The Honey Badger’s NFL future: Slot defender, calculated risk

On Thursday, former LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu announced that he will make himself eligible for the 2013 NFL draft. Mathieu made the announcement official in a statement.

"I am sorry that I was not able to complete my journey at LSU, but I will always support LSU in any way I can. To my teammates, you are my brothers. You have kept me going. I will do my best to make you all proud of me. I am committed to tackling my personal issues and will work to better myself every day as a man first and only then as a football player. I will always consider myself an LSU Tiger."

Mathieu was thought to be a first-round talent before his off-field life caught up to, and capsized, his on-field potential. He was kicked off the team in August following multiple failed drug tests, and a marijuana-related arrest in October of 2011. There was some thought that Mathieu might continue his collegiate career at a smaller school, but he instead entered a drug rehab program and has stayed at the Florida home of Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, a former LSU teammate.

What will make the 5-foot-9, 178-pound Mathieu intriguing to NFL executives despite his checkered past is that he is an amazing talent. He made an enormous impact as a do-it-all defender for the Tigers in just two seasons, forcing five fumbles and breaking up seven passes as a true freshman and nickel back in 2010. In 2011, Mathieu really cut loose, leading the team with 70 tackles and six more forced fumbles. He had a total of four picks in his two seasons, but Mathieu's value to a defense has always been about more than just his coverage abilities. A fearless hitter when converging on running backs from all angles and depths, "The Honey Badger"  made enough plays in which he resembled a guided missile to set himself apart as a pure tackling weapon. Mathieu also made a name as one of the most dynamic return men in recent NCAA annals.

So, from a pure skill perspective, there's a lot to like. Assigning a draft-level projection to Mathieu is a bit more complicated, and not just because of his history. Even if we're to assume that he's got all of his personal issues sorted out for good (and you can bet that he'll be interviewed forensically by NFL teams), there's the matter of his place on the NFL size curve at either starting cornerback or safety.

Per NFL Draft Scout's current rankings of draft-eligible cornerbacks, no potentially draftable cornerback is shorter than 5-foot-10, except for San Diego State's Brodrick Brown, and the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Brown is NFLDS's 25th-ranked player at the position. That's not to say that Mathieu's skill set isn't much higher than Brown's, but it does illustrate one simple fact -- NFL teams want bigger defensive backs these days. No starting safety in the current 2013 draft class is shorter than 5-foot-10, period.

The last Pro Bowl-level safety around Mathieu's size was Bob Sanders of the Indianapolis Colts, and as great as Sanders was, he also kept running into a simple physics lesson -- when you keep hitting people bigger than you, it's going to hurt over time. The 5-foot-8, 200-pound Sanders never played every game in an NFL season through his eight-year career from 2004 through 2011, and he missed at least 10 games in six of those seasons. Mathieu is heralded for his ability to time his jumps when playing against taller receivers, but as many other height-impaired defensive backs have learned, the NFL's combination of speed, route complexity, and physical play leaves a lot of those high-jumpers in the dust.

Mathieu's best bet in the NFL would be with a team that has the kind of creative defensive coordinator who will take his college versatility and use it to a team's best advantage. What the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets have done with the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Jim Leonhard would be a good starting point. Leonhard is a pointman for defenses, and his recent injury-related absences are keenly felt, because he's so good at filling spaces in nickel and dime coverages. This year, he's been a key cog in Denver's improved defense.

At LSU, Mathieu lined up all over the place, but his best role was in the slot/flex zone, taking on tight ends, slot receivers, and running backs. NFL teams are using more slot receivers than ever before, and flexing their tight ends in new and inventive ways. Teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, who showed glaring weaknesses in the run reads of their safeties when facing the multi-tiered attack of the Washington Redskins in recent games, could really use someone like Mathieu to grind in the slot role, read the short/intermediate pass plays and run fits, and seal that deal so that a team's cover safeties can do their thing.

Some teams will take Mathieu off their boards, either because his off-field stuff goes against their organizational philosophy, or because they don't want to think outside the box and find a place for an oddly sized player, no matter how talented he may be. But NFL teams with specific needs on defense and special teams will do their homework, watch the workouts, and someone will take a gamble. Mathieu will just have to wait longer than he would have if his background was cleaner. I think he's a second-round pick if all the pre-draft stuff is perfect, and more likely a third/fourth-round player when all is said and done.

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