The Arizona Cardinals boast one of the most talented rosters in football this year, but there's one player whose effectiveness can turn a great team into one of the NFL's truly elite teams: Safety Tyrann Mathieu.
When it comes to scheming for opposing offenses, there's few players in the sport who can rival the versatility and impact Mathieu brings to a defense. The Cardinals list Mathieu as a safety, but the 5-foot-8 playmaker can line up almost anywhere on the field in any given situation and whittle down an opposing team's options.
Align Mathieu as a single-high safety? Good luck throwing the ball over the top. Use Mathieu as a nickel corner? Slot receivers are shut down. Play Mathieu close to the line of scrimmage? The Cardinals have an extra run-stopper whose ability to dissect plays is on par with even the league's elite linebackers.
Sure, Mathieu makes mistakes, and he might gamble more often than a conservative defensive play-caller would like. But Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher isn't conservative, and his ability to deploy Mathieu in a variety of roles shifts the balance of power in the Cardinals' favor.
When healthy, Mathieu has played at an elite level. When on the sidelines, the Cardinals defense as suffered. If there's one key beyond an effective Carson Palmer that can help key a Super Bowl run for the Cardinals, it's Mathieu's ability to play at an elite level from the start of the season through the very end.
Tyrann Mathieu: Coming off the second ACL tear of his career, the Cardinals offered Mathieu a practically unprecedented contract extension for a safety. That's because when healthy, there's no more impactful safety in the game and Arizona knows Mathieu's value to the franchise goes far beyond the football field. Over the past two seasons, Mathieu has spent nearly two-thirds of his reps as a cornerback and only one-third of his reps as a safety, and we believe that trend may continue this season. The only reason it wouldn't is if the Cardinals believe Tyvon Branch can effectively man the nickel corner position, which would allow the team to find even more creative ways to use Mathieu. Mathieu's presence allows the Cardinals to scheme against any type of opposing offense, and the only question he faces going into this season is whether he can regain the form he played with prior to his ACL tear in December.
Tyvon Branch: Though he's not technically listed as a starter on the depth chart, Branch should be on the field quite frequently for a team that used nickel personnel on roughly 70 percent of its plays a season ago. Branch underwhelmed at the beginning of fall camp, but came on strong late and needs to have an impact as a slot corner to give the Cardinals the type of schematic versatility they're looking for. If Branch can defend slot receivers even marginally close to the way Mathieu has defended them in the past, Arizona has no reason to stray from its nickel personnel unless it's facing short-yardage situations. Branch's speed is a valuable asset, and his health is critical to the Cardinals' success against the pass.
Tony Jefferson: Perhaps the most overlooked player on a Cardinals' defense loaded with A-list names, Jefferson is a solid if uncelebrated playmaker at the back end of the defense. Though he's probably more ideally suited to Cover 2 and Cover 3 shells, Jefferson often plays as a single-high safety in Arizona's scheme and is responsible for playing centerfield when Arizona plays press-man coverage, which it does often. Jefferson isn't necessarily a game-changer, but he's a solid tackler who rarely makes mistakes which is a good fit for a defense with elite athletes like Mathieu and Patrick Peterson.
D.J. Swearinger: A prototypical strong safety in his build and style of play, Swearinger is an in-the-box presence who appears to have found a home in Arizona. Swearinger struggled at his previous stops in Houston and Tampa Bay, but when Mathieu went down last season, Swearinger brought a certain type of swagger to the Cardinals defense the coaching staff obviously liked. Swearinger isn't great in pass coverage and isn't suited for single-high duties or even a centerfield role in a Cover 3 shell, but he can walk down into the box in short yardage situations or break up passes on receivers running slant routes over the middle. Swearinger is an instinctual player, and Bettcher's defense is one of the better schemes in the league for players who'd prefer to just play rather than analyze.
Marqui Christian: It wouldn't come as a huge surprise if Christian is inactive for the first few games of the regular season, but the Cardinals would benefit from his mentality on certain special teams units like kickoff coverage. Arizona is excited about the potential of the team's fifth round draft selection, but Christian still has a ways to go in terms of learning the nuances of the safety position because he played small school football in college. Christian's future is more in the mold of Swearinger as an in-the-box strong safety than it is in the mold of either Jefferson or Branch, but he has a great motor and an obvious desire to throw his body into the mix. It's difficult to say how much playing time Christian will get this season, but if he takes to the coaching points the Cardinals offer him, he could develop into a serviceable depth option.