GLENDALE, Ariz. — Where there’s risk with Tyrann Mathieu, there’s reward.
When the Arizona Cardinals drafted Mathieu in the third round in 2013, they didn’t know which Honey Badger they’d get. Would it be the one who failed multiple drug tests at LSU, which led to him getting kicked out of school and later arrested on drug-related charges? Or would it be the Mathieu they actually got, the two-time All-Pro defensive back who was mentioned as a candidate for defensive player of the year last season?
The reward was Mathieu staying out of trouble and developing into a star on and off the field.
On Tuesday, the fifth day of training camp in Arizona, the Cardinals took another risk on Mathieu by signing him to a five-year extension worth $62.5 million. The risk — and reward — this time is significantly greater.
The most worrisome concern surrounding the 24-year-old now is his durability. His ACL tear in Week 15 at Philadelphia was his second major knee injury in three years. One more and a promising, potentially Hall of Fame career could be over before it really gets started. The Cardinals shouldered that risk by giving Mathieu $40 million in guaranteed money. Until the details of his hard guarantee — the money he gets to take home regardless of injury or performance — are available, it’s tough to say how much faith the Cardinals have put in Mathieu.
Nonetheless, Arizona believes in the Honey Badger. And rightfully so. Arizona is a different defense with Mathieu on the field. It’s a better defense. He’s a versatile defensive back who can play three positions, easing the transition from one sub-package to another. He has instincts and a nose for the ball that are rivaled by few. Take last season’s playoff run for example. The defense was a well-oiled machine until Mathieu went down. Jerraud Powers had to move to slot corner and an inexperienced Justin Bethel took over at outside corner. The defense never looked the same, struggling against elite quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Cam Newton of the Panthers.
Mathieu’s deal was necessary for the Cardinals to remain among the NFL’s elite, where they’ve firmly planted themselves since coach Bruce Arians — and Mathieu — arrived in 2013. It was also necessary to make sure Mathieu, should he stay healthy, grow his star on the field in Arizona. If the Cardinals didn’t get the deal done, they risked Mathieu walking after this season, only to become a Hall of Famer somewhere else. Instead, general manager Steve Keim secured Arizona’s place among the league’s best secondaries — as long as Mathieu stays healthy — having signed All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson to a long-term extension two years ago.
Having those two back there is the reward.
Having Mathieu back, making Honey-Badger like plays is the reward.
And in the case of the Cardinals, it was worth the risk.