INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 26: Tyrann Mathieu of Louisiana State University works out during the 2013 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 26, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, a.k.a. the “Honey Badger,” is perhaps the most controversial player in this entire draft class. The do-it-all defender was dismissed from the team early in the 2012 season after failing multiple drug tests.
Before getting into any of Mathieu’s off-field concerns, let’s just discuss the traits we can quantify. He’s 5-9, 186 pounds. That sort of size is tolerable if a guy has game-breaking speed, but Mathieu does not. He ran an official 4.50 at the 2013 Scouting Combine; that’s hardly a horrible time, but it’s a really poor time for someone who has the exact same measurements as me. Mathieu’s 34-inch vertical and 9-9 broad jump confirm that he’s not a highly-explosive athlete.
But Mathieu is a play-maker, right? That’s the consensus, but let’s not forget that this is a player who totaled just four career interceptions in two seasons. He forced 11 fumbles and recovered six, but fumbles have proven again and again to be an extremely volatile occurrence. It’s not that Mathieu isn’t good at stripping the ball away—he probably is—but fumbles are still a low-frequency event, meaning much of Mathieu’s success forcing fumbles was undoubtedly due to luck. And even if it were entirely skill, is that really a trait that’s worthy of an early-round selection?
In my view, Mathieu’s biggest positive is that he can give you something as a return man. You can stick him on both punt and kick returns and not worry about that spot, knowing you have a potential game-breaker back deep.
From a defensive standpoint, the problem is that Mathieu will simply never be able to play outside. Most teams will envision him as a nickel cornerback, and I think he can play there, but I’d actually give him consideration at safety. The game has evolved to the point that cornerbacks need to be big, physical players, while many defenses covet smaller play-making safeties. Mathieu can be that, assuming he adds some strength.
Still, just look at what Mathieu offers; forget the name and even forget the off-field issues for a second. He’s a 5-9 slot defender, and potential safety (but we don’t know), who offers return ability but has moderate or even slightly below-average long speed. Where does that player deserve to get drafted? The fourth round? Now throw in the fact that he got caught with drug paraphernalia after he was suspended from the team for failed drug tests.
NFL Comparison: Jim Leonhard
There are a handful of smaller cornerbacks who have showed they can succeed in the NFL (Pacman Jones, Antoine Winfield), but those players are typically speedsters, or at least in the low 4.4s. I think Mathieu is more like Jim Leonhard—an undersized safety with limited explosiveness. Mathieu is admittedly faster and more versatile than Leonhard, but the two have similar measurables outside of the 40-yard dash.
Some team will over-draft Mathieu, probably in the middle rounds. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team gamble on Mathieu in the third, but I think his off-field concerns will keep him out of the second round.
Fit In Dallas
Mathieu probably won’t even be on the Cowboys’ board. I don’t think anyone should be taken off of a board unless you wouldn’t draft them in the seventh round. I’m more concerned with Mathieu’s size and moderate speed than his off-field issues, but I’d still gamble on him in the late rounds because of his return ability.
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Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.