The Honey Badger Problem
Is Tyrann Mathieu worthy of selection in April’s draft after a tumultuous career at LSU?
By AJ Young - February 19 2013
I started writing about Tyrann Mathieu as a part of the NFL Scouting Combine piece on the SEC West. In the first few lines I wrote “He’s probably the most polarising player in college football since Tim Tebow and I could easily spend a couple of thousand words on Mathieu’s draft stock alone”. By the time I reached the end of his analysis I had notched up over six hundred words, at which point I thought it was probably best to develop it a little more and dedicate an article to him alone. So here we are, Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU:
|Honey Badger by the numbers|
|Tackles For Loss||8.5||7.5|
|Passes Broken Up||7||9|
|Punt Return Average||-||14.4|
|Punts Returned for TDs||-||2|
Where do we begin? Tyrann Mathieu’s college career enjoyed a rise and fall that even Shakespeare would have struggled to write. At his peak, the player we came to know as the Honey Badger after his whacky hairstyle was a Heisman Trophy finalist who made play after play in LSU’s unbeaten run to the BCS National Championship.He recovered four fumbles of which two were returned for six and added two more touchdowns on punt returns. He forced six[!] fumbles, broke up nine passes, caught two interceptions and made 7.5 tackles for a loss. The Honey Badger was a human highlight reel that was the face of the 2011 season. He made big plays in big games, showing up in LSU’s bouts with Oregon, West Virginia, and Arkansas amongst several others. You could probably say his peak was earning MVP honours in the SEC Championship game as LSU went a perfect 13-0 and formerly earned the right to play in the BCS National Championship. He then went to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist but from then on, it was a downhill slope.
In the BCS National Championship against bitter rival Alabama, both LSU and Mathieu didn’t turn up. The Tigers were embarrassed 21-0 as AJ McCarron repeatedly picked on the 5-9, 179 lbs corner. That was the last time Mathieu played college football. He entered the off-season with questions hanging over his head about his coverage skills and his size but still projected as a top 40 pick heading into his junior year. Then news broke on August 10 that he’d been kicked off the team following repeated violations of team rules after he failed multiple drugs tests. He had been suspended during the season and missed the Auburn game after failing a drugs test but apparently this didn’t serve as a warning.
At this point, the best thing the Honey Badger could have done was to transfer to an FCS school as far away from Baton Rouge as possible. Due to NCAA rules, if a player transfers to a division one school, he must sit out a year before he is eligible to play again. However, if a player moves to a lower division school, there are no such restrictions so Mathieu would have been eligible to play during the 2012 season. He could have played in upstate Washington somewhere, put up stupid numbers against inferior opposition and rescued his draft stock enough to still be a second round pick. This is similar to what Janoris Jenkins did after he was kicked off Florida’s team for repeatedly failing drugs tests; he transferred to North Alabama, kept his head down and dominated the FCS ranks whilst proving to the St. Louis Rams that he was committed to football enough to be worthy of a second round pick. But Mathieu decided he’d simply sit out the year, enter the NFL Draft in a years’ time and enrol at LSU for another year. The result of this was Mathieu being arrested in October after he and three other former LSU players were found in possession of drugs.
So what do teams do? He’s a proven playmaker that was one of the best corners in the nation. He’s smaller than your average cornerback and can struggle in coverage at times but he’s extremely physical and doesn’t shy away from contact. He has a good vertical jump and minimizes his height deficiency with well-timed jumps whilst getting his hands between the ball and the receiver. He’s rumoured to run a low 4.5 forty and shows excellent speed in the open field during punt returns. He shows good ability to take down runners near the line of scrimmage, wrapping up the ball carrier with form tackles that can often result in forced fumbles. He is susceptible to the deep ball and can be overly aggressive on underneath routes; leaving the door open to double moves and pump fakes. Another season of game film would answer questions over the sustainability of his playmaking as well as questions regarding his coverage skills but unfortunately we don’t have such a luxury.
Off the field he’s battled drug addiction and run-ins with the law. He’s also shown a lack of commitment to football with a string of poor decisions since being kicked off the LSU team. He’s been tabbed as a seventh round pick due to his potential but will likely only be picked by a team with:
i) a tonne of draft picks, including a late rounder or two that they can afford to potentially burn;
ii) strong veteran leadership in the locker room who won’t tolerate players who don’t buy in;
iii) a proven head coach that’s capable of developing Mathieu, both on and off the field.
Looking at the few teams with more than the requisite 7 draft picks, only one team stands out. San Francisco has a draft high 11 picks, strong veteran leadership, a no nonsense head coach and depth issues at cornerback. Obviously you can’t account for teams that might take a flyer on him due to his potential, regardless of the number of picks they have overall, but there are only a handful of teams that have the environment that Mathieu needs to succeed.
The Combine will be Mathieu’s first step towards making an NFL roster. Let’s see if he’s up for the challenge.
is the editor of Down at the One.