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Free Agent Spotlight: S, Tyrann Mathieu

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The first defensive player in our off-season free-agent focus is another blast from Bruce Arians’ past.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

You can’t win a championship unless you have at least a respectable defensive unit. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have some pieces, but they still need a few to have a really good shot at putting it all together in 2019.

A player who is familiar and comfortable with the mentality the team is expected to carry into the new league year is Houston Texans safety, Tyrann Mathieu.

From his time in Arizona, we know “The Honey Badger” is connected with new head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles.

Could there be a reunion in Florida this season? Let’s dive into the particulars.

TYRANN MATHIEU’S CAREER

After being dismissed from the Louisiana State University (LSU) football program, Mathieu spent 2012 wondering what the future would hold.

In 2013, the Arizona Cardinals made Mathieu the 69th selection in the draft and quickly put processes in place to ensure he had the best chance at succeeding for himself and the team.

And it worked. He made the NFL’s All-Rookie Team that season, and climbed as high as No. 28 in the NFL’s Top-100 in 2016 after making the Pro Bowl and became a First Team All-Pro in 2015.

2015 was his year. The troubled college player was officially an accomplished pro, and had nearly 90 tackles to go along with five interceptions and his first career picks-six that year.

He had overcome the odds. But if there’s anyone who knows adversity is never truly gone for good, it’s Mathieu.

It came in 2016. After signing a five-year extension with the Cardinals, Mathieu missed six games and finished on injured reserve for the third time in four seasons.

Then, it came again in the form of a down year for the still young defensive back. His tackles dipped below his 2015 numbers despite the fact he played in two more games. He had only two interceptions and his passes defended in 2016 and 17 didn’t come close to the passes he’d broken up in 2015 alone.

Bruce Arians stepped away from football after the 2017 season, and the Cardinals stepped away from the safety Arians had seen so much potential in that he risked everything to give him his shot in the league.

Less than two-years after signing a contract worth more than $10M per year on average, Mathieu was released.

It didn’t take long for him to find new employment though. Less than a week later, Mathieu signed a one-year $7M deal with the Houston Texans.

His 2018 season was a redemption campaign of sorts. No, he didn’t make the Pro Bowl or All-Pro list. But he did have 89 tackles on the year (same as he had in 2015), and broke up more passes than he had in either of his last two seasons with the Cardinals while hauling in two more career interceptions.

Mathieu has gone on record saying he’d like to return to the Texans in 2019. But beyond those comments, there isn’t much known about any progress between he and the franchise pertaining to any extensions.

If last season was any indicator, safeties aren’t the most highly pursued players in the league these days. Houston may decide to see what happens in the NFL Draft before spending more than the rookie pay scale would require them to on a safety.

Which brings us to now, and the possibility of Mathieu moving to Tampa.

WHY THE BUCCANEERS NEED HIM

In case you missed the memo, defense wins championships. And to be frank, the Bucs don’t have a title-worthy defensive unit, yet.

There are some nice pieces in place. Jason Pierre-Paul is a double-digit sack guy on a line which was snake-bitten most of the year by injuries. Carl Nassib looks like a quality role player who can step in for periods at a time, and may challenge to be an every down player in 2019.

Vita Vea took great strides. Carlton Davis looked relatively good for the most part and is young and hungry to make a difference.

Lavonte David is - well - Lavonte David.

Outside of those guys, everyone else is either really young and/or coming off injuries, or carries a big question mark by their name. See: Kwon Alexander Gerald McCoy.

Tampa Bay doesn’t have a ton of cap space. Freeing up space mean opening up slots which will need to be filled elsewhere.

So, there isn't enough money to sign a defense, and you can’t draft one in a single season.

One easy button the team could push is on Tyrann Mathieu. No, he’s not “The Honey Badger” anymore. But the Bucs don’t need that.

The Bucs need a safety who can give you 16 games of veteran leadership who knows how to overcome adversity and doesn’t care when people start doubting him or his team.

At 27-years of age, when the Buccaneers open camp Mathieu could very well be the oldest member of the secondary. Some might say the thought alone is kind of scary.

Well, without him the elder statesmen in the secondary room would be cornerback, Ryan Smith.

Signing a safety like Mathieu means the team can rest easy knowing they have a guy to rely on back there while hopefully bringing back a healthy Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead who would have more experience than most safeties drafted in the fourth round just one-year prior.

Jason Licht could still use a mid-round pick on a developmental talent, and use their top picks on more pressing needs. It just makes sense, really.

WHAT WILL MATHIEU COST?

Now, here’s the real question. Like I said previously, the Bucs don’t have a whole lot of cap room, and after a solid season in Houston it’s likely Mathieu will not come out of the bargain bin.

Again though, looking back to last season, safeties just aren’t getting paid very well in free-agency.

Morgan Burnett left the Packers for the Pittsburgh Steelers and got less than $5M per year on average. Lamarcus Joyner was franchise tagged by the Rams and earned a little over $11M playing on tag this past year.

Kenny Vaccaro moved to Tennessee for less than $2M, and it doesn’t get much better if at all from there.

Earl Thomas is also going to have a say in all this, and if he hits the open market I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Mathieu wait until after Thomas signs to make his deal. After all, Thomas is coming off a broken leg. So, if he gets $8M per year, then Mathieu will probably try to push near or at double-digits.

WILL IT HAPPEN?

If the Texans begin the new year without Mathieu under contract, then it’s saying something. He wants to stay in Houston. As far as I can tell, Texans fans and media think he fits well in the franchise.

Sure, they have money situations and cap figures to iron out, but there’s no reason the Texans can’t secure him for at least another year if they really want to. Right now, they are the only NFL franchise who can negotiate with him after all.

Sometimes though, teams don’t appreciate the privilege as much as they should, or they think because a position isn’t highly sought after in free-agency it must not be that important, and they can just replace their current guy in the draft.

To those people, I’d ask this question, who do you know that fits this description in the draft?

“He just brings that good, positive energy regardless of if things aren’t going well. He’s always positive and continues to bring people up and just make everyone else around him better. That energy and positive mindset that he has, it’s been very, very special for this team.”

This is what Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson had to say about Mathieu. Measure this at the NFL Combine. Or at Pro Days. You can’t. Sure, you can find it in interviews with teammates and coaches and players’ mothers. But how many players have been leaders according to those crowds and not panned out in the NFL?

Will he land with the Buccaneers? If he hits open waters, Arians and Licht will send a rescue boat. This much I’m about as certain as a guy can be without having been told as much by the two men themselves.

Money will play a part. But the fit and the player hunger are both there. So two of the three hardest parts are over. And if there’s one thing Jason Licht knows how to do, it’s getting players under contract in a way that makes them and the team both very happy.

Poll

Do you want Tyrann Mathieu on the Bucs in 2019?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    Yes!
    (126 votes)
  • 62%
    Yes, but for less than $10M per year
    (244 votes)
  • 5%
    No!
    (22 votes)
392 votes total Vote Now