Kevin C. Cox
Unsurprisingly, former LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is expected to enter the 2013 NFL Draft. By now, his spectacularly troubled college career is well-chronicled.
Mathieu starred as a freshman and sophomore for the Tigers, but was kicked off the team following a reported failed drug test. Mathieu sought treatment but he and three other former LSU players were charged with marijuana possession in October.
But before everything went bad for Mathieu, he was the talk of college football. In just two seasons, he broke LSU's career record for forced fumbles and had a penchant for big punt returns. He amassed 133 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, four interceptions and forced 11 fumbles. He won the Bednarik Award and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He was a Heisman favorite before the notion Johnny Football or undefeated Notre Dame even existed.
On the field, Mathieu was exemplary. On a defense loaded with the likes of Michael Brockers, Morris Claiborne, Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, Mathieu was the best player.
He may not stand tall (a listed 5-foot-9), but he played big. Mathieu knew how to deliver crushing hits in coverage at just the right time. He could play the run as well as you could ask. And he was versatile.
LSU moved Mathieu around so much that offensive lines had to call out where he was playing before the snap. Most often he was in the slot, which allowed him to either drop in coverage or rush the backfield off the edge. He was also lined up outside often, but he saw extensive time lined up as a traditional safety. Most intriguing, he was even used as a linebacker, asked to rush the passer. He was known as a joker, defensive slang for a freelancing defensive back.
In the NFL, he may not be used as creatively. He may not have the size to play bigger outside receivers consistently. He may also not be able to take on or evade NFL blockers. But as a slot cornerback, he could be special. When he's on, Mathieu is a tremendous on-ball cornerback. As he did in the BCS title game, Mathieu may give up plays, but he often made up for them with a forced fumble or interception.Think of him as a slot version of Charles Tillman of the Chicago Bears.
The best football qualities Mathieu's possesses are those that cannot be noted by a stopwatch or a tape measure. He knows when to lay a hit or when to try to strip the ball on a tackle. He knows how to find a hole in punt coverage to break a big return. He's a fiery team leader. The catch is that by April it will be more than a year since Mathieu has shown those immeasurably fantastic traits.
In the evaluation of Mathieu, NFL teams will have to do much more than basic on-field scouting. Myriad phone calls about Mathieu's drug past will have to be made. At the NFL Combine, where he'll surely be invited, the cornerback will probably have personal interviews with NFL teams more than any other player. It's those interviews that could determine Mathieu's draft position.
You have to wonder if Mathieu's draft fate will be similar to that of Philadelphia Eagles running back Bryce Brown. A blue chip recruit, Brown had a disastrous college career at Tennessee and Kansas State before entering the 2012 NFL Draft a year early. Eagles head coach Andy Reid reportedly did copious background checks on Brown and took a chance on him in the seventh round. Now Brown is one of the more intriguing young running backs in the league.
The same could happen to Mathieu. He'll get drafted, unquestionably. But it sure won't be as high as it would have been had he stayed out of trouble and played this season. He may, however, become one of the steals of the 2013 NFL Draft. That is, if he can stay on the field.