Tyrann Mathieu's First NFL Start Is Sign of Things to Come for Cardinals' Rookie

Steven Cook@@stevencookinFeatured Columnist IVAugust 13, 2013

GLENDALE, AZ - JULY 26:  Safety Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Arizona Cardinals arrives to practice during the team training camp at University of Phoenix Stadium on July 26, 2013 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In a few short months, Tyrann Mathieu has gone from a player who plummeted down draft boards to a NFL preseason starter. 

According to the Associated Press via ESPN, Mathieu will start for the Arizona Cardinals against the Dallas Cowboys Saturday, replacing injured safety Rashad Johnson. 

A third-round pick in April's draft, the Cardinals gave the player formerly known as the "Honey Badger" something not many NFL teams would—a chance to make the 53-man roster. Now, he's emerged as a reliable member of Arizona's secondary. 

In the Cardinals' 17-0 win in their preseason opener against Green Bay, Mathieu was quick to make his usual impact. He picked up a 12-yard sack, returned a punt 24 yards, defended a pass and notched a tackle for loss to go along with two special teams tackles, per the AP report. 

Mathieu has left his coaching staff with a big-time impression thus far in training camp and in practice. He's emerged as not only a big play star, but a talented safety whose ball-hawking skills and speed allow him to excel at the back of the defense. 

Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has seen a lot of promise from Mathieu according to this Associated Press story (via ESPN). Mathieu is switching from playing cornerback at LSU to the new position that better suits his skill set.

"He's learning how to play safety," Arians said. "He can cover sideline to sideline. He's shown the range, he's shown the speed to fill the alley, and I know he can tackle. He knows how to play nickel. He's played it his whole life, so that's a natural for him. I love the competition that he's bringing, picking up some older guys' games to stay with him."

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Mathieu primarily built his college celebrity on highlight-reel plays on special teams, more so than in coverage, but his ability in the secondary was never in question. It was his off-field issues and substance abuse that led to his demise with the Tigers. 

According to the AP report, the Cardinals have taken multiple measures to decrease the likelihood of their talented rookie falling into the same trap that he has so many times in his playing career. 

"In an unusual step, Mathieu's contract did not get his entire $662,500 salary bonus at first. He got $265,000 with the remainder spread out over the next three seasons, as long as he does not get suspended for substance abuse.

Meanwhile, he's subjected to periodic drug tests."

Now that Mathieu has gotten away from his off-field problems and put all of his focus on playing football, the results are already showing before his rookie regular season even begins. That's simply a testament to his talent.

I mean, you don't become a Heisman Trophy finalist like Mathieu did in 2011 without being a heck of a ball player.  

During Mathieu's historic 2011 season, it was nearly impossible to watch a LSU game without seeing his impact early and often. Whether it was a 80-yard punt return, jarring the ball loose on a bruising hit or picking off quarterbacks, he made his impact by the minute. 

The Cardinals were the first ones to pounce on that plethora of game-changing capabilities, and it's already paying off. 

While Johnson won't be injured for long, and Mathieu may not slide into a starting position during his rookie campaign, the simple fact that he's proven able to earn considerable playing time in the secondary is worth admiring. 

It's been a long, long road for Mathieu, and it's far from over. But Tuesday's news was one massive step in the right direction and proved that all of his hard work is starting to pay off.