More than a "knack."
Danny's out to an early start scouting some of college football's bigger names. I figured I would hop on board and compile a scouting report on one of the most fascinating prospects eligible for the 2013 draft. Tyrann Mathieu has some eye popping stats for a defensive back. Over just two years he's accumulated 133 tackles, 16.0 for loss, 6.0 sacks, 4 interceptions, 19 pass deflections, and 11 (yes, 11) forced fumbles. He was nominated for the Heisman Trophy in 2011 and added two punt return TDs to his already impressive resume.
Mathieu's short stature (5-9 175) will probably make his draft stock an enigma right up until draft day. However don't presume that he needs another amazing season to rank highly on the Seahawk's draft board. Bruce Irvin had a disappointing final year and John Schneider recently said he was a top 3 defensive player on their board. Turnovers are fickle. Is Earl Thomas any less of a ball hawk because he had only two interceptions last year? I certainly wouldn't say so and the same goes for Mathieu if his production declines in 2012.Size/Athleticism
Mathieu is a tremendous athlete packed into a tiny frame. He has speed, quickness, long arms, surprising strength, and an all around tenacious approach to the game. I would expect him to test well in most categories at the combine. The vertical will be especially important for his draft stock. A less than amazing performance could effectively eliminate him from any outside corner duties.
LSU hasn't run much man coverage over the past two seasons. Mathieu doesn't possess a shut-down corner skill set and his technique will likely need some work. There's also no avoiding the fact that NFL receivers will push him around. Offences have occasionally prospered when going after Mathieu in coverage. This is not a desirable trait for facing NFL QB's. Mathieu's potential at safety is an essential outlet for teams looking to protect him in coverage - something to watch for in 2012.
This is not to say Mathieu cannot achieve, or even excel in man coverage. Given his quickness, recovery speed, ball skills, intensity, and trash talking (always a plus attribute for CBs), he can easily get inside a receiver's head and take him out of the game. For as often as offences prospered when attacking Mathieu, putting the ball near him has led to turnovers at an alarming rate. This won't be lost on NFL playcallers.
When I started studying Mathieu in coverage, I didn't see lethality in zone I expected to. Perhaps I'm spoiled from watching Earl Thomas drive on the football but Mathieu rarely explodes out his drop. His back-pedal is unbalanced and too high which often leaves him unprepared when the receiver breaks into his route. Anticipation skills appear well developed but not outstanding.
Mathieu's vision and closing speed are what should really excite teams about his zone coverage. He reads the quarterback and responds to any receiver moving into his zone. Mathieu consistently keeps the play in front of him which further indicates a potential fit at safety. This compliments his closing speed and helped him lead LSU in tackles last season with 70. I like the idea of Mathieu in center-field. He certainly has the skills to cover sideline to sideline.
Mathieu has excellent ball skills on anything developing in front of him. He adjusts to the ball in the air and tries for the pick or deflection accordingly. He has solid hands and willingly lays out for the ball. Passes testing Mathieu vertically are another issue. He won't always turn his head to find the ball and we all know what happens to undersized corners who play the receiver instead of the pass (Kelly Jennings). The National Championship was one notable example of his struggles here.
For me, tackling makes Tyrann Mathieu a truly unique and special player. What some might call a "knack for forcing fumbles," I call a tangible talent. Physically he's amazingly well suited for the strip. His compact frame allows for more independent motions at the close proximity of a tackle than almost anyone. This means he can hit and strip, rather than one or the other. He rarely misses an opportunity for his long, strong arms to grasp for the ball.
Technically he's perfected the art of taking the ball away. Until now, every DB known for stripping the ball must consciously choose to stay on their feet and hold the receiver up. Mathieu bypasses that decision by staying on his feet through his natural tackling motion. I've never seen anything like it. Yet he's still usually the lower man and finishes tackles at a high rate. Douse all that with his inherent tenacity and 4-6 forced fumbles per year should be the norm for Mathieu.
Mathieu quickly reads run and flows downhill to the ball carrier. He is fearless in traffic and willingly takes on larger running backs. Inevitably blockers blow him out of some plays but overall Mathieu excels in run support. One could easily compare his run stuffing ability to Earl Thomas. Like Thomas, durability is a concern but he's held up fine so far. Hustle appears average.
Mathieu explodes off the edge when blitzing from the nickel spot. As a Freshman, he had tremendous success with 4.5 sacks. As a Sophomore, offences were more diligent about leaving a back to block him and his production dipped to 1.5 sacks. Mathieu displays amazing flexibility when turning the corner, making him almost impossible for tackles to block if they're slow out of their stance. Running backs actually have more success than tackles since power isn't an issue and they can usually meet him head on. I expect Mathieu to factor in as a dangerous blitzer at the next level.
Tim Ruskell choir boy? No way. Pete Carroll competitor? You betcha. Mathieu plays with a palpable intensity. You can see him jabbering away at opposing receivers. You can feel his desire for making big plays as he moves around the field. Question his size and coverage skills all you want but there's no denying his drive to make plays. Obviously Mathieu also has some punt return ability. I'm not ready to proclaim him a great returner yet but he'll definitely contribute on special teams.
Without Mathieu's unique tackling ability, I would project him as a fourth or fifth rounder. As it is I'd project him as a first rounder who could easily fall into the second. At the next level, safety is probably a safer bet for his position than corner (see what I did there?). Ideally he would play both though and the Seahawks have the capacity to accommodate that type of role.
Mathieu working in tandem with Thomas would present a major challenge for opposing offences. ET is already an X factor who must be accounted for. Adding Mathieu to the mix would not only put another X factor on the field, he would help free up Thomas for more creative uses. ET can have a huge impact when attacking the line of schrimage but that always leaves us somewhat vulnerable on the back end. Mathieu would help alleviate that risk - not to mention his own impact when attacking the line of schrimage.
Could you call Mathieu a luxury pick? Absolutely. Without a clear NFL position, any team looking to build a foundation for their defence should probably look elsewhere. The Seahawks already have a great defensive foundation though. Mathieu could launch us into the stratosphere of defensive potential through a recent Charles Woodson type role and impact. It sounds a little ridiculous (I'll say it anyway) but I could see Mathieu finishing his NFL career as the greatest strip fumble technician ever.
Whether "need" positions will take precedent remains to be seen but if Pete Carroll values turnovers and unique skill sets in the way he seems to, Tyrann Mathieu will be tough to top come April, 2013. At the very least I look forward to watching Mathieu play this season.
As usual, a big tip of the cap to the Draft Breakdown guys for their hard work. Amateur scouting wouldn't be the same without them. I've also included the LSU defense versus Oregon and Alabama (National Championship) below. You can't see his special teams play but you'll get some more looks at him on defence.