Yesterday it was announced that the Arizona Cardinals had gotten a deal done that will keep star defensive back Tyrann Mathieu in town for years to come. The five year deal is worth a total of $62.5 million with a staggering $40 million guaranteed. And you know what? He deserves every penny.
Mathieu has gone from being a Heisman finalist, to being kicked out of LSU, dropping to the 3rd round of the NFL Draft, tearing his ACL twice to now being the highest paid safety in the NFL. It is a truly remarkable story and it is absolutely a must-know football story.
In high school he predominantly played cornerback, but like most high school players he saw action all over the place, playing some wide receiver, kick returner and even getting a few carries as a running back. Coming out of St Augustine High School in New Orleans, Louisiana, Mathieu was a 4 star recruit according to Rivals.com and was their 13th ranked cornerback in the USA in the 2009 class. He committed to LSU on the 22nd August 2009.
As a senior, he put on quite a show. In his nine games he recorded 32 tackles, 5 interceptions, 1 sack and 1 fumble recovery on defense, along with 28 carries for 130 yards and 1 touchdown and 24 receptions for 321 yards and 2 touchdowns on offense. He also had 2 kickoff return touchdowns and 2 punt return touchdowns.
Unlike many prospects, Mathieu needed no time to get onto the field and make an impact. As a true freshman in 2010 he played in all 13 games, starting 1 of them, as the team’s backup and nickel corner. Despite technically being a backup, he played like a starter and made an impact as soon as his first game. In that game against North Carolina, he tallied 9 tackles, 1.5 of which were for a loss, 1 sack and 1 forced fumble. That wasn’t his peak though, as he went on to have a tremendous year. In fact, he saved his best game for last and for the biggest stage. In the Cotton Bowl against the then #18 ranked Texas A&M, Mathieu had 7 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 sack and 1 pass breakup, enough to earn him the Defensive MVP award. He finished the year with 57 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, 7 pass breakups, 1 quarterback hit, 2 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries. He also made the Coaches Freshman All-South Eastern Conference team and the FWAA and Rivals.com First-team Freshman All-American team. But bigger things were to come.
Now a full time starter, he started the year similarly to how the last one ended. Against Oregon in the season opener he wrecked the Ducks offense. He had a career high and team high 10 total tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery for a touchdown and 2 pass breakups. Again, he only got better as the year went on. He did miss the team’s game against Auburn for violating team rules, but that didn’t derail his season. Again, he had one of his biggest performances on one of the game’s biggest stages, the SEC Championship. He had 4 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, a fumble recovery, a QB hit and more importantly, 4 punt returns for 119 yards, including a 62 yard return for a touchdown. He was named the MVP of that game. He finished the season with 76 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 9 pass breakups, 3 QB hits, 2 interceptions, 6 forced fumbles and 5 fumble recoveries, 2 of which he returned for touchdowns. He also had 27 punt returns for 421 yards and two touchdowns. He was a Heisman Trophy Finalist, he won the Bednarik Award, he was a finalist for the Walter Camp National Player of the Year Award, and was a First-team All-American at cornerback and as a return specialist. He was also named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
In the coming years, things didn’t go as well. Before the beginning of his junior year (2012) he was dismissed due to violation of team rules. The rules in question? Drug use. It was the second time he’d been punished for failing drugs tests. As a result, Mathieu went a year without playing and it took its toll. In October 2012 he was arrested and charged for possession of marijuana. Come the 2013 NFL Draft, he was seen as a high risk, high reward player. Despite the obvious talent and his being adamant that he had not taken any more drugs and that he’d stay clean, he slid in the draft.
Come the third round and the Cardinals pick, Tyrann Mathieu was still available and Cardinals’ star and former LSU teammate Patrick Peterson was in Bruce Arians ear about drafting Mathieu, the Cardinals decided to pull the trigger on Mathieu…
And the rest, they say, is history.
Currently, there are several safeties in the NFL who I would consider elite: Earl Thomas, Harrison Smith, Eric Berry, Malcolm Jenkins, Kam Chancellor and Devin McCourty. All of those guys are great at what they do. Earl Thomas is the best pure center-field type safety in the NFL. He has incredible recognition and flies to the ball like no other safety, he’s also a very willing tackler. Smith and Berry are the best strong safeties when it comes to doing a bit of everything. They can all play the center-field role and they can all knock the snot out of a ball-carrier in the box or in space. Jenkins is a Swiss Army knife and is very good at most things, McCourty is a great cover safety having started his career as a cornerback and Chancellor is the best box safety in the game.
Mathieu on the other hand, is unlike any of those guys. Like Thomas, he can play as the lone high-safety better than most other safeties and is a great tackler. Then, like McCourty, he can match up one-on-one with receivers and tight ends well. But what makes him different is that he can match up with virtually any receiver or tight end and it makes no difference, he will compete and come out on top a lot of the time. Finally, despite his ‘lack of size’, he can effectively be a linebacker in the box and he is a very, very good blitzer. He’s ultimately what you would come up with if you combined all of those players’ best traits.
Another way to think about it and put his ability in perspective is to think about a certain way that an offensive player is praised; Player X is a matchup nightmare. Well, Mathieu is the defensive version of that. He can line up anywhere on the defense and have a favourable matchup most of the time. No other player has shown that he can do that.
The fact that Pro Football Focus and Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller had him ranked as the best cornerback in the NFL last year, but NFL Media’s Eric Davis had him ranked as the best safety in the NFL last year sums up just the kind of player he is. That is exactly what has commanded the respect of the media and players. Players voted him as the #28 player in the NFL going into next year and here at RealSport, we ranked him as the tenth best player in the league last season.
That versatility and his skill set are two of the various reasons he earned this contract that makes him the highest paid safety in the NFL, by quite a margin – at least in guaranteed money – the next highest is Harrison Smith, who signed a five year $51.25 million contract with $28.578 guaranteed.
Going forward, this is everything that the Cardinals could’ve hoped for. They now have the pound-for-pound best defensive player in the NFL locked up for the foreseeable future. With that, they remain primed for a Super Bowl run. With Mathieu, Peterson, Campbell and now Jones on defense and Palmer, Fitzgerald, Floyd, Brown and D. Johnson on offense the Cardinals have what is possibly the most talented team in the NFL, with some of the most promising players in the NFL. They are the team to watch going forward and Mathieu is a player that you absolutely have to watch.
Do you think he deserves the contract he got?