The Red Birds went 10-6 last season and things are looking up in the desert under head coach Bruce Arians.
One of the reasons is the play of rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu. The "Honey Badger" was October's NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month and enjoyed a fine all-around rookie campaign before tearing his ACL and LCL against the Rams in early December.
Strengths: Has real nose for the football. Had excellent rookie season in the NFL before getting hurt. Dynamic playmaker. Mathieu is a feisty turnover machine who lines up outside, in the slot and at safety when needed. Instinctual player with very good read-and-react ability, always seems to work his way into position to make a play on the ball. Does whatever it takes to make a stop, fights through blocks using hands and quickness, goes low or high and doesn't let up after initial contact. Brings enough force despite his size to get ball carriers off balance with a glancing blow. Constantly rips at the ball while making a tackle or when others have secured the stop. Fights for jump balls with taller receivers down field. Regularly used as a blitzer due to his feel, quickness and tenacity. Very good vision and short-area quickness as a punt returner, can make the first man miss and cut back effectively against the grain. Will go outside if the space is there but also slalom through traffic up the field when necessary. Also has balance and strength to get through arm tackles. A strong tackler on coverage units if required.
Weaknesses: Possesses below-average size for the position. Quicker than fast, though his effort often masks average straight-line speed for his size. Must prove his ability to stay with larger receivers and tight end in man coverage, as they use their length advantage to separate and frame to shield him from the ball. Will take chances as a punt returner, grabbing the ball on a bounce or inside the five-yard line.
Bottom Line: Impact player. Excellent talent. Makes things happen. Named NFC Rookie of the Month for October 2013. The 2011 Bednarik Award winner as the nation's top defender was dismissed from LSU for multiple violations of team rules. Subsequently, he decided to enter a drug rehab center and ultimately ended up declaring for the draft instead of transferring. When on the field, the undersized but ultra competitive turnover machine (six forced fumbles, two interceptions in 2011) brings the physicality of a bigger player in his tackles, no matter where he plays. Mathieu is also a game-changer as a punt returner. Has fine mentor in cornerback and Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson.
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