No one knows just how successful Bruce Arians and Steve Keim will be with the Arizona Cardinals as they prepare for their first season, but we do know that they are not afraid to make bold moves that few other teams are willing to make.
Not only did Keim take one of the most polarizing prospects in this year's class in Tyrann Mathieu, but he has plans for the artist formerly known as the "Honey Badger" to make a position change to free safety. General managers and coaches always speak very confidently about their drafts, but this is a risk even Keim himself publicly acknowledged.
As much off-field baggage as Mathieu carries with him, the Cardinals have a distinct advantage over other teams in terms of turning the troubled college star into a productive NFL player. One of Mathieu's former teammates in the defensive backfield, Patrick Peterson, is on the roster.
Peterson, the fifth overall pick of the 2011 draft, has emerged as one of the league's top corners and is highly respected by Tyrann; after all, he took his jersey number when Peterson entered the draft.
If Mathieu can stay out of trouble, the Cardinals have two tremendously talented defensive backs that will give them an element of explosiveness and athleticism that no team could replicate.
The Cardinals have a new defensive coordinator in Todd Bowles, but do not expect drastic schematic changes from a season ago when the Cardinals fielded one of the best defenses in football under then-coordinator Ray Horton.
While they will be retaining their 3-4 style, it'll have little effect on how Peterson and Mathieu will be used. Instead, the focus will surround what style of coverage Bowles will use and how aggressively he will send extra rushers in passing situations.
Both Peterson and Mathieu have enough talent to transcend schemes and play in a variety of systems, but utilizing a man-coverage and pressure-heavy style of defense would give the Cardinals the best chance to be successful and get the most out of their young talent in the secondary.
With a tremendous combination of size and speed, Patrick Peterson has developed into one of the top press-man cornerbacks in football. He's a fluid athlete who runs a 40-yard dash as fast as Tavon Austin. You would have a hard time finding many players better suited to run in single coverage with receivers downfield.
Peterson is the known commodity. His role will hardly change.
The real question is just how Mathieu will be used.
While he will be listed as a free safety, Mathieu will play much more like a hybrid cornerback/safety in the mold of former Texan and current Lion Glover Quin. A former cornerback, Quin made the transition to safety under Wade Philips, giving the team a ton of flexibility. That's how they were able to match up against different formations and in different situations.
Mathieu has been labeled as strictly a slot corner, but he has considerable experience lining up at safety from his time at LSU:
However, there are two major differences between Quin and Mathieu as players.
First, Mathieu is a much more sudden and explosive athlete, making him a better fit as a pure slot cornerback. Slot corners may not need the same size and top-end speed as boundary corners (such as Peterson), but they need to be quick and physical—two of Mathieu's best traits.
On the other hand, Mathieu does have one glaring on-field weakness—his height. At just 5'9", Mathieu would be a liability against bigger tight ends and receivers, and his ability to compete for contested balls downfield is limited.
Because of his size limitations, Mathieu will never be able to play as a true deep safety in the mold of Ed Reed. He will have to be constantly maneuvered to avoid bad matchups.
In short, Mathieu should be a two-way player who can move up into the slot and cover slot receivers against multiple-receiver sets while sitting back into a more typical free safety role against more run-oriented offensive packages.
One of the most underrated aspects of Mathieu's game is his ability as a pass-rusher. Sure, he's no Von Miller or DeMarcus Ware as a 260-pound sack artist, but Mathieu has all of the makings of an excellent blitzer.
Not only is Mathieu explosive off the snap and a violent hitter, but he has tremendous flexibility and change-of-direction. Notice how fast he gets off the line of scrimmage as he beats the tackle blitzing off the edge.
As Peterson continues to develop into a true shutdown corner that can be left alone on an "island," Todd Bowles will be given more flexibility with his blitz packages. Without a truly elite edge-rusher on the roster, Mathieu could fill the void as an edge-rusher from an unconventional position, at least in obvious passing situations.
More importantly, the Cardinals now have (potentially) two cornerbacks that they can leave on islands, giving them extra defenders to blitz or provide help elsewhere.
As the NFL evolves into a pass-first league, the slot cornerback position has evolved to a virtual starting position. In 2011, the Bills used three or more receivers on nearly 80 percent of their plays. If the 2013 Cardinals were to play the 2011 Bills, Mathieu would spend nearly the entire game near the line of scrimmage, jamming slot receivers at the line.
While still an unproven player, Mathieu's ability as a slot cornerback is indisputable. He should be able to match up against nearly every slot receiver in the game and give the Cardinals a favorable matchup, which is an advantage only a few teams can share.
What About Tight Ends?
This is where Todd Bowles will need to get creative to minimize Mathieu's size deficiencies. Putting him against players like Vernon Davis or Jimmy Graham is an impossible situation for Tyrann, no matter how well he plays them.
Bowles does, however, have a tremendous athlete in Patrick Peterson. Peterson, at just under 6'2", can match up with some of the bigger tight ends in football. As many teams have done over the past few years, he can take a page out of Rex Ryan's playbook. Here's how his Revis-less Jets dealt with Rob Gronkowski in their Week 7 matchup.
The Jets used their version of Mathieu, the short-but-quick Isaiah Trufant, to handle Wes Welker in the slot, while Antonio Cromartie followed Rob Gronkowski, even if he lined up as an in-line blocker. Cromartie is not a great lateral mover, but his sheer size and length make him the only person on the Jets roster who could win contested balls against Gronkowski.
The result of this play was an incomplete pass to a well-covered Gronkowski, who could not extend over Cromartie to get near the ball.
While Peterson is not quite as big as Cromartie, he is a tremendous jumper and is more physical. Plus, the Cardinals could move Mathieu all over the defensive backfield at safety or even boundary cornerback, giving them more flexibility than the Jets had with Isaiah Trufant.
The Return Game
After combining for the best punt-return tandem in college football during their LSU days, Peterson and Mathieu should combine for the most lethal tandem of return men in the NFL.
Since his rookie season in 2011, Patrick Peterson has established himself as perhaps the most dangerous return man in the NFL, scoring four touchdowns as a rookie, including this overtime game-winner:
As good as Peterson is in the return game, his value as a cornerback is too great to risk injury.
After all, there are not many teams who have the luxury of replacing the best return man in the NFL with one of the greatest punt returners in recent college memory:
Should they choose, the Cardinals could get creative with their return concepts. They could elect to use a "dual return" system in which both Peterson and Mathieu are lined up to receive the punt. Again, this only increases the risk of injury for both players, but in desperate situations or if the team needs a spark, throwing a wrench into an opponent's punt-return scheme could help generate a big play.
Still, all of this great potential of a loaded Cardinals' secondary hinges on Mathieu's ability to stay focused on football and keep the drug habit that destroyed his career at LSU from having an effect on his promising NFL career.
No one knows for sure if Mathieu will succeed in the NFL, but out of the 32 teams that could have drafted him, his connection with Patrick Peterson makes Arizona the best possible place for him to succeed.
Now, Mathieu will be able to feel comfortable in an NFL environment immediately, a luxury few players are able to enjoy. Not only will Peterson be a tremendous asset as a mentor and friend to Mathieu, but he can help for a faster on-field NFL transition as well, which is vital for a player who has not played football in nearly two years.
Drafting Mathieu was a huge risk for a brand-new general manager and head-coach pairing, but if it works out, Arizona will have found a true impact player.