When a player the caliber of Tyrann Mathieu signs with a defense as good as the New Orleans Saints, it’s not just that the rich have gotten richer. We’re dangerously into “embarrassment of riches” territory.
“Besides being a playmaker and having an uncanny nature for being around the football,” Coach John Pagano said, “Mathieu gives you that veteran leadership you’re always looking for. He’s someone who can really excel because of all the different roles he’s played.”
Coach Pagano knows just how valuable Mathieu can be. Pagano was the Senior Defensive Assistant on a 2018 Houston Texans team that featured Mathieu and allowed only 19.8 points per game — good for Top 5 in the league. Pagano appreciates not only what Mathieu can do, but how many different things he does so well.
“In New Orleans,” Pagano said, “he’s going to be a safety who can do a multitude of different things—where he’s lining up. On third down, you can do some different things with him close to the line of scrimmage. He’s covering tight ends. He’s covering backs out of the backfield. You can even use him to pressure the quarterback.”
In a completely separate conversation, former NFL safety and defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander had the same thoughts.
“He’s a versatile player,” Alexander said. “Whatever you want to do with him, Tyrann Mathieu has the ability.”
Alexander pointed to the pre-existing strength of the Saints defensive backfield before Mathieu arrived for some clues as to how he will be employed. C.J. Gardner-Johnson has the nickel cornerback role locked up in Alexander’s mind, so Mathieu doesn’t have to play there, although he has the ability. From there, the strength of the Saints cornerback room — including recent draft pick Alontae Taylor — points to Mathieu being more of a movable chess piece.
“When it comes down to it,” Alexander said, “the Saints are going to man you up—especially on third down coverage. They want to be able to play tight coverage. You’re going to see Mathieu in the safety role, because of the guys they have at cornerback and at the nickel. He’ll also have the chance to be a robber, like they did in Kansas City with him being the deep middle in the Tampa 2.”
Again, almost like they were comparing notes, Pagano agreed, saying that Kansas City did such a good job moving him around, the Saints can do something similar.
“The Saints have been so multiple in the things they do,” Pagano said. “They keep you off balance.”
Both coaches also pointed to Mathieu’s extreme instincts, knowledge of the game and nose for the ball which once earned him the nickname, “Honey Badger.” Although both coaches pointed to times where Mathieu might be out of position, both called him an extremely technically sound player who is right far more often than he’s wrong.
Bottom line, it’s probably true that Tyrann Mathieu wasn’t necessarily a player the New Orleans Saints needed for 2022. They had one of the best defenses in the league last season and bringing in the hometown hero who was once so electric for LSU can be seen as a bit of a vanity play. However, for a young team still trying to rebuild and find their identity in the post-Drew Brees era, there’s something to be said for the personal stamp that Mathieu can place on this defense.
Head Coach Dennis Allen is known to be a defensive guru, and he’s just found himself a player who is going to make him look even smarter. Does Mathieu fill a positional need? Sure, slightly. Does Mathieu fill a cultural need — absolutely. From there, Allen and his staff are clearly going to have a lot of fun putting Mathieu in places which he can succeed, which, according to a couple of NFL experts in Pagano and Alexander is just about anywhere on the field.