BATON ROUGE, La. -- Tyrann Mathieu was considered one of the top defenders in college football until a series of off-the-field incidents prematurely ended his career at LSU. Mathieu's character concerns dominated the discussion about him in the ensuing months, but then he turned plenty of heads with a better-than-anticipated performance at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Mathieu must still address his issues with marijuana, of course, as well as the series of failed drug tests that reportedly led to his dismissal. As scouts take a closer look at his 2011 game tape, though, buzz has begun to build about his pro potential. Given an opportunity to study more coaches film and watch him work out, I decided to write a comprehensive report on Mathieu's game. Here are my findings:
NFL cornerbacks must possess outstanding speed, quickness and movement skills. Elite prospects must be able to react and recover quickly in the middle of routes to maintain proper leverage on receivers. When I watched Mathieu work out at the combine, I saw a fluid athlete with exceptional quickness and change-of-direction ability. Mathieu easily executed turns and transitions in drills while displaying excellent balance and body control. Additionally, Mathieu showed better-than-anticipated explosiveness, posting solid times in the three-cone (6.87 seconds) and pro agility shuttle (4.14 seconds).
After a thorough tape study of Mathieu, I believe the former Heisman Trophy finalist is a talented athlete with outstanding movement skills. He makes tight turns and transitions in coverage while displaying nifty change-of-direction ability with the ball in his hands as a returner. Mathieu's combination of movement skills and burst makes him an outstanding defensive prospect.
The most crucial trait of an NFL cornerback is the ability to stay with receivers down the field. Top cornerbacks are able to suffocate wideouts in man coverage without assistance from safeties or linebackers. In zone coverage, elite corners display outstanding awareness, route recognition and eye discipline. When I study the 2011 coaches footage of Mathieu, I see a talented playmaker with an unpolished game.
Mathieu is a tenacious bump-and-run defender with an aggressive demeanor that frustrates receivers at the line. He's at his best when shadowing wideouts with quickness, but he's also shown he can attack receivers with forceful jams. Mathieu maintains hip-pocket position throughout the play and displays an explosive closing burst to finish. When he struggles in coverage, it is due to an occasional lack of eye discipline. He will lose his man when he peeks inside to the quarterback. Now, this certainly is not a deal-breaker, but it is something he will need to work on as a pro. He must play with better eye discipline to maintain proper position on elite receivers. Another concern: his inferior physical dimensions. At 5-foot-8 3/4 and 186 pounds, he will concede several inches and pounds to the big-bodied receivers dominating the NFL, against whom he must somehow find a way to win 50-50 balls. Fortunately, his 34-inch vertical leap will give him a chance to do just that. Still, due to his size, Mathieu could have issues holding his own in red-zone matchups.
In zone coverage, Mathieu has outstanding instincts, awareness and route recognition. He plays with vision on the quarterback and does a good job anticipating throws in his area. Mathieu reacts extremely well once the ball is thrown, and his ability to close and tackle prevents receivers from picking up significant yardage after the catch. In addition, Mathieu's exceptional instincts put him in position to make plays on the ball on tips or overthrows. Given the importance coaches place on getting hands on the ball, Mathieu's natural ball skills could make him a special player in the right system.
Young cornerbacks are counted on to play multiple roles in the secondary until they can work their way into the starting lineup. Mathieu is a versatile defender with the capacity to play cornerback, nickelback and safety in a diverse scheme. LSU capitalized on his versatility by using him as a designated playmaker in the back end. Mathieu would routinely line up in the slot to blitz off the edge on early downs, shifting to safety to act as a deep-middle playmaker in some passing situations. If the opponent featured a pair of dynamic receivers on the perimeter, Mathieu would spend the majority of the game aligned at corner to take away the outside portion of the field. With Mathieu serving as a Swiss army knife in the secondary, the Tigers' defense had an effective counter to every offensive tactic.
Mathieu also served as LSU's primary punt returner in 2011, averaging 15.6 yards per return with two scores. Most importantly, Mathieu displayed a penchant for making big plays with the ball in his hands. From a spectacular 92-yard touchdown against Arkansas to a dazzling 62-yard score in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia, Mathieu notched many a game-changing return.
NFL teams covet players who can fill multiple roles. Mathieu's versatility as a cornerback and return man will make him a valuable prospect in the minds of coaches across the league.
Part of the challenge of evaluating prospects is determining their ability to thrive in pressure situations. The growing parity in the NFL makes every game a fourth-quarter affair that is typically decided in the final minutes. To show that they can excel in such scenarios, players must display courage, confidence and composure throughout their collegiate careers.
When I studied Mathieu on tape, I was most impressed with his playmaking skills. He has a knack for delivering game-changing plays at crucial moments, and coaches love guys with those capabilities. Poring over Mathieu's impressive college résumé, I noticed he created 14 turnovers (eight fumble recoveries, four interceptions and two forced fumbles) and scored four touchdowns (two punt returns and two fumble returns) in 26 career games. Not only are those numbers impressive, they indicate a natural playmaker with outstanding ball skills. Both punt-return scores really turned the tide in pivotal games. This remarkable ability to make a play when his team needs it most cannot be overlooked.
Mathieu is one of the most intriguing prospects in the 2013 NFL Draft. He is an exceptional playmaker capable of making an impact as a defender and returner. However, character concerns and his diminutive stature will make it hard for a team to consider taking him at the top of the draft. I believe Mathieu is a second-round talent with the potential to develop into a Ronde Barber-like playmaker in the secondary. Additionally, he is a dynamic returner with Pro Bowl-caliber skills. If he can avoid trouble off the field, Mathieu could be a difference maker for an NFL team as a hybrid defender and returner.
Potential NFL fits
Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin Lewis has built Cincy into a perennial playoff contender. Part of this success can be attributed to taking clever gambles on troubled prospects in the draft, from Rey Maualuga to Carlos Dunlap to Vontaze Burfict. The Bengals have been able to get key production from these high-risk players by putting them in a structured environment among veteran leaders. Additionally, Cincinnati has a respected coaching staff adept at dealing with eccentric personalities. With Mathieu offering big-play potential as a defender/returner, the Bengals might be inclined to take another gamble on a player who could help put them over the top in the AFC North.
Washington Redskins: The Redskins are in desperate need of playmakers in the back end after parting ways with DeAngelo Hall and Cedric Griffin in the offseason. Mathieu is an ideal nickel corner candidate who could also fill the team's need at punt returner. Although the Redskins have shied away from character risks in the Mike Shanahan era, the presence of defensive backs coach Raheem Morris could persuade Washington to take a gamble on Mathieu. Morris is an exceptional position coach with a knack for developing young talent. Most importantly, he has experience working with troubled players, which is a critical asset in this case. If Morris and Mathieu can develop a strong rapport during the pre-draft process, it wouldn't shock me to see the "Honey Badger" thriving in D.C.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers typically prefer bigger cornerbacks, but Mathieu could be an intriguing option due to his versatility as a defender. He has the capacity to cover outside as a corner or blitz off the edges from the slot. In coordinator Dick LeBeau's aggressive zone-blitz scheme, versatile players like Mathieu are valued at a premium. Additionally, Mathieu's ability to provide an impact as a punt returner could allow Antonio Brown to concentrate on developing into a true No. 1 receiver. Factoring in Mike Tomlin's tough-love approach with his players, a marriage between Mathieu and Pittsburgh seems like it might be a viable option on draft day.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.