Former DB: Cardinals’ Mathieu most versatile, Peterson has best footwork
There are many ways to evaluate an NFL defensive back.
At cornerback, there are bigger, press specialists and speedy cover players. There are safeties with the eyes and intellect to jump on an incoming pass and others who look more like linebackers playing in the box.
As the NFL evolves, the distinctions between defensive backs has opened the door for many types of players to succeed in unique roles.
Just look at the Arizona Cardinals. Two of their players appeared in former NFL defensive back and current ESPN writer Matt Bowen’s “Shutdown Index,” a list of the best defensive backs in more than a handful of categories.
Bowen called safety Tyrann Mathieu the most versatile. He also named cornerback Patrick Peterson as the NFL defensive back with the best footwork.
To make the point about Mathieu, Bowen went straight to the numbers.
Through 14 games this season, Mathieu spent 65 percent of his snaps (569 total) in the slot corner spot that garnered him recognition as an elite player in 2015 before his latest knee injury. But he’s also spent 145 snaps this season at free safety (16 percent), 96 snaps as an essential linebacker (11 percent), 40 snaps as an outside cornerback (5 percent) and 29 snaps at strong safety (3 percent), according to ESPN’s categorizations.
He is the Cardinals’ Swiss army knife. And with his explosive mobility back after the late 2015 knee injury, Mathieu can play in space over the slot, blitz from anywhere on the field, tackle in the run front or jump back into the post. Just find the ball. He’s a weapon.
While Mathieu has still not regained his 2015 form, he was an alternate Pro Bowl selection and has recorded 61 tackles, a sack, one forced fumble and two picks this season.
Peterson’s baseline statistics — 25 tackles, one fumble recovery and one interception with eight passes defensed — don’t show much other than teams would rather throw away from him.
To Bowen, Peterson’s success as a cover corner is a bit about his athleticism, but mostly about his footwork.
Peterson glides on top of the grass in his pedal, trimming the surface with his cleats. Silky smooth stuff. But that also shows up in press-man looks where Peterson can mimic the release of the wide receiver, open and then close back downhill to the throw.
And, really, the cornerback is always under control. Why? Because of his footwork. It’s top tier, putting Peterson in a position to take away the route using multiple techniques both inside and outside of the numbers.