I was perusing the latest update on Pro Football Focus’ list of the top 100 players in the NFL, when something reminded me of a certain player the San Francisco 49ers added on Thursday. It was their description of a player some thought the 49ers might take in the 2013 NFL Draft.
84. Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals (Unranked)
They said he was too slow and that his problems off the field would prevent him making any sort of impact. They were wrong. Mathieu proved an immediate contributor as both an early downs safety and sub package slot corner. That’s a lot to ask out of any player let alone a rookie, yet you’d never guess that Mathieu was making his debut given his assured performances that saw him pick up just one negative grade. He would likely have been higher but for his season-ending ACL injury during the Week 14 game against St Louis.
Best Performance: Week 12, IND @ ARZ, +2.7
Key Stat: Mathieu picked up 12 quarterback disruptions, 18 defensive stops, two picks and six pass breakups in a season that saw him making plays all over the field.
“Early downs safety and sub package slot corner,” which sounds pretty close to the 49ers’ best-case scenario for Jimmie Ward’s rookie season.
Ward is two inches taller than the Honey Badger, who stands just 5′ 9″. They weigh about the same and Ward’s pro day workout numbers were slightly better than what Matthieu did at the combine. But we all know from watching Matthieu in college and as a rookie with the Cardinals that he plays in a way that makes him seem bigger than he looks.
With the 49ers adding Antoine Bethea, the 49ers can get Ward mentally ready for a season of handling Carlos Rogers’ old job at slot corner. However, Ward already has experience at both strong safety and cornerback, which could provide the 49ers an advantage in the form of multiple looks they can utilize next season. If Bethea, 30, isn’t as productive as they’d hoped, Ward might be able to step in as a full-time safety next to Eric Reid. If Bethea is great and the 49ers’ cornerback situation get dicey, there’s another potential role for Ward.
Back to the Honey Badger comparison — which Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke would surely hate, since all comparisons are to be avoided scrupulously during their press conferences — both players seem to possess outsized personalities as well. Mathieu’s situation is a little more complicated, as he missed the 2012 season after several drug-related incidents. But Mathieu got that nickname for a reason. Once he’s on the field, stuff just seems to happen around him. Ward seems like a safer bet than Mathieu did a year ago, simply because he didn’t go into the draft with a checkered past. But his charisma was on full display at his introductory press conference in Santa Clara, and his style on the field is equally eye-catching, with a hitting style Harbaugh described as “pretty vicious.”
Ward recently described watching the guy San Francisco took in the first round a year ago, and guess whose name came up …
“He’s a baller,” Ward said about Reid. “He makes plays, he sets the tone, and he’ll get the defense fired up. I used to watch him at LSU. With him, the ‘Honey Badger’ (Tyrann Mathieu) and (Morris) Claiborne, they had a really good defense. I just focused on (Reid) because he was a safety and I liked the way he played. He plays the game with a lot of passion, and I think he’s really dedicated to the game of football.”
Most of all, this is about the ability to be a chameleon. The honey badger had no problem with this before an ACL tear knocked him out near the end of a very productive rookie season. Who knows, maybe Reid will move to strong safety and Ward will end up taking his spot as the starting free safety. When talking about what this pick means for the 2014 season, both Harbaugh and Ward (who has no nickname, at least that I’m aware of) used some form of the word “versatile” three times. In other words, if someone asks where Ward will get most of his snaps, an accurate answer might be, “Honey Fangio don’t care.”