Why Mathieu is on the list
Consider that a compliment from Arians, recalling the sensational first-year campaign Honey Badger produced in 2013, before a torn ACL deep-sixed his bid for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He returned to play in 13 games last season, but a cumbersome knee brace and a broken thumb left Arians to argue that Mathieu "was playing with one arm and one leg" and "playing not to lose."
Finally healthy this spring, though, Mathieu was "flying around" in practice and "always in the right place at the right time," according to defensive end Calais Campbell. Those on-field instincts are what set him apart as a rookie when he split snaps at safety and slot corner -- the dual role we expect Mathieu to play come September.
Honey Badger's first-year game film is proof of how valued he is by this coaching staff, as the third-rounder emerged as a versatile defensive back with a sixth sense for the ball that can't be taught. It's plays like this that helped Mathieu finish as the league's third-best player at his position in 2013, per Pro Football Focus:
Mathieu's 4.50 wheels, sharp coverage and pass-rushing skills propelled Arizona to put plenty on his plate right away, prompting one Cardinals assistant to say that Mathieu would "change the team." While his 5-foot-9, 186-pound frame limits some of what he can do against bigger targets, Mathieu's closing speed and sticky hands make him a candidate to double his three career picks in 2015:
If his knee holds up, Mathieu has already proven how disruptive and dynamic he can be as one of the NFC's most watchable defensive players. Seen as a risk by teams after substance-abuse issues derailed his college career, Honey Badger, by all accounts, has overcome those troubles as a pro.
What we haven't seen is Mathieu play a full season. The knee injury along with additional setbacks have kept him from operating at peak condition. Finally "running and cutting much better," per Mike Jurecki of Fox Sports 910, Mathieu is on target to open the season in the best shape of his NFL career.
Schematically, the Cardinals weren't helped by the departure of talented defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who left to lead the Jets. New play-caller James Bettcher, though, has earned high praise from Arians as a coach who -- like Bowles -- game plans around the strengths of his roster. In other words, we'll still see Mathieu used creatively as a ball-hawking mismatch in the secondary.
With Arizona expected to play nickel and dime sets nearly 70 percent of the time, Mathieu is penciled in for a major role. On paper, there aren't many negatives weighing down Honey Badger's chances for a major bounce-back campaign.
We've never seen a "Making the Leap" candidate win Comeback Player of the Year honors, but Mathieu has a legitimate shot.
"He looks leaner and to me looks every bit as good as he did prior to the injury in terms of movement skills, explosiveness, making plays on the ball," said general manager Steve Keim.