The Arizona Cardinals made a controversial decision on Wednesday, releasing defensive back Tyrann Mathieu to free up salary cap space for 2018 and beyond. The move freed up a few million for the upcoming season, which helped the Cardinals sign a pair of quarterbacks in Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon.
Good for them, I guess. Their loss will be some other team’s gain. The question is which team will that be?
Despite Mathieu becoming a free agent at age 25 (turning 26 in May), he already has five years of experience and cashed in with a signing bonus on his first contract extension two years ago. He is sure to have plenty of suitors and to get significant money on the open market, so he has made it clear that he is not just looking to go to whatever team will sign him to the biggest contract.
(That approach is unlike some other players — looking at you, Ndamukong Suh.)
Instead, Mathieu is focusing on destinations that offer him a good football environment. ESPN’s Josina Anderson said that she has spoken to Mathieu, and he told her that he wants “to go somewhere where football is important and it matters.”
Here’s another quote of Mathieu’s, provided by Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated:
It’s not all about money for me ... I want to go somewhere where I can be completely immersed in football, and it’s not too much about anything but winning. I want to be a part of winning culture, where you feel that all the time. That’s all I want.
Well, Tyrann, there’s no place where football is more important to the city and to the team itself than in Green Bay. After all, the Packers have no traditional owner, freeing up the organization to focus entirely on the football team itself over all else.
Although Mathieu is not a traditional fit for what the Packers look for in defensive backs — he’s just a shade under 5-foot-9 — he is a dynamic playmaker who can split time as both a slot corner and a safety. The Packers’ depth issues at defensive back are well-known, and with the team not signing any of the top options at corner (though they are apparently still in the running for former Colt Rashaan Melvin), the position remains a significant need.
Say the Packers do find a way to shuffle some money around and land Mathieu, then get Melvin in on a one-year, incentive-laden deal. In that case, the Packers probably start Kevin King and Melvin on the boundaries with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Mathieu at the safety spots and Josh Jones playing the Will linebacker position. When the team goes to nickel, Mathieu moves down into the slot with Kentrell Brice coming on at safety.
That’s a pretty solid group.
Mathieu’s asking price is still a question mark, and he has connections with both New York teams — the Jets are coached by Todd Bowles, one of Mathieu’s former defensive coordinators, while the Giants just hired James Bettcher, the most recent DC in Arizona, for the same job. To be sure, Mathieu will get more money than former Packers safety Morgan Burnett, but he is younger and much more apt to produce big plays.
Say the Packers, who have about $24.5 million in cap space after the Muhammad Wilkerson deal, end up taking up another $8 million in 2018 on the Jimmy Graham contract. That’s still $16.5 million that they could devote to Mathieu and Melvin. The team would likely need to free up some space with a contract extension for Clay Matthews or Randall Cobb, but restructuring one of those two should give the team enough flexibility to squeeze in both defensive backs.
It’s probably not likely that the Packers would make such a splash, but Brian Gutekunst’s brief tenure has already shown that he is willing to break with the tendencies of his predecessor, Ted Thompson. Making a serious run at Mathieu would give Mike Pettine an elite playmaker in the secondary to build a scheme around for years to come, and the Packers’ culture seems to be exactly what the former Cardinal is looking for.