Tyrann Mathieu. The Honey Badger. The Eagles? Don’t write it off just yet.
There’s no questioning that Tyrann Mathieu is among this year’s most prized free agents. A bonafide playmaker who can change the entire nature of a defense, the former LSU safety has been an instrumental piece in Arizona’s secondary and is still only 25-years old. The first question we need to ask is ‘why did this happen?’. Why would the Cardinals allow arguably their most valuable player to walk into free agency? Money.
According to numerous reports, Mathieu declined to take a pay-cut from his $14M projected base salary which led the Cardinals to cut ties with the 2015 Pro Bowler. They then decided to pay Sam Bradford $20M, go figure.
Anyhow, this leaves a gaping market for Mathieu as teams scramble to get to the front of the pecking order to acquire his services. So how and why are the Eagles in the mix and just how likely is this dream scenario set to become a reality?
Here comes the money
Okay, let’s get this out of the way. We’re not talking about just any team or any run-of-the-mill GM here. This is Howie Roseman and this is the Philadelphia Eagles. In the space of a week, he was able to trade Torrey Smith for a young cornerback to save $5M, ask two franchise players to restructure their contracts to save upwards of another $10M, sign Nigel Bradham to a long-term deal and somehow keep the team under the cap limit. If there’s anybody that can get this done, it’s Howie.
We haven’t touched on the fact that both Vinny Curry and Mychal Kendricks have been shopped since the free agency window opened, nor have we referenced the prove-it deals given to veteran players and backloaded in contracts in order to create leverage.
More importantly, Mathieu did recently state that ‘it’s not about the money’ and he would rather go to somewhere where Defense is a priority and a winning culture matters. How does the #1 ranked run defense on a Super Bowl winning Philadelphia sound? Having said that, for a player to decline taking a pay-cut and say ‘it’s not just about the money’ is a little worrying. I highly doubt that Mathieu is going to get anything less than $10M per year, considering the NFL’s highest paid safety, Eric Berry, is on $13M per season.
Why do the Eagles ‘need’ Tyrann Mathieu?
It’s a great question, but it comes down to one simple answer, the Butterfly effect. The Eagles recently lost out in a bidding war to the Saints and the spoils of that war was a long-term deal for Patrick Robinson. Robinson was not only an exceptional playmaker for the Eagles last year, but after being pushed into the nickel spot during training camp after the Ronald Darby Trade, he rapidly rekindled the 2015 fire that saw him allow the league’s lowest completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks. Robinson was a key cog in the Jim Schwartz defense and his level of consistency and reliability will be missed. Replacing him is a lot harder than you think.
Of the cornerbacks on the roster, only Jalen Mills and Daryl Worley have NFL experience from the nickel spot. Ronald Darby, Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas are all corners who thrive on the outside and moving any of them inside would do more harm than good. As things stand, Darby and Jones could be set to play outside and moving Jalen Mills to the nickel would ensure the three best corners on the roster are on the field at the same time.
There is always the potential to move Malcolm Jenkins down back into a nickel role. After all, he did spent most of the 2016 campaign working out of the slot following the season-ending injury sustained by Ron Brooks. The leadership and production brought to the table by Jenkins gives the Eagles enough confidence and firepower to push him down back into heart of the battlefield.
However, what would happen if Mathieu were to sign? A safety who can be just as dominant inside the box as he is over the top. Whether he’s blitzing quarterbacks or delivering hard hits to elusive receivers, Mathieu would be a perfect compliment to the Eagles defense and spent most of his time on the field actually working out of the slot over the last two years. This would mean that the team have a rotation of three safeties who can fill any role that Schwartz demands without compromising the shape and strength of the cornerback corps.
So what leverage do the Eagles have aside from their culture and defensive priority? Well, Mathieu isn’t perfect and if it comes down to a counter-argument the Eagles do have two very strong points to fall on.
Mathieu hasn’t exactly been the most durable player in his career. A shoulder injury ended his 2016 season and prior to that, he came off of a second knee surgery. In fact, 2017 was the first year that Mathieu started and finished all 16 games and it could even be argued that he didn’t look the player he once was. This brings us to point two.
Sure, Mathieu may not have allowed a single touchdown in 2017, but he has three interceptions in two years while injury setbacks have plagued him. It’s easy to look at stats and judge a player, but the tape tells another story. Looking a step slower in coverage, it’s almost as if his reaction times have dipped or he doesn’t have the zippy footwork to change direction when judging a route anymore. The explosiveness from his game began to dampen and the Cardinals began to use him in the nickel as a result, because the open field became a minefield.
3. Oh, Hey there former LSU teammate Jalen Mills
Bring Arizona 32 to Philly!
— Jalen Mills (@greengoblin) March 1, 2018
Will the deal get done? It’s way too early to say. Mathieu still boasts elite potential and would likely go for the deal that gives him the most long-term stability, both financially and in terms of the team investment in him on the field. But do not write the Eagles off. At all. The Honey Badger would be a tremendous fit in Philly and ticks every single box.
Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports