it as something vertically up into the air. Because of Mathieu's smaller stature, he often gives up separation to bigger receivers who may not have his leaping ability, but have an extra four or five inches of height and a far greater wingspan.
Mathieu's aforementioned athleticism allowed him to bridge that gap more often than not in college, but the NFL is filled with numerous receivers who are just as big and more athletic than what Mathieu often saw in college.
As long as we're on the subject of things that Mathieu got away with in college that will get him benched in the pros: Mathieu is as much of a gambler as Arenas was in college—if not more so. The ability to move at top speeds while keeping his eyes in the backfield is a blessing toward his turnover totals, but the savvier quarterbacks in the NFL will quickly learn to look him off or pump fake him off their receiver. Freelancing as Mathieu often did is acceptable in college, but not in the pros.
On his tackling, note that earlier I called him a "willing tackler." In many respects, that is a bit of a backhanded compliment (though a compliment nonetheless). The insinuation (and reality) is that he isn't always a capable tackler. When matched up against bigger receivers, Mathieu's tendency to go for the big hit doesn't necessarily faze his intended target.
Worse yet, when Mathieu tackles bigger receivers, he tends to wrap up high and doesn't have the bulk to actually bring them down. Though, to be fair, this does slow down the offensive player long enough to get tackled by one of Mathieu's teammates.
Again, this is a departure from some of the more successful smaller defensive backs in the league. Winfield and Cortland Finnegan have no problem bringing down bigger offensive players; they can both pack a punch with their "layout" hits and have learned to wrap up around the knees and waist. Both are far better tacklers than Mathieu has ever shown himself to be, although they have also had plenty of time to learn. Mathieu will get that opportunity as well.
The Bottom Line
As I said before, Mathieu won't be confined to a certain scheme, though he would likely find greater success in a team still employing some Tampa 2 principles like the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys (potentially the Chicago Bears as well).
Should a man-coverage-heavy team look at Mathieu, it's likely going to be as a slot cornerback (nickel and dime packages only).
The problem with this, however, is the NFL's move towards using bigger tight ends in the slot. Mathieu lined up against Wes Welker (the old prototype of slot target) makes a lot of sense. I would go so far as to say that Mathieu—a great lateral athlete with ball skills—was the exact player teams were looking for five years ago.
Against Rob Gronkowski, Jermichael Finley, Jimmy Graham and the rest of the new breed of slot tight ends? Mathieu will get eaten alive.
Most importantly, the team that selects Mathieu will need to be convinced of two things. First, that he will have an immediate role on their special teams—both in the return and coverage units. Secondly, the team will have to be convinced (or convince themselves) that Mathieu will keep his nose clean.
Based on the questions about his size, his character and his role, as well as concerns about how he matches up with the growing group of slot tight ends, it's hard to be bullish about Mathieu's stock. However, when one considers his ball skills, athleticism and success in SEC, it's important to weigh all this accordingly.
Expect Mathieu to go anywhere from the third to the fifth round (depending on how the run of cornerbacks plays out earlier). He should contribute on special teams in his rookie year and (depending on the team) should get anywhere from minimal to moderate snaps in sub-packages.
If he is able to overcome his character issues, he should have a long NFL career. He has the ability to overcome his size deficiencies, but it will be difficult and could keep him from true greatness at the next level.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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