COMMENTARY | If someone were to tell Tyrann Mathieu last September he would be an opening-day starter for an NFL defense in 2013, even he may have laughed it off as a cajoling fan trying to earn a follow on Twitter or some form of shout-out from the former Louisiana State star.
With the right attitude and mentoring, Mathieu can--and should--earn a starting spot for the Arizona Cardinals as early as Week 1.
Arizona took a big risk in drafting Mathieu in Round 3 of this April's NFL draft. With his checkered past, turning in even one dirty urine sample may end his Cardinals career faster than LSU ended his college career.
That could hypothetically spell the end of his NFL career.
The thinking by NFL teams would be something to the effect of, if his mentor, teammate Patrick Peterson, cannot keep him in line, then what will happen when Peterson is hundreds or thousands of miles away?
Mathieu has, by all accounts, turned over a new leaf and is on the straight-and-narrow from here on out. Assuming he stays the course of sobriety, there is no reason to believe he will be anything other than a staple in the Arizona secondary by season's end.
Here is why.
1. He is a Playmaker
In two seasons at LSU, Mathieu intercepted four passes and broke up 19 more. His 11 forced fumbles in 2010 and 2011 tied former Illinois and current Houston Texans defensive end Whitney Mercilus for most in the country over that time.
He is also the only full-time defensive back since 2000 to register double-digit forced fumbles, doing so in just two seasons. The only other defensive back to get close was former Louisiana Tech free safety Antonio Baker, who had nine in four seasons from 2006 to 2009.
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer took quick notice of Mathieu's ball-hawking prowess during Arizona's organized team activities.
"He reminds [me] of Troy Polamalu with his closing speed," Palmer told Peter King of SI.com. "He might not be the fastest guy out there, but he can change directions and get to the ball really fast, like Troy."
You know you are doing something right when you draw comparisons to one of the best safeties in football. Palmer faced Polamalu's Pittsburgh Steelers twice per season for the first seven years of his career and saw plenty of the four-time All-Pro.
2. He is a Leader
Being a natural ball-hawk and having closing speed is not enough to get it done. Showing he can be a leader on the field is also important and could help slingshot him into the starting lineup. Calling out defensive reads and shifts is a great way to get noticed, and Mathieu is doing so already.
Said King: The first thing you notice about Mathieu is his size--at 5'9", he's probably three inches shy of what's optimal for the position--and the second is his instinct. He's clearly at home on the practice field, pointing out coverages pre-snap and changing direction smoothly.
Sure, going all-out on the practice field while in shorts is a good thing. It means Mathieu is not taking this opportunity lightly.
But where it really must show is at University of Phoenix Stadium in July when camp begins. It must show in August when the team plays four preseason games--proving his worth then will be what gets him on the field as the starting free safety for coordinator Todd Bowles' defense.
Forget his size. If a player is making plays, his size is as relevant as the letter "K" in the word "Knife."
3. The Other Safeties
Ourlads.com currently lists 35-year-old, 10-year veteran Yeremiah Bell as the Cardinals' starting free safety. It has been that way since Arizona signed Bell in March.
But that does not mean he is the best option to start.
If Bowles wants a playmaker at free safety, Bell is certainly not it. He has six career interceptions and nine forced fumbles in nine NFL seasons.
The other players listed at free safety include Justin Bethel, who will play cornerback in 2013; Tony Jefferson, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Oklahoma who, though talented and who has a chance to make the team, is a developmental player who is no threat to start; and Josh Hill, another UDFA who is little more than a camp body.
The fact is that Mathieu is a young playmaker, and he should be in the starting lineup for head coach Bruce Arians when the Cardinals travel to St. Louis to play the Rams September 8.
General manager Steve Keim was asked by NFL.com's Albert Breer if he thought Mathieu could become the best cornerback from the 2013 draft class:
"I don't know if I'd go out on a limb and say he could become the best corner in the draft," Keim said. "What I would go out on a limb and say is, he could be the best playmaker in the draft. He just has such unique skill, with instincts and getting his hands on the ball. He's so opportunistic on the field."
Shaun Church has covered the Arizona Cardinals for more than three years on various online publications and considers himself a life-long fan. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, Football Nation, The Boston Metro, ESPN.com and more.
Questions or comments? E-mail Shaun at email@example.com
You can also follow and mention Shaun on Twitter @Church_NFL
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