Tyrann Mathieu was a revelation as a rookie in 2013, racking up 63 total tackles, one sack, two interceptions and one forced fumble in 13 games, 11 of which were starts.
However, a torn ACL in Week 14 ended his season, and he spent much of the 2014 campaign trying to work his way back into form. He finished with 36 total tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery, but despite showing occasional flashes, was not quite the same player he was as a rookie pre-injury.
But now, after another offseason of work, Mathieu looks and feels like the player he was as a rookie, when the third-round pick out of LSU quickly emerged as one of the most important players on the defense.
And because of that, Mathieu is No. 5 on NFL.com writer Marc Sessler’s list of players who will be Making the Leap in 2015.
Sessler notes that a look at Mathieu’s rookie season is a sign of how much the coaching staff values his skill set.
The third-rounder emerged as a versatile defensive back with a sixth sense for the ball that can’t be taught. It’s plays like this that helped Mathieu finish as the league’s third-best player at his position in 2013, per Pro Football Focus.
The writer went on to point out Mathieu’s 4.50 40-yard dash speed along with his coverage and pass-rushing skills.
While his 5-foot-9, 186-pound frame limits some of what he can do against bigger targets, Mathieu’s closing speed and sticky hands make him a candidate to double his three career picks in 2015.
Among the biggest questions facing Mathieu, according to Sessler, is the matter of staying healthy. He writes that everyone knows how disruptive and dynamic the defensive back is, but no one is sure if he can make it through a full 16-game season without injury.
After that, a change in the defensive coaching staff could also have an impact.
Schematically, the Cardinals weren’t helped by the departure of talented defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who left to lead the Jets. New play-caller James Bettcher, though, has earned high praise from Arians as a coach who — like Bowles — game plans around the strengths of his roster. In other words, we’ll still see Mathieu used creatively as a ball-hawking mismatch in the secondary.
With Arizona expected to play nickel and dime sets nearly 70 percent of the time, Mathieu is penciled in for a major role. On paper, there aren’t many negatives weighing down Honey Badger’s chances for a major bounce-back campaign.
If Sessler is correct and Mathieu does turn in a monster campaign, it’s possible he could be a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year honors. It’s noted that in his time doing this list, a player has never been both a Making the Leap candidate as well as a Comeback Player of the Year possibility, but Mathieu very much is in category.
Mathieu is not the only Cardinal to land on this list, either, as John Brown came in at No. 6.