Troubled Mathieu ill-fitting in pro game

The Sports Xchange

February 26, 2013 at 11:20 am.

(Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports)

NFL evaluators are going to be hard-pressed to answer unequivocally the who and what questions with Tyrann Mathieu in the 59 days remaining before the 2013 draft.

Who is Mathieu as a person? He claims to have sworn off marijuana, a vice he admits robbed him of football last season. Mathieu failed at least three drug tests before the final straw with Les Miles and school administration last August led to his dismissal eight months after he traveled to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Mathieu says he’s no longer the Honey Badger and that he went to counseling, therapy and has a sponsor “for Tyrann.” General managers, owners and coaches might be forgiving. But they’re also realists. If it looks like a farce, you best be in the business of sharing with them Exhibits A through Z to prove otherwise.

Trust isn’t won overnight, this realization Mathieu did confess. To earn the chance he came to Indianapolis begging for, he’ll need a tsunami of positive momentum from the combine, his pro day and on-site visits with teams — should he get that invitation.

If you are willing to trust Mathieu the person: he last smoked in October, one day after being arrested. The next day, he alleges, he kicked the habit for good and Tuesday, on the four-month anniversary of giving it up, ran a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash.

For teams that get past the who, now there’s the what, as in what is Mathieu in the NFL? He has 10 starts at cornerback, one at nickel and another at safety. The weed-smoking character questions override some aspects of a sophomore season that led to project him as a top-40 pick and possible first-rounder in 2012 or ’13 before he ran so uncontrollably far from the straight and narrow.

Is he a safety? He has the playmaking skills and thumping tackling form to thrive when the play — and ball — is there to attack in front of him. But in a day and age when he could also be asked to slide over the slot receiver and potentially find a 6-foot-6 tight end flexed out, offensive coordinators would find ways to expose him. He has enough long speed, but in a jumpball situation down the seam, he loses nine out of 10 times.

He’s nowhere near strong enough or technique-sound to take on most running backs in the open field (skip to the 2:12 mark). Short, squat safeties who might have survived on playmaking credentials did so because they made more impact plays than they allowed and had enough to fight clean of edge blocks. But they also don’t always hold up phsyically (see Bob Sanders, for example — he was a heat-seeking missile at strong safety despite his 5-foot-8 frame. He also ran a 4.35 40 and did 34 reps of 225 in Indy). Mathieu fought up just four reps of 225, a major red flag on a prospect report skewing toward burgandy as it is.

Is he a cornerback? Deion Sanders thinks so. For the record, Primetime also think Mathieu is a leader.

Beyond being stiff and choppy in his backpedal, Mathieu would need otherwise perfect technique to ever win one-on-one with the NFL’s elite No. 1 receivers. Hiding a liability in the slot is no longer a winning venture. See Johnson, Calvin, who moved around the formation in his record-breaking 2012 season.

Of note for Mathieu believers that expect him to hold up at cornerback: The smallest of the five leading receivers (yardage) in the league last season was Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229), who is a Honey Biscuit lighter than Andre Johnson (6-3, 230) but in a playmaking stratosphere with Johnson (6-5, 235), Brandon Marshall (6-4, 220) and Vincent Jackson (6-5, 230).

Is he a matchup cornerback with special teams skills worthy of a risk-free investment as a fourth or fifth cornerback? And nothing more, until proven by regaining trust on and off the field.