Tyrann Mathieu's storybook run in Arizona, rising from a much-debated draft pick to a franchise cornerstone, has reached a fork in the road.
Mathieu told NFL.com that he and his agent spoke with the Cardinals on Thursday and the team asked him to take a pay cut. It was the first time the two sides spoke this offseason, coming more than a week after general manager Steve Keim was first publicly vague about Mathieu's future with the team. The Cardinals have until March 14 to pick up an option in Mathieu's contract that guarantees him $19 million over the next two seasons.
While Mathieu said he was cool with whatever happened next because it was out of his control, he couldn't help but wonder how things could have gone different this offseason.
Mathieu was remarkably relaxed, laughing off a suggestion that this was a particularly tricky day to make the media rounds. He also said he respected everything the Cardinals have done for him and the decisions that they have to make, holding out hope that he could continue playing next to his buddy Patrick Peterson. But it didn't sound like taking a significant pay cut was in the plans.
"There's many ways you could restructure a contract instead of just taking money out of my pocket," Mathieu said. "Taking money out of my pocket, I don't like how that feels."
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that it would be a "large" pay cut based on his expected role in new coach Steve Wilks' defense. Wilks comes from Carolina, where the team did not traditionally pay safeties big dollars or use them in the same dynamic ways that Mathieu has excelled in Arizona. He may no longer fit in their scheme.
Mathieu sounded excited about his future in large part because of how well he played late last season. He said his confidence and energy was all the way back after the team's bye week and it showed on the field. When news broke that the Honey Badger could be moving elsewhere this offseason, players from around the league reached out to him like Saints receiver Michael Thomas and a host of thirsty Saints fans on social media. (Mathieu has kept a close connection to his NOLA home and has a celebrity charity kickball event and a free youth skills event later this month in New Orleans.)
With former Cardinals defensive coordinators James Bettcher and Todd Bowles both coaching in New York, Mathieu would not be lacking for suitors if he is released into free agency.
I suggested that he might wind up making more money on the open market if released than he would have with the Cardinals on his current contract.
"My agent thinks so too," Mathieu said with a smile.