Former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu put forth an impressive scouting combine performance, with a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and smooth drills. It was almost good enough to make one forget all the reasons why Mathieu, prior to the combine, was considered draft-day poison.
To refresh the memory, Mathieu was twice disciplined for violating LSU's banned substance policy. His first offense in 2011 netted him a one-game suspension, and his second in 2012 led to his dismissal from the team. Despite heading into a treatment program after his dismissal, he was later arrested for possession of marijuana. Now he's the prospect with the most red flags heading into this April's draft.
Though the Cincinnati Bengals have many needs to meet in the draft—with cornerback not high among them—watching Mathieu's work at the scouting combine led me to an immediate conclusion: He'd be perfect for the Bengals, and the Bengals would be perfect for him.
Based on Mathieu's history, there are certainly teams out there who don't care what he may have done to raise his draft stock at the combine; to those general managers and coaches, he's untouchable, at any round, at any price.
However, his combine performance does show that Mathieu has considerable football talent, perhaps worthy of a second or third-round pick to those who dare to take a risk granted that his comments about turning his life around don't ring hollow (via Yahoo Sports). With the Bengals having a history of taking on risky talent—to the point that they've been the butt of many a joke regarding it—it doesn't seem like Cincinnati would be turned off by Mathieu as long as they believe his checkered past is just that: In the past.
Cornerback is something the Bengals actually could address in this year's draft, though it's not a pressing need. Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Nate Clements are all unrestricted free agents. Though the Bengals have the salary cap room to bring all three back into the fold should they so choose, it's more likely that they retain only two of the three and perhaps even just Jones, who has been useful both as a corner as well as a kick returner.
Jones' presence on the Bengals' roster is a main reason why taking a risk and using a draft pick on Mathieu could work out well. Jones, as we all know, has a history himself of run-ins with the law, but since joining the Bengals in 2010, he's been incident-free, content with simply focusing on his football career.
Jones could be a useful mentor for Mathieu, showing him both what not to do with an NFL career as well as how to rehab it. As a corner and kick returner, Jones also provides Mathieu with a good professional template to follow as well. Both are fairly small for the position—Jones is 5'10", while Mathieu is 5'9"—but Jones has managed to be a viable starting outside corner, something Mathieu wants to accomplish himself.
The issue is Mathieu's draft value. Based on what he did at the scouting combine, Mathieu seems to possess second-round talent, but his off-field issues could realistically keep him from being selected at all. Think of Vontaze Burfict last year—Burfict had nowhere near Mathieu's history but didn't get drafted, instead being picked up by the Bengals in free agency after the draft's end.
The Burfict signing also calls into question whether the Bengals would want to use any pick (from their second of two second-rounders on down) on Mathieu given the precedent they set last year with the linebacker. Burfict is less risky and, pound-for-pound, has a similar reward potential, but yet the Bengals didn't want to even spend one of their three fifth-round picks or their lone sixth-round pick on him last year.
Even if Mathieu would be, from a talent perspective, not overdrafted by the Bengals with their 53rd overall pick in the second round (they also have the 37th-overall pick earlier in the round), it might not be worth the money the contract would command considering his past.
Perhaps a later round might be a better value for the Bengals, but there's always the potential that Mathieu is no longer available if another interested team is willing to ignore the risks. Again, however, the Burfict model does seem to point to teams not wanting to make too aggressive a move for him, but Mathieu also doesn't have Burfict's burden of a bad combine showing on top of his personal history.
If Mathieu is the player he presented himself as being at the combine and not the one with the arrest and discipline issues, he'll make a major impact in the NFL in a short amount of time. He'd meet present and future needs for the Bengals all while being a member of a team that is well-equipped to handle someone with his particular background.
It's all a matter of how the Bengals view his risks compared to his rewards, whether or not they even have him on their draft board at all and if they'd be willing to leave a position of greater need to a later round.
However, if any team would be a good fit for Mathieu it's the Bengals. They'd be able to bring out his potential, provide him with pitch-perfect mentorship in a veteran like Jones and have themselves a dynamic defensive and special-teams contributor for the long term as long as they can help him stay focused on himself and the game rather than outside distractions.