On Wednesday, Bucky Brooks of NFL.com listed Pittsburgh as a potential landing spot for former Louisiana State defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. With Brooks’ article in mind, today I thought that I would discuss my thoughts on whether or not I believe that the “Honey Badger” would actually be a good fit with the Steelers.
Mathieu The On-Field Prospect
In terms of his on-field talent, Mathieu’s unique and talented skill-set could do wonders for a team in need of depth at free safety, an effective subpackage cornerback, and help in the return game like Pittsburgh.
As most of you know Ryan Clark is set to become a UFA after this season, and the team will need somebody to push Robert Golden at the free safety position if the veteran is not resigned. I for one believe Tyrann could be a solid “centerfielder” on the back-end, and his big-play ability would definitely help Pittsburgh’s turnover-starved defense. During his two-year collegiate career, Mathieu forced 11 fumbles, recovered 8 more, recorded 4 interceptions, and scored on 2 of those fumble returns!
While the Steelers do need a free safety, they could sure stand to use a play-making sub-package slot cornerback too. I am sure that I am not the only one who has a lack of faith in the combination of William Gay, Curtis Brown, and Josh Victorian. If he is utilized in a slot cornerback role, Mathieu has the potential to match up well against slot receivers with his speed (4.5, 40 time) and agility, and should have less trouble playing press-coverage in a confined space as well.
Besides his coverage ability in the slot, I for one like Mathieu’s toughness and willingness to mix it up in scrums near the line of scrimmage. Tyrann’s frame might be small (5’9″ 186 lbs. at Scouting Combine), but he illustrated that he was more than willing to play “in-the-box” and make plays against the run when the opportunities presented themselves. Mathieu racked up 133 tackles and 16.0 tackles for loss during his two-year stint with the Tigers, and showed a great knack for making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Unlike most defensive backs at the collegiate level, Mathieu showed the ability to be a very dangerous blitzer. “The Honey Badger” racked up 4.5 sacks during his freshman year in 2010, and another 1.5 during his Bednarik Award winning season of 2011! Due to his quickness, agility, and ability to disguise his intent to blitz, Mathieu has the tools to create more havoc in the opposing pocket in sub-package situations at the next level. Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake was one of the best at that craft during his playing days, and Lake could be the perfect person to help Tyrann hone this tremendously important skill.
On special teams, the “Honey Badger” also “took what he wanted” when it came to returning punts for the Bayou Bengals during his sophomore season too. On the year, Mathieu returned 27 punts for 421 yards and 2 touchdowns. With Chris Rainey out of town, and Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders needed more on the offensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh could definitely stand to use a competent punt returner to step up as soon as possible.
Of course, I am not completely sold on the 2011 Bednarik Award winner from an on-the-field standpoint though. While his overall frame does not bother me as much as it does other scouts, I believe that he will be at a significant disadvantage if he has to play in man-coverage against bigger (6’+ 200 lbs.+) pass-catchers outside the numbers. Alabama burned him in the National Championship Game two years ago, and he will be exploited ruthlessly if he is left “on an island” at the pro level by signal-callers who would love nothing more than to take advantage of a big matchup advantage. Despite his vertical jumping ability (34″), I definitely agree with Brooks in the respect that Tyrann could be picked on in red zone situations if he is positioned one-0n-one against tall wide receivers and tight ends who can easily outmuscle (only 4 reps of 225 lbs. in bench press) the smaller defensive back in jump-ball matchups.
Mathieu’s toughness against the run could also prove to be a “double-edged sword” as well from a durability standpoint. With bigger and faster players at the next level, Tyrann’s lack of size could put him at risk for an injury if he is required to play in the box often and he throws his body around with reckless abandon. Then again, I am less worried about Mathieu’s size than most are because Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are not what one would consider to be “large-bodied” safeties.
From what I have watched of the defensive back/punt returner, Mathieu was a Top-50 prospect in terms of his on-field performance during his days at L.S.U.. Furthermore, he is definitely a player who has the potential to instantly upgrade the Steelers’ defense and special teams units in very significant ways.
Mathieu The Off-Field Person & Whether or Not the Steelers Should Draft Him
While the former Tiger’s on-field questions could be cause for concern for some, his off-field life could be the reason his stock takes a dive on draft day. In a matter of months, Mathieu went from being one of college football’s most exciting defensive players to one of the sport’s cautionary tales. The former Bayou Bengal was dismissed from L.S.U.’s team due to failing drug tests for marijuana last August. Then in October, only weeks after he had left a rehab facility, Tyrann was arrested for marijuana possession.
Instead of returning to school (at L.S.U. or elsewhere) to better himself as a person and a player after his offseason of negativity, Tyrann elected to declare for the N.F.L. Draft. Since then, “The Honey Badger” has tried to let everybody know that he has cleaned up his act this offseason, and that wants his talent to overshadow his past behavior.
Look, I understand that everybody makes mistakes, and I am not a person who should be sitting in any sort of judgement of others. Hell, making mistakes are what part of growing up is. Yet the type of recidivist behavior Mathieu illustrated last year definitely raises “red-flags” about his self-control and maturity. And these “red-flags” lead me to pose an important question:
Is Pittsburgh’s fractured locker-room really an optimal setting for a player like Tyrann to learn to become a professional?
As much as it pains me to say it, at the moment the Steelers do not appear to be the “beacon of stability” that most have considered them to be over the last four decades. Remember readers, this locker room was divided last season according to some members of the team. Last year alone, players were calling out other players and referred to their play as “awful” (no matter how true that statement was), immature antics and penalties reigned supreme on the field, the quarterback had issues with the offensive coordinator, and some guys failed to show up for games.
Over the last two years alone, this franchise has already lost the likes of Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, and James Harrison. Furthermore, it is likely that veterans Casey Hampton and Max Starks are likely to be tendered this offseason, and guys like Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, and Ike Taylor could be leaving town as early as next Spring too.
Adding an immature guy like Mathieu to the team could be a disaster if no leaders emerge in Pittsburgh’s locker-room, and zero discipline is exercised by those around him if the “Honey Badger” continues to make poor life decisions. If the Steelers still had a stable and veteran-heavy locker-room, I would advocate for the franchise to take a chance on him in Round 3.
But the biggest reason why I believe that Colbert & Co. are unlikely to draft Mathieu is because they have an enormous amount of other needs to fill on “Draft Weekend.” Pittsburgh’s brass must fill holes at inside linebacker, outside linebacker, strong safety, wide receiver, and running back, and might elect to do so before they even elect to add a free safety or a cornerback.
Even with Tyrann’s issues, I personally do not see him lasting past the first five to ten picks in Round 4, and it would likely be a miracle if he lasted that long. I believe that some team with stability in its locker room, extra draft picks, or few needs like San Francisco, New England, or Baltimore is sure to roll the dice on Tyrann at some point. Plus, one can never count out franchises who have historically taken guys with “character issues” before like Cincinnati or Oakland either.
Ultimately, I feel that the Steelers have too many needs to address, and an environment largely not conducive to helping Mathieu stay on the “straight and narrow.” While the idea of him coming to Pittsburgh to help as a free safety/slot cornerback and in the return game is enticing, I just do not believe it will happen.
Readers: Should the Steelers draft the “Honey Badger?” If so, when? Or should they steer clear?
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