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Tyrann Mathieu is Arizona Cardinals' most valuable defender

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Is Tyrann Mathieu the most valuable defender in the NFL?

That's the question Arizona Cardinals officials must answer as they negotiate a long-term extension with the former third-round pick, who said recently he wants "to get paid as a top defender."

The All-Pro defensive back is entering the final year of his rookie contract -- and he's also, of course, coming off his second major knee injury in three NFL seasons.

As a former defensive back and scout, I'm curious to see how the Cardinals approximate the value of a defender on the verge of revolutionizing the hybrid defensive back position. Although I've been conditioned to view pass rushers and cover corners as the most valuable pieces of a championship-caliber defense, the safety position has become a critical spot on elite units, due to the need to control the middle of the field. As more offenses lean on electric wide receivers and ultra-athletic tight ends to fuel pass-centric attacks, the presence of an explosive safety with corner-like cover skills is a game changer in today's NFL. And Mathieu is emerging as the prototypical hybrid defender NFL executives and coaches desire between the hashes.

Given some time to assess Mathieu's game and impact potential, I've come up with the following thoughts on how the Cardinals should value their most versatile defender:

1) What's the book on Tyrann Mathieu?

The fourth-year pro quickly has developed into the quintessential hybrid defensive back (cornerback/safety). Despite being listed as a free safety on the Cardinals' depth chart, Mathieu plays as many as seven different positions in the team's base defense and sub-packages on game days. He aligns in the deep middle as a center fielder-type safety in the base D, but he'll drop down into the box to play as a quasi-linebacker when the team jumps into an eight-man front to stop the run on early downs. Mathieu also aligns as the team's nickel corner, which requires him to line up in the slot or outside based on the way the Cardinals set up their matchups in man or zone coverage.

Considering the Cardinals' creative game plans and exotic schemes, Mathieu has become the ultimate chess piece for coordinator James Bettcher's defense. The Pro Bowl safety has shown exceptional instincts and playmaking skills as a Swiss Army knife on the second level. In 2015, Mathieu tallied 89 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble as the Cardinals' designated playmaker in the back end. Most impressively, he snagged five interceptions and registered 17 passes defensed in 14 games on the way to earning serious consideration for the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year award.

Having studied the All-22 Coaches Film, I'm not only impressed with Mathieu's athleticism, versatility and physicality. He is also an active "plus-one" defender in the box, which makes him a disruptive presence against the run. Mathieu displays the toughness and courage to attack runners in the hole, but he also flashes the speed and quickness to run ball carriers down from the back side when he walks up near the line of scrimmage on run dogs (run blitzes).

In coverage, Mathieu is a natural ballhawk with exceptional instincts, awareness and anticipation. He combines pattern-reading skills (that is, his ability to diagnose the route concept by reading a designated receiver on the perimeter) with a fearless attitude that enables him to jump routes based on his educated guesses. As a result, he has a knack for getting his hands on the ball when he plays "off" coverage from the slot.

Consider the play in the video below, from the Cardinals' Week 15 matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, in which Mathieu perfectly reads the route combination and undercuts the outside receiver at the break point to snag an interception. At the snap, Mathieu recognizes the trips set. He keys the route by the WR2 to determine whether to expand to the numbers or sit in the hook/curl area in the Cardinals' Cover 3-Buzz coverage (three deep, four under, with the strong safety positioned in the hook zone). With the quarterback instructed to throw the ball well before the receiver comes out of his break, Mathieu's superb recognition skills produce a critical turnover. Yes, Mathieu unfortunately tore his ACL on this play, but not before demonstrating his proficiency in reading the offense:

After watching Mathieu repeatedly deliver splash plays throughout his tenure at LSU, scouts certainly expected the 5-foot-9, 186-pound playmaker would make these kinds of plays as a pro. A Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011, Mathieu left LSU with 14 turnovers created (eight fumble recoveries, four interceptions and two forced fumbles recovered by a teammate) and scored four touchdowns (two punt returns and two fumble returns) in 26 career games. Mathieu terrorized opponents with his suffocating skills as a cover corner and his knack for creating turnovers. Although he was a little undisciplined with his eyes and technique in man coverage, he was such an exceptional playmaker in space that it was easy to envision him thriving as a hybrid defender in a creative scheme.

Of course, Mathieu's evaluation as a pro was clouded by character concerns, as he was dismissed from LSU in August 2012 due to a series of issues stemming from marijuana usage. Thus, teams were reluctant to expend a top pick on Mathieu, despite his impressive skills and potential impact. The Cardinals, however, pulled the trigger in the third round and immediately plugged him into the lineup as a slot cornerback. Mathieu not only shined in his role as a dynamic nickel cornerback, but he flashed impressive playmaking skills as a versatile defender in former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' defense prior to the ACL injury that interrupted his rookie campaign.

Given more responsibilities and an expanded role on his return, Mathieu has become one of the NFL's biggest game changers on the defensive side of the ball.

2) How does he impact the Cardinals' defense?

In a league where playmakers are coveted at a premium, Mathieu gives the Cardinals an electric defender to feature in an exotic blitz scheme that uses a variety of nickel and sub-personnel packages. Arizona blitzed on about 46 percent of its defensive snaps since Mathieu's arrival. Given that the Cardinals have lacked a premier sack artist (at least, until the trade for Chandler Jones this offseason), the pressure has been squarely on the secondary to hold up in coverage and give the pass rush enough time to disrupt the timing of the passing game.

While Patrick Peterson certainly deserves a ton of credit for his dominance as the Cardinals' CB1, it has been Mathieu's versatility as a hybrid safety that has allowed Bettcher to attack the offense from every angle, helping the unit join the ranks of the elite. Consider how the Cardinals fared in 2015 with and without Mathieu:

With Tyrann Mathieu: 12-2 record with per-game marks of 19.2 points allowed, 329.6 yards allowed, 86.7 rushing yards allowed, 242.9 passing yards allowed, 2.1 takeaways and a 34.8 percent third-down conversion rate.

Without Tyrann Mathieu: 2-2 record (including two playoff games) with per-game marks of 28.2 points allowed, 348.5 yards allowed, 133.3 rushing yards allowed, 215.3 passing yards allowed, 1.5 takeaways and a 45.9 percent third-down conversion rate.

Mathieu obviously has a significant impact. The huge disparities in points allowed, third-down percentage and rush defense jump off the page. Those are not only the categories that most NFL defensive coordinators harp on in every meeting, but they are the areas defenses must succeed in to play at a championship level. Thus, it is easy to see how Mathieu's presence greatly improves the performance of the unit and pushes the Cardinals into title contention.

Mathieu doesn't get enough credit for his ability to create splash plays as an edge player on blitzes from his nickel corner or safety position. The tape demonstrates that he frequently attacks running backs in the backfield on safety dogs off the edge. Mathieu displays impeccable timing on blitzes, but he also shows outstanding anticipation, awareness and tackling skills corralling ball carriers in the backfield. This skill is underrated in evaluations of defensive backs, but Mathieu earns rave reviews for his work as a "plus-one" defender in the box.

Consider the video clip below, from the Cardinals' Week 14 game against the Minnesota Vikings last season. Notice how quickly Mathieu tracks down Adrian Peterson on the "knife" blitz off the edge. Although he is unblocked off the edge, the angle, acceleration and tackling technique are straight from a coach's textbook:

Mathieu's extraordinary coverage skills allow the Cardinals to deploy him in a number of ways on the perimeter. He can lock up slot receivers when opponents trot out "11" personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers) against the base defense, or he can shadow tight ends when opponents align them out wide in spread sets. Mathieu's athleticism and versatility provide Bettcher with a hybrid defender who can snuff out the ultra-athletic tight ends taking the NFL by storm.

In the play below, from the Cards' game against the Rams in Week 4 last season, Mathieu is aligned on the outside in a one-on-one matchup against Jared Cook. He utilizes press technique to disrupt Cook's release at the line and jumps into his hip pocket to discourage the back-shoulder throw. With Mathieu maintaining perfect position throughout the route, he is able to bat the ball away from the big-bodied tight end on the fade:

It is that kind of versatility that makes Mathieu a valuable commodity to a defense that prefers to leave its defensive backs in one-on-one coverage in critical situations.

3) Why would the Cards have reservations about paying Mathieu?

Despite Mathieu's strong résumé, I believe the Cardinals should pause a bit before writing a big check. After all, he has suffered a pair of ACL tears since his arrival in the NFL, and hasn't completed a full season as a pro, having missed eight regular-season games in three years. He might also miss the beginning of the 2016 campaign while recovering from his latest knee injury. Considering his injury history and durability concerns, the Cardinals must proceed with caution when crafting a deal that could make Mathieu one of the top-paid defenders in the NFL.

The Cardinals also must determine Mathieu's "true" position to put together a deal that's on par with the league's top secondary players. Although Mathieu is listed as a safety, his role as a hybrid frequently requires him to match up with WR2s and/or TE1s on the perimeter. The difference in money is significant enough (in 2016, the franchise tag was set at $13.95 million for cornerbacks and $10.8 million for safeties) to create a contentious debate in the negotiation room. Given the big-money deal recently inked by cornerback Josh Norman in Washington ($75 million over five years, with $50 million in guarantees), I'm sure Mathieu's representatives are pushing for cornerback money, based on his production as a slot corner/hybrid defender.

The Cardinals, however, would certainly prefer to classify Mathieu as a safety, due to his play as a middle-of-the-field defender (center fielder, box defender and slot corner). This would allow them to work off the deal Earl Thomas signed in Seattle in 2014 ($40 million over four years, with $27.725 million in guarantees) and save a couple of coins to use on other players down the line. While Mathieu's role in the Cardinals' scheme is certainly more expansive, it is hard to justify paying him significantly more than the standard bearer at the position, given his injury history.

This negotiation will require some give and take. But in the end, Arizona likely will reward Mathieu with a pact that places him at the top of the list when it comes to big earners in the NFL. With a number of hybrids coming down the pike, the football world is patiently waiting to see how the Cardinals reward their most valuable defender.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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