Honey Badger vs. the critics: How will Tyrann Mathieu fit in the NFL?

Streeter Lecka

What can a troubled and undersized player like Tyrann Mathieu bring to the NFL?

We live in a very critical age. It's popular to choose distrust and cynicism over faith or optimism when evaluating the world, and not least of all in the NFL draft. The thousands of mock drafts and evaluations that can be found online are a place where any excuse for criticism and sarcasm is embraced. If a compelling reason emerges to dislike a player's pro prospects you can expect the cynicism to flow freely.

Sometimes the resulting criticism goes overboard and becomes laughably ridiculous. On other occasions, legitimate concerns can form a cacophony of doubt that overshadows underlying realities begging to be seen.

In the instance of LSU's Tyrann Mathieu, the "Honey Badger," there are a few factors that have led people to overlook the troubled defensive back. To begin with, he only measured 5'9" and 186 pounds at the combine, which is undersized for virtually any defensive position in the NFL. Secondly, he was unable to break a 4.5 40 time, suggesting that he lacks elite speed as well.

Then there's the game tape of Mathieu playing man coverage at corner, which isn't particularly impressive. He's not a lockdown corner, which is how players of his size often contribute.

Then there's the fact that Mathieu was kicked out of LSU for failing an unspecified number of drug tests, perhaps more than 10, and has spent his year off from football attempting to get clean and get his life back in order. Much like another collegiate star, he was became so dependent on marijuana as a coping mechanism for his life's problems that he lost his access to football, a potentially stabilizing force for good in his life.

Consequently, his whole game has come under scrutiny by teams and scouts eager to avoid the personal risks. Or in the case of the somewhat more clear-minded Bill Barnwell, his problems with marijuana were shrugged off while Barnwell hammered home criticism of his small size. A 5'9" player, Barnwell reasoned, shouldn't be expected to force as many fumbles in the NFL where players are so much larger, as he did in college. Nevermind that a player of Mathieu's size wouldn't be expected to force many fumbles in the SEC either, yet he did exactly that.

In reality, the best way to consider Tyrann Mathieu's pro prospects are with these questions: What are his skills, and do they translate to the NFL? To do that, we actually have to study Mathieu's history.

Tyrann Mathieu's coming out party occurred in the 2011 Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M after the 2010 season. Mathieu played in LSU's nickel package as a freshman that year and was on the field for much of that Cotton Bowl, to the detriment of the Aggies.

In that game he had seven tackles, one for loss, two forced fumbles, two break-ups, and an interception. His one tackle for loss came against Ryan Tannehill on the following play:

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Mathieu began the play lined up near the #3 receiver to the field before sneaking towards the line and finally crouching down right before the snap almost like a defensive end.

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In next year's draft, A&M's right tackle Jake Matthews will probably be drafted in the first round, potentially even in the top five. Here the long arms, quick feet, and base strength that will serve him well in the NFL are unavailing in getting his hands on Mathieu's tiny and quick frame.

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When Mathieu reaches Tannehill, he shows the knack for finding the ball that would make him a Bednarik winner and Heisman finalist in 2011. He basically clotheslines Ryan Tannehill during his throwing motion and knocks the ball loose.

Mathieu's quickness and swiping arms made him a frightening weapon on edge blitzes and were possibly his most dangerous skills as a player. On tape, LSU frequently brought him off the edge in their Fire Zone blitzes. When Mathieu was unable to beat blockers off the ball, he wisely recognized that crashing his small body into an offensive lineman wouldn't help his team and would either leap into the passing lane or step away from the OL's block and find the ball.

If blockers could get their hands on him, his small size and lack of strength would become a problem and he'd be easily crushed ... if they could get their hands on him.

Mathieu's blitzing was available to LSU in its nickel package on defense, but when playing the Tigers' base 4-3 personnel, Mathieu was moved over to corner. Traditionally teams play their third-best corner in the nickel position, but the emergence of spread offenses have resulted in the expansion of the role into more than a third-down player.

Nevertheless, people often conceive of the nickel position as being more like the corner position than any other. The fact that Mathieu was technically a starting corner for LSU has done him no favors as he's been evaluated for that position in the NFL.

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In this frame, Mathieu is playing the nickel position. Here he's lined up to the field just inside the No. 2 receiver six yards off the line of scrimmage.

While defensive coordinator John Chavis had a solid package of blitzes, which made for aggressive play calls, LSU's main M.O. was to play its secondary in soft coverage. All five of the defensive backs in the nickel package are now in the NFL and had both the physicality and athleticism to close on the ball in the open field.

What's important here is that the position played by Mathieu is basically a combination of the role that either a SAM linebacker or strong safety would have for a 4-3 defense. Depending on the play call, he's either defending the seam like a safety playing in a single high-safety defense, or he's covering the flat like a SAM linebacker in a 2-deep coverage.

For the offense it's difficult to tell which before the snap.

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In this position Mathieu has run force responsibilities, meaning that he is to play the run outside in and leverage the runner back towards the middle of the field where the pursuit is coming.

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The play is Oregon's "pin 'n' pull," which is basically an adapted version of the Wing T's "bucksweep" run. Like with Outside Zone, the offense is looking to beat the defense to the perimeter with the option for the back to cut upfield against the grain if LSU overpursues the play.

Mathieu wants to force the runner back inside as soon as possible, but he has to beat a block by a receiver much larger than himself.

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As is often the case, the blocker is unable to get his hands on the lightning quick #7 and the edge is taken away from the speedy Oregon Ducks.

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Mathieu cuts inside to help wrap up the Duck runner for a two yard loss on the play.

Chip Kelly's up-tempo spread at Oregon was really about spacing the defenders apart in order to succeed in the traditional goal of running up the middle. Mathieu's domination of the edge was so great in the game that he not only allowed LSU to leave six defenders in the box to handle all the interior gaps against the Duck run game, but he actually pushed Kelly to avoid attacking the wide side of the field in order to keep the ball away from him.

Against Alabama in round one of their season's matchup, Saban frequently used big formations that you might expect would expose Mathieu's lack of strength in ways that the speedy Oregon approach would not.

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In this play they ran trips receivers bunched to the field side with a tight end the furthest back. Mathieu is lined up at corner outside of the no. 1 receiver with LSU in their 4-3 defensive package.

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Alabama sends the two receivers vertical up the seam while the TE stays back as though to help in pass protection. Mathieu stays over the top of the receivers.

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The no. 2 receiver keeps heading upfield while the no. 1 receiver cuts inside underneath the linebackers. Finally the TE releases to the flat which has been cleared by the other two receivers running vertically up the seam. In this coverage, Mathieu is still responsible for the field side.

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When McCarron sets his feet to throw, Mathieu is safely 12 yards away from the TE in the flat.

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By the time the ball is arriving, #7 has already cut the distance in half and is closing on the much larger TE.

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The play goes for a two yard gain but it's not until Mathieu is three yards behind the line of scrimmage that he relents in driving the TE backwards and buries him deeply into the Bryant-Denny Stadium grass.

Here, Mathieu was playing corner but the skills that set him up for success involved maintaining leverage in zone, recognition, and then closing on the ball to make a physical tackle. In most defenses, these are the skills teams look for in a safety. As it happens, injuries to LSU over the course of the year forced Mathieu to fill the position of Free Safety in a crucial showdown with the then no. 3 ranked Arkansas Razorbacks.

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With the game tied, Mathieu is lined up 13 yards deep on the boundary hash as the free safety. Arkansas is facing 2nd and inches after a physical Mathieu tackle cut a receiver down just shy of the marker on first down. Arkansas struggled to run the ball consistently against LSU, largely because successful run plays often turned out as this one did.

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On an inside zone, running back #33 is cutting back into a crease in the LSU defense enabled by the strong safety's mistackle occuring in this frame. Mathieu's responsibility on this play was to play as the deepest defender and watch for play-action over the top, a common threat on second-and-short.

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After the back cuts upfield, Mathieu has already arrived in support. He potentially saved a few touchdowns in this game in his role as a back-end eraser on the few Arkansas runs that managed to break through the LSU fronts.

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Despite being only 5'9", 185 pounds, Tyrann Mathieu hits the running back high and prevents a first down run from being a drive-making play. What's more, he actually rips the ball out of the back's hands and ends the drive with a crucial turnover.

Mathieu finished the game with two forced fumbles and a touchdown on an electrifying kick return that demonstrated his tremendous quickness and change of direction.

Putting the whole package together you have a player who is a physical tackler, has ball-hawking skills, is an adept blitzer, dominated some of the game's most athletic offenses in the open field, and was able as a true sophomore in college to handle playing corner, nickel, and free safety with all of the assignments and duties that fell to each position.

If you put it all together in one play and you'll find sequences like this:

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Against Oregon's up-tempo offense, LSU is still getting set and Mathieu is at the first down marker slowly ambling towards his nickel alignment on the no. 2 receiver. From his movements, you'd guess that Mathieu isn't sure what the defensive call is on this play.

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When he reaches his nickel alignment he suddenly turns upfield and runs at the line of scrimmage.

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Oregon is running the famous zone read, in which the offense leaves the backside DE unblocked, and the QB decides to hand the ball off or keep it and take the edge based on if the DE chases the back or stays "home" to stop the QB.

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Seeing Mathieu screaming off the edge, Darron Thomas says "you take this..." and allows the running back to attempt to find yards against the teeth of a field scrape Fire Zone blitz.

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Already having ruined Darron Thomas' read, Mathieu is still able to come off the edge and assist in making the tackle on the running back behind the line of scrimmage.

Mathieu's ability to handle numerous assignments, close and tackle well, and fly around the field before the snap call to mind another shorter player who has had some degree of success in the NFL, Troy Polamalu.

Now, Polamalu is about 20 pounds heavier, and ran a 4.4 flat at the NFL Combine. But many of the comparisons are still stark. Similarly, Bob Sanders was arguably the best defensive player on the 2007 Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts team but stood at only 5'8" 205 and found success due to his extraordinary quickness and fearlessness in run support.

The Arizona Cardinals seem to be sharing these comparisons, and announced that Mathieu would start at Free Safety. In today's more spread out and option heavy NFL, it doesn't pay to overlook a player that dominated such attacks in college with his tackling and nose for the football simply because he isn't as tall or heavy as you might like.

When a player like Mathieu can play in so many different roles on the field, it's silly to worry about teams picking on his weaknesses. To pick on Mathieu's short stature in coverage you have to know who he's covering. If he's jumping around in the backfield like Polamalu before dropping into a zone, manning up a receiver, or blitzing how do you target his weaknesses?

Indeed, instead of finding a way to exploit him teams may be desperate to know what he's up to so he won't ruin their best laid plans as he did for so many collegiate offenses. As long as teams understand to play him in the middle of the field in unpredictable roles rather than outside at corner, he can continue to shock larger opponents with his physicality and nose for the ball.

In evaluating either the world at large, or players in the NFL draft, you can choose pessimistic cynicism and discount people, or you can look to see what's good and what might be possible.

Of course critics are free to discount Tyrann Mathieu if they like. It will make no difference, Honey Badger don't care...


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