Tyrann Mathieu’s Playmaking Skills Are Well Worth Risks That Come Along With ‘Honey Badger’ Persona for Patriots

Tyrann MathieuThe 2012 college football season was a fun one. We got to see Johnny Manziel emerge into “Johnny Football,” we followed Manti Te’o‘s path from “Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman candidate” to “running joke” and we watched Alabama win another National Championship to add to their mantle. But the biggest crime of this college football season was that we didn’t get to see Tyrann Mathieu compete for a single snap.

Before the LSU football season started, their star slot cornerback was kicked off the team for a violation of team rules. It was since reported that violation included failing multiple drug tests. Instead of transferring to an FCS or Division II school, Mathieu entered rehab and then continued attending LSU, even if he couldn’t play on their football squad. That looked like a good, mature decision until Mathieu was arrested on Oct. 25 for possession of marijuana.

Mathieu says he hasn’t touched the drug since that arrest. He says getting arrested was what finally forced him to turn his life around. He’s been staying with Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson‘s family since the arrest, and he has kept his nose clean. Apparently he’s also been working out, since he had one of the best combine performances of 2013 back in February.

But now NFL teams face a challenging question: do we risk all of Mathieu’s past faults off the field for his playmaking ability on it? And is he even good enough on the field to be work that risk? Teams that have talked to Mathieu can answer the former, but I can answer the latter with a resounding yes.

I watched every snap that Mathieu played in 2011 that I could get my hands on. That didn’t include LSU’s games against Northwestern State or Western Kentucky, so my stats will only include the 11 FBS games he played that season.

LSU faced 394 total passing plays during those 11 games (360 passing attempts and 34 sacks). Mathieu wasn’t on the field for all of them, but it was extremely rare for him to come off the field in passing situations, even late in games. We can likely take out 14 snaps that Mathieu wasn’t on the field to make it an even 380. Mathieu allowed 25 receptions on 51 targets for 288 yards. He intercepted two passes, allowed zero touchdowns and forced four fumbles. He also added a sack and 65 tackles.

The website Pro Football Focus has specific slot cornerback stats, cover snaps per target, yards per cover snap and cover snaps per reception. Based on the above snaps, compared to 2012 NFL slot corners, Mathieu would rank tied for first in cover snaps per reception with 15.2, second in yards per cover snaps with .76 and third in cover snaps per target with 7.5. His 50.1 NFL quarterback rating and 49-percent catch rate would rate him second among slot cornerbacks.

Obviously it’s tough to compare NFL cornerback stats to a college player’s stats, but you won’t find better numbers than that in the college ranks. Mathieu was truly an elite slot cornerback at LSU.

Mathieu nearly shut down his opposing slot receiver in every game he played. His best games came against Mississippi State when he allowed just one receptions on one target for negative four yards, Kentucky when he didn’t allow a reception on two targets, Florida when he was targeted twice, allowed one reception for negative seven yards and picked off a pass, Arkansas when he was targeted once and didn’t allow a reception and Georgia when he was targeted twice and didn’t allow a reception. Games against Ole Miss, West Virginia and Oregon weren’t half bad either.

It seems like most of the criticism Mathieu gets as a player comes from Alabama fans. And that’s understandable. He wasn’t as good against the Crimson Tide. He allowed five receptions on five targets for 65 yards in their first matchup and three receptions on five targets for 54 yards in their second matchup. His worst game of the season came when he was matched up against Da’Rick Rogers in Tennessee. He allowed three receptions for 92 yards on five targets. That included receptions of 38 yards and 44 yards.

Mathieu lacks elite size and strength, but he’s physical at the line of scrimmage. His best trait, other than the fact that the ball seems to gravitate toward him, is his closing speed. Opposing running backs and wide receivers catching screens need to watch out. That’s how he allowed negative four yards to Mississippi and negative seven to Florida. Few players can break on a play like Mathieu, and his speed in short areas is hard to match.

Mathieu is also an exceptional special teams player. He returned 25 punts for 429 yards and two touchdowns.

In the combine, Mathieu ran an official 4.50 second 40-yard dash, though it was hand timed at 4.43. He had a 1.51 10-yard split, 6.87 3-cone and 4.14 short shuttle time. There were questions coming in if he was an elite athlete and he did all he could to prove those critics wrong.

Recently Mathieu said his toughest interview at the combine came from the Patriots. He said they repeatedly asked him about his marijuana addiction and why he wouldn’t change. I have been told there are scouts within the New England organization that love Mathieu’s game. Mathieu is set to visit New England before the draft.

He would be a nice fit in Foxboro. Mathieu may not be able to play outside in the NFL, but he can be among the best slot corners in the NFL. He could also project as a safety or primary special teamer. Mathieu’s likely to go in the second or third round, and he’ll be well worth the risk. Removing himself from the enabling lifestyle he had at LSU has already gone a long way. And if he joined the Patriots, he’d have veteran leaders like Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson to look up to, even with¬†Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard¬†around.

After all, how many supposed character issue players actually burn out of the NFL? For every JaMarcus Russell that fails, there are two Aldon Smith or Cam Newton-type players who stick around and succeed.

Photo via Facebook/LSU Football from B/R