The writing for Tyrann Mathieu’s football career was on the wall last month when the 2011 Heisman Trophy candidate was arrested on marijuana possession. Mathieu’s hope of returning to the LSU roster in 2013 was likely shot, the arrest culminated a tumultuous few months that had more changes of direction than one of the cornerback’s electrifying punt returns.
In the past 12 months, Mathieu went from arguably the most talked about player in college football — one could hardly turn on a TV without hearing the words “Honey Badger” — to this current development, which forces him to break a precedent that has vexed other players trying to make a similar leap to the professional ranks.
ESPN.com reporter Joe Schad broke the news on Thursday morning that Mathieu will enter the 2013 NFL Draft. He certainly isn’t the first player forced into early draft declaration because of off-field problems. Some of the more notable examples of those who have done so suggest it’s a difficult proposition.
Mathieu will try to succeed where others like Marcus Vick and Maurice Clarett failed before; the jury is still out on Terrell Pryor, whose forced exit from the college game came under different circumstances. Both Vick and Clarett had troubled pasts that pushed them into the draft before they were ready, either in maturity or football skill, the same hurdles Mathieu must now clear.
As it pertains to Mathieu, the issue at play isn’t so much his off-field transgressions. It is a problem indeed, in his life as well as in football and the former is certainly more important. That said, NFL franchises prove willing to take chances on potential impact players with red flag issues. Some get their houses in order to excel; one of the standouts in the 2012 Draft class is Cincinnati Bengal Vontaze Burfict, whose stock plummeted last winter because of his own red flags he has overcome at the next level.
Rather, Mathieu’s game could benefit from another season of polish. Burfict’s attitude and in-game misbehavior hurt his professional profile, but his ability was never in question. The beginning of Mathieu’s decline was in January, when Alabama routinely targeted the Tiger cornerback in the passing attack.
Despite his six forced fumbles in 2011, Mathieu was exposed as a shaky coverage defender. He was already at a disadvantage because of his size, but Alabama’s exploitation of his weakness exacerbated his NFL question marks.
Of course, that’s secondary to his repeated problems with drugs. Mathieu was originally committed to returning to LSU in 2013, refocused and reinvigorated despite flirtations with FCS McNeese State. Beyond polishing his game for another college season, another year to grow as a person. Mathieu is just 20, and won’t turn 21 until May — after the draft.
On the flip side of that conversation, Mathieu obviously has demons plaguing him in Baton Rouge. Perhaps the change of scenery will do him some much needed good.