The strength of the Arizona Cardinals’ defense in 2015 was their secondary.
This offseason has seen the group take some hits, though, as safety Rashad Johnson signed with the Tennessee Titans while cornerback Jerraud Powers and safety Tony Jefferson remain unsigned as free agents. While both could return, it’s possible neither will be back.
Normally losing starters from a group like that would be damaging, and perhaps it will be. But if it’s not, chances are it will be because two of the group’s stars — Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu — continue to play at an elite level.
A few weeks back Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said the plan was to build the secondary around the former LSU stars, and it’s easy to see why. They are both dynamic players and good leaders, and at 25 and 23, respectively, Peterson and Mathieu’s best days are likely still ahead of them.
But how good are they and how good will they be?
That is of course up for debate, but over at the NFL Network, former NFL defensive back Ike Taylor was talking with Maurice Jones-Drew and he said the Cardinals’ stars are the two most valuable defensive backs in the league.
He has Mathieu, whose season was cut short in Week 15 due to a torn ACL, second, ahead of Denver’s Bradley Roby.
“The Honey Badger is a jack of all trades,” he said, over a highlight of Mathieu picking off 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick. “Just coming out of LSU — sat out a whole year — what I like about this guy is his versatility and his passion for the game.
“The reason why I felt like the Arizona Cardinals had lost that playoff game because on defense, they didn’t have a guy with that passion, they didn’t have Tyrann Mathieu.”
Tayolor pointed to Mathieu’s size — he is listed at 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds — and noted “he is all heart, he’s all passion.
“He’s a turnover machine; he can fit anywhere in that secondary on that defense. He’s the heart and soul to that defense, that’s why I have him at No. 2.”
In 14 games last season, Mathieu totaled 89 tackles, five interceptions, 16 passes defensed, 11 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. The NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November, he was a first-team All-Pro who was named to his first Pro Bowl while being a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
His recovery from the torn ACL will be a story to keep an eye on this offseason, because a healthy Mathieu is a game-changer for the Cardinals.
Then there’s Peterson, whom Taylor ranked at the top of his list.
“Just coming out of LSU — I had the opportunity to work out with this guy; Bryant McFadden is his older cousin — so he had been talking about this guy for a long time coming out of high school,” Taylor said. “Just a guy, man, he’s built like a LeBron James-type body.
“Not only is he an All-Pro corner, he’s an All-Pro punt returner, which says a lot in his versatility. He plays a team’s No. 1 receiver, all he does is cause havoc, create turnovers. He knows what it is to be a professional.”
Taylor said Peterson is able to identify his weaknesses and improve them, which helped him bounce back from a down 2014 season to having a banner 2015.
Peterson intercepted two passes, had 10 passes defensed and forced one fumble while blanketing the opposing team’s top option week in and week out. He was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl (fourth as a cornerback) and was a first-team All-Pro for the third time, second as a CB.
Upon learning that Taylor ranked the pair of Cardinals ahead of such other star corners as Darrelle Revis and Josh Norman and Richard Sherman, Jones-Drew asked Taylor to explain his thinking.
“I just feel like, over the course of time, Pat Pete at No. 1, been doing it, and he’s going to be the future along with a young Tyrann, along with a Roby, along with a (Jason) Verrett, on his way, but I just feel like right now, [Peterson] is the most consistent guy who has been traveling with the team’s No. 1 receiver,” he said. “No knock to anyone of these other corners that you just mentioned, but I just felt like overall, in general, he has the most value.”