TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals played it safe with their first two picks in the NFL draft, so felt they could take a bit of a gamble with their third.
It turned out to be a big gamble: The Honey Badger.
Believing a one-time Heisman Trophy finalist could turn his life around after a series of slip-ups, the Cardinals used their third-round pick on Friday to take LSU defensive back and kick return specialist Tyrann Mathieu.
It took hours of conversations with Mathieu and seemingly everyone who knows him, an assurance from their Pro Bowl cornerback and a safety net in writing, but the Cardinals decided the potentially hefty reward was worth the gamble.
“We felt comfortable with the risk that was involved,” Cardinals first-year general manager Steve Keim said.
Mathieu had a dramatic and public fall from grace.
He was one of the nation’s most dynamic players in 2011, with a knack for making big plays on the biggest stages, a consensus All-American who was the first defensive back to attend the Heisman Trophy ceremony since Michigan’s Desmond Howard won the award in 1997.
A proclivity for smoking marijuana took him off the pedestal and out of football.
LSU coach Les Miles booted Mathieu off the team during preseason camp in August for failing repeated drug tests.
A two-week drug treatment program with former NBA player John Lucas followed, but Mathieu was arrested in October with three former teammates for marijuana possession after police found 10 bags of pot and drug paraphernalia in his Baton Rouge apartment.
Mathieu did months of image rehab leading into the draft, but even as Mathieu tried to right himself, the doubters remained.
Former NFL general manager Bill Polian, now an analyst for ESPN, said he would have taken Mathieu off his draft board, and numerous teams bypassed a chance to take him when their turn came in the draft.
When his name was finally called, Mathieu couldn’t contain his emotions, barely able to speak through his heavy sobbing.
“The whole time I was telling myself, ‘I’m not going to cry, I’m not going to cry,’” Mathieu said. “I’ve been playing football my whole life, but it’s different this time. All the stuff I’ve been through, just to see it all come back around again, I know I’m on the right track.”
The Cardinals will take steps to make sure he does.
One way will be through his contract.
During the interview process, the Cardinals talked to Mathieu and his agent about putting stipulations in his contract to prevent slip-ups, including weekly drug tests, visits with therapists and drug counselors.
Mathieu agreed to it all, which reassured the Cardinals — to a point.
“If there are speed bumps, I can promise you it will be a short leash,” Keim said.
The other part of Mathieu’s safety net will be Patrick Peterson, his friend and former teammate at LSU.
While trying to get his life straight, Mathieu leaned on Arizona’s Pro Bowl cornerback, even staying at his house for stretches.
Peterson made sure Mathieu kept on track and even vouched for him to the Cardinals’ brass.
Now that his friend is heading to the desert, Peterson will continue to mentor Mathieu, providing guidance and a watchful eye as he tries to navigate life in the NFL.
“I am more than confident he will be OK,” Peterson said. “He knows he made mistakes, but football is his life. Now he has an opportunity to do it again. I can promise you he would never let the opportunity slip away from him again.”
For all the stipulations and the assurances from Peterson and others, the Cardinals’ decision to draft Mathieu came down to something basic: trust.
After talking to Mathieu, Arizona’s brass believes he is contrite and on the way to turning his life around. Given a second chance, they anticipate his passion for playing football will drive him toward becoming a better player and away from the elements of his life that caused him troubles in the past.
“We’ve all made mistakes in our lives, especially when we’re at that age,” Cardinals first-year coach Bruce Arians said. “To take away every opportunity? That’s not what I believe in.”
If Mathieu makes the most of this second chance, he could be the steal of the 2013 draft, potentially teaming with Peterson for one of the NFL’s most dynamic defensive backfields.
If he does slip up, Arizona could look bad for wasting a third-round pick on a player many teams didn’t want anything to do with.
The potentially high reward made the gamble worth it for the Cardinals.