TEMPE, Ariz. — New Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim has made a point of emphasizing the importance of character in the players he drafts. How then to explain the third-round selection of Tyrann Mathieu, a.k.a Honey Badger, with the 69th pick of the NFL Draft on Friday?
Call it a calculated risk.
“Tyrann was a unique situation,” Keim said. “He was a player that we have done our due diligence on. Our scouts have gone to the campus at LSU and probably have talked to every staff member that has come into contact with Tyrann in his time there. We spent time with Tyrann himself. We flew him into Phoenix and we had dinner with him. We spent time with him and Patrick (Peterson) together.
“At the end of the day, there is always an element of risk to any of these picks, but with the structure that we have in place and the agreement not only with Tyrann but with his representative, we are going to take the necessary measures to make sure that he walks the straight and narrow. We felt comfortable with the risk that is involved.”
There is no questioning Mathieu’s play-making ability, and there is no questioning NFL teams’ willingness to sometimes overlook transgressions when that talent is as eye-popping as Mathieu’s.
Two years ago, he was destined for greatness. He was going to be the next Peterson, his good friend and fellow LSU graduate who went fifth overall to the Cardinals in the 2011 draft. The consensus All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist led LSU in tackles (76) and had four fumble recoveries, two interceptions and two punt returns for touchdowns.
But then Mathieu was arrested on Oct. 25, 2012, on suspicion of possession of marijuana. A Sports Illustrated story last year detailed some of Mathieu’s other questionable off-field decisions.
He was dismissed from the team by coach Les Miles and then from school after he reportedly failed a drug test. The Tigers’ coaching staff wanted him back in 2013, but after going to rehab and returning to campus only as a student, he was busted again in October with three former teammates, and his college career was done.
The last time Mathieu played in a game was in January 2012, when LSU played Alabama in the BCS national championship game.
On draft day, former Colts president Bill Polian torched him on ESPN.
“He’s proven to be irresponsible,” Polian said. “I don’t know why you’d want him at any price.”
Mathieu understands those sentiments are going to exist, but he doesn’t agree.
“That doesn’t get at me,” he said. “I was a team captain at LSU, and I only played two seasons. You can ask any teammate I’ve ever played with; the reason that they played hard was because I played hard.
“I’ve had my habit that I had to shake. That was marijuana,” he added. “But I was never a bad teammate. The only thing I ever did for my teammates was to encourage them and motivate them to be All-Americans and motivate them to be the best they can be.”
Mathieu was extremely emotional in his conference call with Arizona media on Friday, breaking down in tears several times while he talked.
“Just to be a part of that organization now and being with Patrick, it’s a blessing,” he said. “The whole time I was telling myself, ‘I’m not going to cry, I’m not going to cry.’ I’ve been playing football my whole life, but it’s different this time. All the stuff I’ve been through, just to see it all come back around again, I know I’m on the right track.”
For that he gives a big assist to Peterson, who took him under his wing and has been working out with him for nearly a year in the Valley.
“I have been with him through thick and thin,” Peterson said. “I have been talking with him for the last nine or 10 months, just constantly picking his brain, seeing where he is at mentally and where he’s at emotionally.
“The guy is just ready to play football. Like I said, he made a mistake. He wasn’t in a stable position at the time when he did get caught up with the marijuana, but now he understands the importance of being accountable and being a role model. That stuff is behind him, and all he wanted was another opportunity to do something that he loved.”
Peterson said the Cardinals have asked him to continue to serve as a mentor for Mathieu, but Keim confirmed the organization is taking more steps than that, including placing several stipulations in Mathieu’s contract, one of which requires a weekly drug test.
“They want to be able to trust me. They want to be able to know that I’ve crossed that bridge,” Mathieu said. “If it’s a drug test on a weekly basis, that’s what I have to do. If it’s meeting with counselors, therapists and sports psychologists, those are things I’m going to have to meet. It doesn’t matter what they put in my contract. I’m happy that they gave me the second chance.”
If Mathieu can take advantage of the opportunity, the Cardinals have the potential for a dynamic secondary. Arians said Friday that he expects Mathieu to play safety, but he also envisions a scenario in which both Peterson and Mathieu — two electric players with the ball — are back to return punts.
“Who are you going to kick it to?” Arians asked. “You can have a lot of fun with that one. They are both great athletes. They can throw. We can have all kinds of trick plays. We’ll have a lot of fun with that. We have probably the two most premier punt returners to come out of college football in a long time.”
On the flip side, if Mathieu stumbles again, in what feels like his 50th opportunity to shape up, all those Keim statements about character will feel like hollow lies.