Former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu is scheduled to visit the New England Patriots Friday, which leads anyone with a modicum of deductive reasoning to assume the team has interest in drafting the troubled—yet undeniably talented—“Honey Badger.”
But is he worth the risk?
Perhaps the most polarizing player in the 2013 NFL draft, Mathieu has an army of staunch supporters, with Hall-of-Fame cornerback Deion Sanders as their commander in chief. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ll also find a legion of detractors who scoff at the notion of Mathieu being an NFL starter.
The most likely pick with which the Patriots might consider Mathieu is the 91st overall, because most mock drafts have him positioned in Round 3 or 4. The purpose of this piece, however, is not to determine where Mathieu will be drafted or even if the Patriots will take him, but rather to debate whether they should roll the dice on the “Honey Badger.”
The Case For
Let’s get the obvious out of the way, the kid makes plays.
He went all “Nuke” LaLoosh and announced his presence with authority as a freshman in 2010 and led the SEC with five forced fumbles. He added two interceptions, eight passes defended, 57 tackles (8.5 for a loss) and 4.5 sacks for good measure.
His incredible instincts and play-making ability were on even greater display in 2011 as he forced six more fumbles to again lead the SEC. His ferocious style of play, undersized stature and reckless abandon on the field earned him the “Honey Badger” moniker and helped him take the nation by storm.
He flashed not just a knack for separating receivers from footballs, but also led LSU with 76 tackles, defended 11 passes and recovered four fumbles.
He returned two of those fumbles for touchdowns and was an especially dynamic force on special teams as well, where he returned two punts for touchdowns. His 17.2 yards per return also led the SEC.
This all culminated in Mathieu being a consensus All-American, winning the Chuck Bednarik Award that is presented annually to the nation’s top defensive back, and being named a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Fast-forward to 2013 and Mathieu hasn’t set foot on the field since that magical 2011 season thanks to his well-documented legal problems.
To hear his former teammates tell it, he was sorely missed in 2012.
He was allowed to join them one last time for LSU’s pro day—where he shone in positional drills—despite being kicked off the team. Those who have the most cause to disparage him—his former coaches and teammates who he left—did just the opposite, practically campaigning for him to be a high pick.
“I missed being on the field with him. He did everything I expected of him and better. He definitely can fly. Somebody is going to take a chance on him and get a great player” – possible first-round pick Eric Reid
“I tell [NFL teams] he's a great teammate, a big-time player. He will commit to whatever your culture is and doing it your way. He will have a natural intuitive sense for big plays. He'll make somebody's NFL roster a lot better.” – LSU head coach Les Miles
To be clear, the culture in New England is one of winning. If what Miles says is true, Mathieu will commit to winning and, of course, the nebulous “Patriot way.”
Just in case teams don’t know or don’t care what the LSU crowd has to say about Mathieu, the aforementioned Deion Sanders is campaigning on his own and in this case, you can swap out “practically” for “literally.”
“I contacted several teams myself, and told them 'If you don't draft this guy, you are an idiot.’ I believe in the kid, and I will put my name by him.”
Of course, none of this posturing would be necessary if Mathieu hadn’t torpedoed his career with a series of failed drug tests, suspensions and an arrest, but the “Honey Badger” knows he can’t change the past and prefers to focus on how to ensure a better future.
To his credit, Mathieu seems to understand how damaging his self-inflicted mishaps are to his draft stock and isn’t shying away from NFL teams’ invasive lines of questioning. In fact, he cited the Patriots as the team that grilled him most aggressively.
If New England spent that much time digging at the kid and still scheduled a visit, it must believe he can help the team on the field.
Otherwise they wouldn’t waste so much time making sure he won’t be a problem off it.
With such established leadership in place in the Patriots’ locker room, Mathieu will be held accountable in one of the best possible environments to help a young player mature. Bill Belichick has taken character risks before on players such as Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Aaron Hernandez and Alfonzo Dennard. The “Honey Badger” could be the next on that list.
The Case Against
Once again, let’s start with the obvious.
Tyrann Mathieu smokes pot.
Or at least he did. Frequently enough to fail multiple drug tests, get suspended twice, kicked off the team and ultimately arrested.
To be perfectly clear, I don’t believe smoking the ganja is in and of itself a bad thing.
I’ve smoked pot.
If you’ve been to college, chances are you’ve smoked pot.
In Washington and Colorado you can recreationally hit the bong just as legally as you can the beer bottle.
By the end of this year, we could see as many as 29 states offering legal medical marijuana.
None of that matters in Mathieu’s case because neither the NCAA nor NFL are states or subject to legislative vote by their citizens, and both test and suspend players for marijuana use.
Granted, there have been plenty of successful NFL players who have overcome marijuana use en route to successful careers—Ricky Williams and Aaron Hernandez come to mind—but neither have shown a lack of restraint to the extent Mathieu has.
Mathieu clearly has much to offer on the field and most pundits agree he has the skills to be a successful slot corner in the NFL, but his history of extracurricular entanglements is alarming.
He was suspended for a game in 2011 for violating team policies on drug use. At the time, he called the experience humbling.
“I have to grow up fast in this business, it definitely humbled me off the field. I think you have to go through things to see the bigger picture. ... My teammates were there for me and my coaches were there for me, so it was really about me trying to stay focused on the things that mean the most to me and that's being a student at LSU and wearing those colors every Saturday.”
Less than a year later, he was kicked off the team for failing another drug test. He entered rehab and continued his enrollment at LSU, strictly as a student. It looked like a mature, accountable move at the time.
Ten weeks later, Mathieu was not only smoking again, but was arrested for marijuana possession.
So much for learning his lesson.
He entered rehab yet again, and claims he hasn’t smoked since his arrest. He candidly told sports radio WWL in New Orleans "I wanted to get high" and "I didn't want to stop. I didn't want to reach out for help. I thought what I was doing was OK, but it's not."
Mathieu says he's changed and during the interview added, "It's just about being humble and taking everything one day at a time and...and embracing the process. That's been the biggest thing for me, just about me being honest, me addressing my issues." He later reiterated, "Now it's a different approach; I'm looking at it a different way."
So yeah, he’s been doing and saying all the right things in his interviews, but at this point, it all sounds like a broken record.
As they say in baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out.
Mathieu might not quite be out—after all he’ll still be drafted—but he’s certainly on his way out if he can’t learn to control his drug use.
Again, the concern isn’t so much that he likes to smoke pot, which is fairly innocuous, but that he got in trouble, admitted he had a problem, sought help and still couldn’t stop himself from repeating the same mistake.
It shows an inherent lack of accountability and discipline and begs the question: How can he be trusted?
Mathieu seems sincere in his quest to stay clean, but he’s seemed sincere before and ended up in progressively worse situations each time. All the talent in the world won’t do him any good if he wastes it breaking up buds instead of breaking up passes.
Simply put, Tyrann Mathieu represents a massive gamble in this year’s NFL draft. Debate continues as to whether he’s big enough or even good enough to play on the outside at the next level, but even the most ardent critics acknowledge he has the skills to play in the slot if he can learn to play within an NFL system.
The gray area is almost exclusively limited to whether he can keep his act together and stay committed to a responsible lifestyle once he starts earning NFL money. If he can, he’ll be a steal in the draft.
If not he’ll be another tragic example of a player who can tackle the opposition but not his own demons.
So, what do you think? Is Tyrann Mathieu worth the risk for the Patriots?
Make your case in the comments below.
Follow Sean on Twitter at: @keanedawg86