Draft Profile: CB – Tyrann Mathieu
Despite his off the field issues, Tyrann Mathieu is a player the 49ers can take a chance on. With 14 picks, the 49ers can gamble on a player like Mathieu.
Tyrann Mathieu out of LSU is an interesting prospect. He has some off the field issues, but on the field he is a very good player. Mathieu isn’t slated to go in the first couple rounds and with at least 14 picks in this draft, the 49ers can take a chance on a player like Mathieu.
A New Orleans native, Mathieu arrived at LSU as the No. 13-ranked cornerback prospect in the nation by Rivals.com. In two seasons on the field, Mathieu was a fan favorite with a penchant for big plays in critical situations before off-field issues derailed his college career.
He made an immediate impact as a freshman in 2010, earning the backup job to Patrick Peterson in fall practices and playing in all 13 games, including one start at left cornerback. He led the SEC with five forced fumbles – the first glimpse at Mathieu’s big-play flair. Despite his 5-foot-9 frame, Mathieu had a team-high seven pass break-ups as a freshman to go along with 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and a pair of interceptions.
Mathieu closed out his first season in Baton Rouge by earning the Cotton Bowl Defensive Most Outstanding Player award by recording seven tackles, one tackle for loss, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception, one sack and one pass breakup.
Nicknamed “Honey Badger,” Mathieu burst onto the national scene in 2011. He led the team with 70 tackles, forced an SEC-best six fumbles and recovered five.
Mathieu’s big-play ability was also evident on punt returns, as he ranked second in the nation with a 16.2-yard return. He was named the SEC Championship Game MVP against Georgia after he returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown, posted four solo tackles and recovered a fumble.
Mathieu earned a trip to New York as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, becoming the first Tiger to earn an invitation to the ceremony since Charles Alexander in 1977. He also won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defender as year after Peterson won the honor.
Poised to build on that success in 2012, Mathieu was abruptly dismissed from the LSU program Aug. 10 for violating team policy – reportedly for multiple failed drug tests.
Positives: Plays bigger than his size. Doesn’t back from the physical challenge of lining up opposite taller wideouts and is actually more effective the closer he is to the line of scrimmage, demonstrating stellar instincts and awareness to avoid blocks and make plays in close quarters. Possesses excellent lateral agility and acceleration which gives him the ability to close quickly on the ball. Is a tenacious defender with strong, active hands to rip the ball away. Excellent ball skills. Minimizes his natural height disadvantage by timing his leap well in jump-ball situations and competing throughout the catch process, ripping away at the ball as he and the intended receiver are descending. Naturally plucks the ball out of the air and secures it quickly. Tracks the ball well over his shoulder. Quick feet, fluid hips and a legitimate second gear make him very effective in coverage, especially on shorter routes. Dynamic returner with a flair for the dramatic. Has demonstrated the ability to play well on the big stage against elite competition.
Negatives: Lacks ideal height for the position and is quicker than he is fast, making him susceptible on longer throws. Highly aggressive and will bite on underneath routes. Possesses the suddenness to make up for a miss-step but does not have the elite straight-line speed to recover against a well-executed double-move and accurate pass. Trusts his instincts too much and can put his teammates in difficult positions by drifting to where he anticipates the quarterback will be going with the football. As such, cerebral NFL quarterbacks will be able to manipulate him with their eyes and potentially beat him over the top with accurate deep passes. Has a well-documented history of poor decisions off the field that could result in even more struggles given the money and notoriety he’ll receive as an NFL player.
Compares To: Antoine Winfield, CB, Minnesota Vikings — Like the 5-09, 180 pound Winfield, Mathieu has Pro Bowl potential due to his tenacity, instincts and physicality.
Mathieu (like “Matthew”) earned the nickname “Honey Badger” during his time at LSU because his small stature and tenacious attitude are similar to the African animal carrying that name. That feisty attitude made Tyrann (Ty-run) one of the biggest playmakers in college football on defense. For his efforts, he garnered the 2011 Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defender, first-team All-SEC notice from league coaches and media, consensus All-American honors, and became the rare defender who became a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
He was dismissed from the Tigers in August 2012 for multiple violations of team rules, however, and is now working through treatment for substance abuse in Houston while being mentored by former NBA player and drug rehab guru John Lucas. He did not play football in the 2012 season.
The New Orleans area native grew up living with his grandparents and then his aunt and uncle (who adopted him), as his mother was often absent and his father has been in jail throughout most of Mathieu’s life for robbery and then murder. His family was also uprooted due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Despite that rough beginning, he excelled enough in high school to get a scholarship offer from LSU, who overlooked his lack of size -– unlike many other regretful major programs.
Mathieu began showing his playmaking skills as a true freshman. He played in every game but only started one due to the team’s talent at that position (he played behind eventual top ten picks Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson), yet still ranked fourth on the team with 57 tackles (7.5 for loss) and intercepted two passes while breaking up seven more. He also ranked fifth in the nation with five forced fumbles and garnered the Cotton Bowl Most Outstanding Player for his work (INT, sack, two forced fumbles) in the win over Texas A&M.
The first thing NFL scouts see when they look at Mathieu is his size, or lack thereof. Sometimes physical attributes must be overlooked for players who can make something happen on defense while also turning the tide on special teams (fourth in the nation with 16.2 yards per punt returns in 2011, one of two scores coming in the SEC Championship Game). The issue for Mathieu is how much teams will be willing to believe his off the field troubles are in the past.
Strengths: Fiesty turnover machine who lines up outside, in the slot and at safety when needed. Instinctual player with very good read-and-react ability, always seems to work his way into position to make a play on the ball. Does whatever it takes to make a stop, fights through blocks using hands and quickness, goes low or high and doesn’t let up after initial contact. Brings enough force despite his size to get ballcarriers off balance with a glancing blow. Constantly rips at the ball while making a tackle or when others have secured the stop. Fights for jump balls with taller receivers downfield. Regularly used as a blitzer due to his feel, quickness and tenacity. Very good vision and short-area quickness as a punt returner, can make the first man miss and cut back effectively against the grain. Will go outside if the space is there but also slalom through traffic up the field when necessary. Also has balance and strength to get through arm tackles. Will also be a strong tackler on coverage units if required.
Weaknesses: Mathieu’s issues with substance abuse will be the primary focus of NFL teams whenever he decides to pursue a career in professional football. Possesses below-average size for the position. Usually brings down ballcarriers of any size, NFL veterans might prove a bigger challenge. Quicker than fast, though his effort often masks average straight-line speed for his size. Must prove his ability to stay with larger receivers and tight end in man coverage, as they use their length advantage to separate and frame to shield him from the ball. Will take chances as a punt returner, grabbing the ball on a bounce or inside the 5-yard line.
NFL Comparison: Cortland Finnegan
Bottom Line: The 2011 Bednarik Award winner as the nation’s top defender was dismissed from LSU for multiple violations of team rules. Subsequently, he decided to enter a drug rehab center and ultimately ended up declaring for the draft instead of transferring. When on the field, the undersized but ultracompetitive turnover machine (six forced fumbles, two interceptions in 2011) brings the physicality of a bigger player in his tackles, no matter where he plays. Mathieu is also a game-changer as a punt returner, ranking fourth in the country last year with 16.2 yards per attempt and scoring two touchdowns.