Tyrann Mathieu: NFL Defensive Player of the Year?


Former LSU Tiger and current Arizona Cardinals star Tyrann Mathieu is turning heads this season, and has emerged as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Tyrann Mathieu’s 2015 campaign for the Arizona Cardinals may have started out as a ‘savage season’, but after an impressive month of November, the playmaking defensive back has morphed into a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

The former LSU star earned Defensive Player of the Month honors for the month of November, and the rest of the league is taking notice of the former Heisman finalist’s recent achievements. And his on-field dominance.

Mathieu currently leads the Cardinals with 76 solo tackles on the season, while also compiling four interceptions, a forced fumble, a sack and one defensive touchdown.

This newfound attention for Mathieu comes at somewhat of a surprise for many. After a knee injury derailed his 2014 campaign, Mathieu came into the 2015 offseason as a potential backup safety behind Rashad Johnson and Deone Bucannon.

Despite theses obstacles, Mathieu’s goal heading into his ‘savage season’ was to be considered for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award. His quarterback Carson Palmer appears to be the frontrunner for that honor, however, after coming all the way back from an ACL tear to MVP candidacy in just one short year.

Mathieu’s former LSU and current Cardinals teammate, cornerback Patrick Peterson, is not surprised in the least at the attention Mathieu has been receiving. As it turns out, the two former Bayou Bengals have seen this recognition coming for some time.

"“Once I found out he entered the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, I was like, ‘This is what we talked about’,” Peterson told azcardinals.com."

What makes Mathieu so valuable for the Arizona Cardinals is what made him a Heisman candidate at LSU back in 2011. He is a playmaker with uncanny ball skills that can do it all on the defensive side of the ball.

Next: 10 best players of the 1st decade of the Les Miles era

It is increasingly more difficult to pin Mathieu down to just one position, something that makes him even more valuable. In Arizona’s base defense, Mathieu mostly plays safety. According to Pro Football Focus, however, the Cardinals are in their base defense just 33 percent of the time.

In other defensive formations, Mathieu tends to line up at cornerback, often blanketing opposing tight ends.

The Arizona coaching staff has no issue lining Mathieu up against some of the most physically imposing pass catchers in the league. When a team has a player as special as Mathieu is, they have no choice but to utilize his talents to the fullest.

Per azcardinals.com:

"“There is no doubt in my mind, and really from day one that he is a special player and a special man,” Arizona defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “Someone asked me a couple weeks ago about putting him on 6-foot-7 tight ends. Yeah. I don’t lose any sleep over that. Not at all. Not one bit.”"

Mathieu’s elite coverage abilities at the cornerback position are no secret. According to Pro Football Focus’ overall cornerback ratings, Mathieu ranks second behind Carolina Panthers defensive back Josh Norman.

Unlike Norman, though, Mathieu’s true value lies in his versatility to contribute in stopping the run and attacking the quarterback in blitz packages.

Mathieu applies his quickness and leverage to get under and around larger blockers to help contribute in the run defense. Arizona’s defensive coordinators are so confident in his run defense capabilities that they are willing to bring him down as an extra linebacker in certain situations to combat run-heavy formations.

In Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated cornerbacks against the run, Mathieu and his 76 total solo tackles rank first. Simply put, no other cornerback in the league is more adept at stuffing the run than Mathieu, and seldom full-time safeties make a larger impact in this area.

So far this season, Mathieu has rushed the quarterback 32 times. He has sacked the quarterback once, forced five hurries and batted down a pair of passes. And that does not account for the intangibles that his versatility, athleticism and instincts provide in the pass rush.

Mathieu is used all over the field, and is not designated to one concrete position: precisely where he thrives.

Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians and his defensive coordinators are using Mathieu in a similar manner as LSU head coach Les Miles did in 2011, and are seeing similar results. When Mathieu is allowed to use his athleticism in pass coverage, run defense and rushing the passer, bad things tend to happen to opposing offenses.

More from Death Valley Voice

Mathieu is not the prototypical Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

He is not an overpowering, prolific pass rusher like JJ Watt of the Houston Texans, nor is he a true coverage specialist like Norman.

As a result, many have dismissed him as a true candidate to win the award.

But with defenses constantly evolving, there is no reason why a hybrid defensive back — a role that is becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s NFL — should not be considered in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.

Even the naysayers cannot deny Mathieu’s versatility and playmaking ability, which impacts an entire defense that just might be destined for greatness this season.

Mathieu entered 2015 with hopes of being a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. But thanks to a ‘savage season’, the playmaking defensive back has a much more prestigious honor in his sights.