Former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu is on a full rehabilitation kick in a life that was once complicated by substance abuse. A Heisman finalist after the 2011 season, Mathieu missed the Tigers' 2012 season and was kicked off the team when he could not keep himself in line. He's done a stint in rehab, worked with LSU alums and current NFL players Patrick Peterson and Corey Webster, and went to the scouting combine ready to answer all the questions that would be asked of him. Mathieu was honest, humble, and managed to put together a good enough combine workout to allay some of the fears NFL teams may have had about him.
Of course, once he got into the NFL's multi-team pre-draft interview process, everything was going to come out -- because the one thing that will kill you as a prospect with a troubled past is dishonesty. And as Mathieu rolls through a tour that has him checking in with a number of NFL teams, the full range of his previous dysfunction is apparent. According to a report from USA Today's Jarrett Bell, Mathieu told one NFL team that he failed at least 10 drug tests before he was booted off the LSU roster.
"I quit counting at 10. I really don't know." said one NFL assistant coach to Bell regarding Mathieu's response in one meeting room.
And this could actually work in Mathieu's favor. As that same coach pointed out to Bell, such a record puts part of the burden on LSU to try and intervene.
"If he flunked 10 tests before they suspended him, it shows that he got no kind of help," the coach told Bell.
But after the article was published, Mathieu contacted LSU and wanted to make it clear that his transgressions were his responsibility alone.
“It is irresponsible and shows a lack of integrity for anyone to disclose medical information regardless of how it was gathered. I would expect that conversations regarding my drug testing history during the course of my medical treatment would be private. LSU has a strong drug testing program and LSU went to great lengths to help me in my treatment and recovery. I understand that many people enjoy reading about the negative side of sports, but to publish those second-hand comments without being given a chance to address that comment prior to the publication of the article is irresponsible.”
Mathieu recently had a private workout with the Cincinnati Bengals, who have a pretty comprehensive history of taking risks on players with athletic ability despite their character dings.
"People misstep sometimes," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis told Bell. "It comes down to us having confidence that a person has turned a corner."
Teams have different standards. There are some NFL teams who probably wouldn't touch Mathieu with a 10-foot pole, given his past. Some organizations just don't want those issues, and feel they cloud the player evaluation process to an unmanageable degree. Other teams (probably most teams) take it on a case-by-case basis. Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider once told me that the balance between the issues that can be dealt with, and those that will take a player off his boards, go to maturity and what a coaching staff will or will not deal with
"There’s certain things that we just can’t bring into this building,” Schneider said last April, a few days before he selected West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin with the 15th pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Irvin didn't present the complications that Mathieu does, but he had his own off-field issues to deal with before he could succeed. “There are certain things that we will not put up with, but there’s also certain things that are just college stuff that you sift through – and believe me, you sift through it.”
The Seahawks are one of the teams Mathieu is meeting with before the draft, and given Mathieu's specific ability to play pass defense in multiple ways -- and the NFL's increasing reliance on nickel and dime sets -- positional value will increase Mathieu's stock no matter what kind of history he has. It's a matter of the right NFL team seeing how it will all work.
“Every guy is treated independently," Carroll said, bookending Schneider's pre-draft response. "We look at the situation – just like we always do – and figure the guys out, figure where they fit in and how we can make good use of the guys as they add to the program. It’s a big concern. The whole makeup of the kid – every aspect is looked at. Our information is deep and we need to make good use of it, which we have. But every guy is treated independently.”
That will help Tyrann Mathieu in a long road back. Of course, any missteps from here on out could be fatal blows to his NFL future.