There was no question that the Arizona Cardinals took a huge risk selecting former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft, but team hopes the strides he has made translate to on-field success.
With the news that he will start Saturday night against the Dallas Cowboys, per Darren Urban of the Cardinals’ official website, it looks like the risk is already beginning to pay off as Arizona challenges in the tough NFC West division.
Cardinals’ defensive lineman Frostee Rucker told Urban about the changes he has seen in Mathieu and how teammates are helping him understand what the NFL is all about:
We've all been through our ups and downs in life. It just caught my eye the way he took grasp of his situation. The one thing you have to do, first and foremost, is prove to yourself you can be a professional. He's shown that and proved to the rest of the guys in the locker room that we can count on him. This is a grown man's sport. People have families and we're all accountable to each other and depend on each other. He's taken huge strides in that.
Mathieu was kicked off the LSU roster in 2012 and missed almost two years of football while dealing with disciplinary issues tied to his addiction to marijuana. Several strikes against the talented defensive back in college hurt his stock, but his raw defensive skill was undeniable for Arizona.
As a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2011—he had an amazing season in the defensive secondary and returning the football—Mathieu’s immense talent was overshadowed by his off-field issues.
The Cardinals' leap of faith has proven to be one of the best moves of the draft thus far.
Arizona's GM Steve Keim told Adam Schein of NFL.com about the risk of picking Mathieu and how it’s already paying dividends:
Just like I said when we drafted him, it was a risk. Now, every player you draft is a risk, whether it's for skill, injury, or off-field concerns. We had some off-the-field concerns about him. He's answered the bell. He's been a model citizen so far. Again, he has to stay focused and keep that trend going. The on-field stuff is as good as you can imagine. He is a ball hawk, playmaker; he's tough as nails. The other night, Bruce told me that he got his first live game action late first quarter, second quarter, played in the third, and they tried to take him out of the game and he didn't even want to come out. He's just a competitor. The guy said he sat out of football for a year, he waited long enough, he wants to be out on the field. He just has a unique, real uncanny way about playing the nickel and that slot, blitzing off the hash, doing different things in coverage. I think the NFL is going to see that Tyrann is the real deal.
Free safety Rashad Johnson suffered a MCL injury that has opened the door for Mathieu to get the start, per Urban, but this could be the chance to shine the young player needs to help re-ignite that competitive fire he may have lost during the turmoil of the last two years.
The Cardinals were decimated in the secondary by opposing offenses in the latter half of 2012, and adding an insurance policy like Mathieu was the perfect risk to take in the third round.
If he continues to develop as the team believes he will, the rookie will make a serious regular-season impact and keep the team in the tight battles throughout the year.
While Arizona will struggle to win the NFC West this season while combating powerhouses like San Francisco and Seattle in the mix, Mathieu offers the Cardinals a talented multi-faceted player that can help the team contend against the best.
Arizona may not win the West, but the franchise is trending in the right direction with the help of Mathieu in the secondary.