There were plenty of offensive players around college football, such as Robert Griffin III, Montee Ball, Trent Richardson, David Wilson and Sammy Watkins, who enjoyed eye-opening breakout performances last season.
However, when it came to the defensive side of the ball, no other player in the country could compare to what LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu was able to accomplish on the field, and no defender created as much of a buzz off of it as Mathieu did.
Last season, the small but feisty corner stepped into the starting lineup in Baton Rouge, replacing former mentor Patrick Peterson, and proved to be one of the biggest defensive difference-makers in the country.
In 2011, Mathieu racked up 76 total tackles, broke up nine passes, hauled in two interceptions, forced six fumbles and scored two touchdowns apiece on punt returns and fumble returns.
For his efforts, the 5'9'', 175-pound junior was showered with numerous postseason honors and All-American accolades, awarded with the Bednarik Trophy and was surprisingly invited to take a trip to New York City as a Heisman finalist—a rare feat for a defensive player.
It was truly remarkable to watch Mathieu’s “Honey Badger” hype build with momentum week after week, and rarely have we ever seen a defensive player in college football garner the kind of media attention that the tenacious Tigers corner did last year.
Mathieu will surely be one of the most talked about players in college football this offseason, and he’s sure to find his name on plenty of preseason All-American lists, as well as find his face on numerous college football preview magazine covers.
While he may already be considered one of the top college players in the country, the question is, is Mathieu destined to be the third-straight LSU cornerback selected in the first round of the NFL draft?
Personally, I think he’s going to have some more work to do this season if he wants to show NFL scouts that he's truly one of the top pro prospects in college football, and I have my doubts about whether he really belongs in the conversation as his former highly-touted teammates Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson.
There's no disputing that Mathieu put together an outstanding campaign in 2011, but it doesn't change the fact that his small and slight frame will be an obvious disadvantage in the pros.
It doesn't change the fact that Mathieu isn't an elite athlete like some of the other members of the LSU defense like Barkevious Mingo and Eric Reid.
And it also doesn't change the fact that he doesn't possesses the man-to-man coverage skills to be a lock down corner in the NFL.
If you watched the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, you know that Alabama tested Mathieu on a few different occasions that night in New Orleans. To put it gently, let’s just say he didn’t pass the test, as Mathieu turned out to be a complete non-factor in the embarrassing loss to the Tide, and he actually ended up getting beat on almost all of the passes that were thrown in his direction.
One bad performance shouldn’t overshadow all that Mathieu accomplished last season, but it does show evident weaknesses and flaws in his overall game.
For as good as Mathieu was last season, you could make the case that he was only the fourth best player on his own defense. Fellow cornerback Morris Claiborne, the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft, and defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who will both likely be top 20 selections in the 2013 draft, played just as big of a role in the Tigers’ defensive success as Mathieu did last year, even though they didn’t receive nearly the same amount of publicity.
Yes, Mathieu made plenty of highlight-reel plays in 2011, but being a YouTube star with a fun gimmick and being an elite NFL prospect who scouts covet are two very different things.
Causing the occasional fumble and running into the backfield unblocked on a corner blitz is great and all, but they aren’t exactly skills that NFL teams are searching for in the much desired cover corners that are desperately needed in today’s pass-happy NFL.
Mathieu may “take what he wants,” but you know who else takes what they want?
Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Hakeem Nicks, Roddy White, A.J. Green and the many other big, physically superior receivers that are found in the NFL. Having a fearless attitude can only get you so far in a fight before the bigger, stronger opponent eventually prevails.
There should be plenty of cornerbacks like N.C. State’s David Amerson, Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks, Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Alabama’s Dee Milliner, Michigan State’s Johnny Adams and Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes that will all potentially be in the first-round mix for the 2013 draft, and it remains to be seen where Mathieu will fit in amongst that group.
While the Honey Badger will hog most of the preseason publicity, personally, if I were an NFL GM, I would be more focused on Mathieu’s three defensive counterparts—defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo and safety Eric Reid—this season.
Unlike Mathieu, I do believe that Montgomery, Mingo and Reid have what it takes to be elite defensive prospects for next year’s draft.
Mathieu can be used effectively in the right role in the NFL (there’s no shame in being a solid and dependable nickel corner), however, I just don’t think that he’s shown that he can be a No. 1 corner for a pro defense yet.
The good news is: The Honey Badger's got another season to prove me wrong, and he very well may do so. However, I certainly wouldn't be surprised if Mathieu ultimately doesn't turn out to be the coveted cornerback commodity that many will surely make him out to be over the next few months.