NFL teams are always looking to add a little bit of playmaking ability to their defense. They look for someone who has a nose for the ball, and the tendency to make big plays in big situations. Despite off-field issues, which I believe are really overblown, there may not be a bigger playmaker in this year’s draft class than Tyrann Mathieu. Being a “playmaker” is an extremely intangible thing and can’t be determined through combine drills, but when you watch his tape it becomes clear that the Honey Badger is a difference maker when used properly.
Mathieu is not a big player, standing at just about 5’9”. He doesn’t have blazing speed. He really doesn’t even world-class cover skills. But in two years playing for the LSU Tigers, the Honey Badger earned his nickname through his fearlessness on the field. He gave 110% on every snap that I watched; he never got down on himself and always seemed prepared for the next play. He also had a tremendous knack for forcing fumbles. In his two seasons as a Tiger, Mathieu forced 11 fumbles, the most by any player in the SEC since 2000. A player with a natural ability to rip the ball loose like Tyann does is a very intriguing prospect to an NFL team.
Tyrann played a little bit of everything in his short time at LSU. Outside corner, slot corner in nickel situations and free safety were all positions you could expect to see Mathieu in on any given play. As a pure cornerback, Tyrann is not all that impressive. He often got pushed around by bigger receivers and didn’t cover all that well whether it was on the outside or in the slot. That being said I do think Mathieu is a smart football player. He’s a good tackler, reads offenses as well as anyone, and reacts to the ball faster than anyone you will see. That combination may make him a more likely fit at the free safety position in the NFL.
The Honey Badger was also a very explosive punt returner for the Tigers. In his one and only season as a punt returner, Mathieu averaged 17.2 yards per return, the highest average in the SEC since 2000, with 2 touchdowns, which was second in the SEC that season. Tyrann did make some questionable decisions on punts though, if he gets a shot to be a punt returner in the NFL he needs to learn when to just let the ball bounce in to the endzone, or be aware of when he’s actually crossed the goal line.
Just to talk a little bit about the elephant in the room of his off field issues, I think they were drastically overblown. There have been countless players who had issues in college with marijuana who went on to have successful NFL careers despite dropping on draft day. One recent player that comes to mind is Patriot’s tight end Aaron Hernandez who dropped to the 4th round after failing multiple drug tests while at Florida. Not only is Hernandez now a successful player in the NFL, he is also a model citizen and just got a big contract from the Patriots. I see absolutely no reason why Tyrann Mathieu can’t do the same thing.
I honestly feel the risk with Mathieu is very small. You’re not going to have to spend more than a 4th round pick on him and with that you’re going to get a very good player. At the very worst you’re going to get a solid special teams contributor with a high motor who could inspire the rest of his teammates.
Tyrann Mathieu is going to be a very hungry player after missing out on a year of football. I expect him to do very well in the combine, which starts tomorrow, but probably not enough to raise his stock much. In a recent interview with ESPN, Mathieu said he thinks he can be a good leader both on and off the field in the NFL, in his words “like a Ray Lewis.” Mathieu won’t be going before the 4th round, and honestly even if he didn’t have problems with weed I’m not sure if he is a first or even second round talent. What Mathieu is is a great football player, and that’s all scouts are going to care about. The Honey Badger has the potential to make a huge splash in the NFL if he gets put in the right situation with a coaching staff that will use him in the right ways.
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