This past January, Steve Keim was promoted to general manager of the Arizona Cardinals as he entered his 15th year with the organization. In his first draft, Keim and the Cardinals made headlines on Day 2 by selecting former LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu in the third round with the 69th overall pick.
Mathieu was one of the most highly profiled prospects from the 2013 class. He came with plenty of risk because of character concerns. His collegiate career and story were unique, to say the least.
During his two seasons playing for LSU (2010-11), Mathieu was a productive and versatile defensive back who had a knack for creating turnovers and coming up with big plays both on defense and special teams. In 2011, he was a big component of LSU's undefeated regular season, their SEC championship and their berth to play for the BCS National Championship. During that year, Mathieu was a Heisman finalist, won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation's top defender and earned the nickname "Honey Badger" in the process.
However, Mathieu would never suit up for LSU again, as he was dismissed from the team in August 2012 for violating team rules, which included multiple failed drug tests. Mathieu eventually checked himself into rehab before enrolling back into LSU as a student with the intention of returning for the 2013 season. Those dreams were diminished in October when he and three former LSU players were arrested and charged with simple possession of marijuana.
At that point, Mathieu elected to declare for the 2013 NFL draft. Heading into the draft, teams were concerned not only about his character but also about his lack of ideal size, as he was just 5-foot-9, 186 pounds.
Keim and the Cardinals did their homework, which likely ranged from interviews and psychological tests along with film evaluation. In addition, the Cardinals had the luxury of CB Patrick Peterson being on the roster. Peterson was a former teammate at LSU with Mathieu and the two had developed a strong relationship. Reports were that Peterson had multiple conversations with Keim vouching for Mathieu. Peterson's ability to be a mentor and teach Mathieu about how to be a pro more than likely played a big factor on Keim pulling the trigger in third round.
Mathieu is off to a strong start, and the risk has been worth the reward for the Cardinals. He has appeared in all nine games with seven starts. His versatility has stood out on tape as he has been used primarily at safety and in a nickelback role when the Cardinals get to their sub-package.
Mathieu has continued his trend of coming up with effective plays through the first half of the season. During his career at LSU, he recorded 11 forced fumbles and wasted little time getting his first as a pro when he stripped Rams TE Jared Cook from behind to prevent a touchdown in the opening game. Mathieu also played a big role in the Cardinals' victory over the Lions the following week with a crucial fourth-down tackle to secure the win late in the game.
Through nine games, Mathieu now has 51 tackles, six pass breakups and three interceptions. He continues to show improvement with each week in terms of consistency and put together his best overall performance of the year in the Cardinals' 27-13 win over Atlanta.
Mathieu hasn't been perfect, but the good news for the Cardinals is that when he has made mistakes he is making them at full speed. The rookie is playing fast on tape and clearly has natural instincts for the game. He is flashing anticipation skills and has done a very nice job of maintaining leverage in coverage while finding the ball in the air.
The biggest issue moving forward is keeping Mathieu on the straight and narrow. Arizona and particularly Peterson can help guide him, but ultimately Mathieu will be the one who dictates how successful a career he will have. There is no question he has the talent to make it on the field, and if he continues to keep his nose clean, Mathieu will wind up being one of the bigger steals when looking back at the 2013 draft.