TEMPE, Ariz. — His goal is a simple one: Stay healthy.
But for Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu, that’s been easier said than done. Injuries have limited his availability in each of his first two seasons in the NFL.
Mathieu’s rookie year was cut short by a season-ending knee injury in Week 14 against St. Louis, and then a year ago, it was a broken thumb — an injury that required surgery and a pin — that sidelined him two weeks and then forced him to play with a cast.
Those injuries are now behind Mathieu. He’s healthy, and, perhaps more importantly, he’s full-speed.
Mathieu was not limited at all during the Cardinals’ first week of organized team activities, nor will he be this offseason.
“Obviously, last year I wasn’t participating in any offseason activities,” he said, referring to his knee rehab, which kept him out of Week 1 in 2014. “So, it just feels great to get back out here with the team (and) get back out here with the fellas and have those guys embrace me and keep on encouraging me.”
It didn’t take long for Mathieu to make an impression in OTAs.
“He looks like his rookie year again now. Yeah, he’s fine,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “He got his hand on a couple of balls. He has a gleam in his eye that I didn’t see at all last year.”
That’s certainly good news for the Cardinals, though Mathieu wasn’t quite ready to fully embrace his coach’s sentiments.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked if that “gleam” had indeed returned. “I’m just focused on staying healthy and just putting my best foot forward. If that’s signs of a gleam, then I guess so; but like I said, I’m just focused on doing my part and just helping my team.”
Mathieu did just that after the Cardinals drafted him 69th overall in the third round out of LSU in 2013.
That first season he started 11 of 13 games, finishing fifth on the team with 63 tackles and 15 passes defensed. He added two interceptions, one sack and one forced fumble, making him one of only three rookies to have such numbers.
It’s not out of the question to believe Mathieu may have been given consideration for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year if not for tearing both the ACL and LCL in his left knee.
The sophomore campaign saw Mathieu once again play 13 games. He was eased back into the lineup, and it wasn’t until Week 9 that he earned his first start. Three games later, he suffered a cracked thumb in the first half at Atlanta.
Mathieu ended his sophomore season with 39 tackles (13th on the team), one interception, one fumble recovery and five passes defensed.
As he prepares for season three, Mathieu said he’s lighter than he was a year ago, even though the roster still lists him at his playing weight of 186 pounds.
“I dropped some weight, and I actually feel better,” he said. “I’m moving around faster, getting in and out of breaks quicker. So, hopefully, me dropping my weight (won’t) set me back any.”
Early indications are that won’t be the case.
The one big sign that shows Mathieu, who recently turned 23, may be back to his old self is all the noise he’s making out on the field.
“I think about the times I’ve had the most fun playing football, and it was probably the times I talked the most trash,” he said. “It’s just time for me to get back to what I do — get back to my comfort zone when I’m on the field.”
Of course there’s some question as to where Mathieu will play on the field in 2015.
Over his first two seasons, he’s seen time at both safety and nickel corner.
His role, though, matters little to him.
“My focus is just staying healthy, staying on the field,” Mathieu said. “And I know Coach is going to put the best guys on the field, so hopefully I’m amongst those guys.”