"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: Tyrann Mathieu
Experience: 4th NFL season
Contract status: 2016-$1,737,250
2015 season in review: Mathieu was off-the-charts in terms of production in 2015 as the LSU product enjoyed his best NFL season until a sudden ACL injury cut his year short. The injury marked the second time in his three-year NFL career Mathieu suffered an ACL tear, and it limited the Cardinals' defensive flexibility heading into the playoffs. Prior to Mathieu's injury, he played about two thirds of his repetitions as a cornerback, despite being listed as a safety, and helped shut down slot receivers on a consistent basis. Mathieu racked up 89 tackles in 2015, but perhaps more impressively, recorded 17 pass breakups and hauled in five interceptions including a pick-six against the San Francisco 49ers. Despite standing just 5-foot-9, Mathieu is a physical tackler from the defensive backfield and has no problem moving up into the box and stopping the run.
Projected roster status: There's no doubt Mathieu has developed into one of the Cardinals' superstars and most recognizable faces, so his roster spot is secure. What's perhaps most remarkable about Mathieu's current status is the turnaround he's made in his personal life after missing a full season of football at LSU due to drug-related issues stemming from marijuana usage. Heading into the 2013 draft, Mathieu's NFL future was anything but certain, and just four seasons later, he's one of the Cardinals' most dependable playmakers who has completely rebuilt his image.
Projected depth chart status: Mathieu is listed as the starting free safety on Arizona's depth chart, but his role goes far beyond that of a traditional safety. Over the first three seasons of his career, Mathieu has actually been used predominantly as a cornerback as the Cardinals have taken advantage of Mathieu's man coverage skills. This season, however, Mathieu could see more time at the safety position because the team lost veteran starter Rashad Johnson and free agent acquisition Tyvon Branch also possesses cover skills to match up with slot receivers. In keeping Mathieu at safety, though, it means he's further away from the line of scrimmage where he's been able to jam receivers off the ball as well as stop running backs in their tracks. Mathieu's versatility gives the Cardinals plenty of options as to how they choose to deploy him, but regardless, once he returns to full health, Mathieu won't come off the field too often.
Position group analysis: After signing Mike Jenkins on Tuesday morning, the Cardinals have now added a pair of veterans in Jenkins and Branch who can line up against slot receivers. Whether the signing of Jenkins is a response to the Cardinals' inexperience at corner or Mathieu's progress in recovering from an ACL tear is uncertain, but Arizona now has a handful of players on its roster with experience playing nickel corner. While Branch's roster spot appears secure, Jenkins may find himself in a position similar to safety Chris Clemons as a veteran who must battle and prove himself in camp in order to make the team. Ultimately, it's going to be difficult for the players within the defensive backfield to know their roles until Mathieu is healthy, because his ability to step in and play at a number of defensive positions allows Arizona to craft its scheme around his skills.
Moving forward: At this point in Mathieu's career, he's established himself as one of the game's best defensive players when he's on the field. The key is "on the field," because the Cardinals' X-factor has torn each of his ACLs in his first three seasons and missed games due to injury each year he's been in the league. The Cardinals have likely developed a long term plan for the organization that includes keeping Mathieu around, but there are going to be major hurdles to overcome to keep the union a happy one beyond the 2016 season. For starters, the Cardinals designate Mathieu as a safety, but he plays the majority of his reps as a cornerback. While the top eight cornerbacks in the NFL (including Patrick Peterson) will make upward of $11 million this season, New Orleans Saints safety Jairus Byrd will be the highest-paid safety in the league this year and will make just under $11 million. Mathieu has reportedly expressed interest in receiving a contract fit for a cornerback, while the Cardinals are probably more inclined to pay him as a safety. The leverage the Cardinals have in this situation is that Mathieu has expressed interest in getting a deal done before this season, but has yet to play a full season because of injuries. With that in mind, it's hard to imagine the Cardinals would give Mathieu a better contract than they offered Peterson, but it's also hard to see why Mathieu would accept anything less than becoming the highest-paid safety in the NFL considering he plays most of his repetitions at cornerback. If the two sides do come to an agreement before the season, the details and specifics of the deal are going to be something every NFL player who plays multiple positions looks at when they negotiate new contracts.
Key skill: Versatility
It practically goes without saying that Mathieu's greatest asset as a football player is his ability to line up in any position and have success. To put Mathieu's versatility into perspective, we've pulled up three pre-snap shots from the first quarter of the Cardinals' week 12 contest with the 49ers a season ago.
Within one quarter, Mathieu aligns in various spots around the field, and unlike many free safeties, Mathieu almost never aligns in the traditional "center field" spot so many ball hawking players love to play.
In the image below, we see the 49ers set up with a stacked receiver set, and the Cardinals counter that by putting Peterson and Mathieu on the same side of the field as one another. In this scenario, Mathieu is lined up about six to seven yards off the ball, and is responsible for the player Peterson is not jamming.
In the next image, we see the 49ers run an offset-I formation with twins to the open side of the field. Instead of aligning as a slot corner or as a safety shaded toward the receivers, Mathieu steps down into the box and acts as an extra linebacker. Throughout this game, the Cardinals were confident in their man coverage and often brought extra players toward the line of scrimmage, and Mathieu was often one of those players. At five yards off the ball, Mathieu is aligned just outside of the tight end, and in the event of a pass, he would probably be responsible for covering the tight end in this situation, which is a big ask for many safeties.
Lastly, in the final image, we see Mathieu aligned in the nickel corner position he played so frequently last season. When teams used three wide receiver sets against the Cardinals, Mathieu would often walk down into the slot and play man coverage against a receiver. Because Peterson and Mathieu both possess such excellent coverage skills, the Cardinals wouldn't need to come up with complex schemes to stop teams that spread their offenses out, and they could also leave at least six, and often seven players in the box to stop the run. Mathieu's versatility and ability to align just about anywhere on the field gives the Cardinals a variety of options in terms of coverages and calls, and it's one of the reasons he's considered one of the team's premier players.
Overall value: If the Cardinals and Mathieu agree to terms on an extension prior to the season, we'll need to reevaluate his overall value based on the terms of the new contract. But at the moment and throughout Mathieu's career, Arizona has benefitted from a favorable rookie contract that is set to expire after the 2016 season. To date, Mathieu has never made more than $1.8 million in a single season, and the playmaking and production he's provided Arizona with is All-Pro caliber. Though he's missed competition due to injury, Mathieu has far exceeded the value of his contract to the point where even with missed time, he has still exceeded expectations. The ultimate measure of Mathieu's value came during the 2015 playoffs, when the Cardinals clearly missed his presence and didn't enjoy the same type of schematic flexibility they're afforded when he's in the lineup.