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TEMPE, Ariz. — Five years ago, Tyrann Mathieu went to the NFL scouting combine on a mission.

He spent his few days in Indianapolis in February 2013 trying to rehabilitate his image with NFL teams. He had to explain himself. Explain why he was kicked off LSU’s football team. Explain why he smoked so much marijuana. Explain why he was arrested. Explain why he was worth drafting after spending a year out of football.

The questions were abundant.

One by one, Mathieu answered them.

After the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the third round (No. 69 overall) that year — after five teams passed over him once, 16 teams passed over him twice — and 10 teams skipped by him three times, Mathieu kept answering them, both on and off the field.

Five years later, Mathieu has become an example of why people give second chances. He’s stayed out of trouble. He’s signed a mega contract extension worth up to $62.5 million over five years. He’s become a household name in the NFL — by some accounts a bona fide superstar.

But if there was one example of how far Mathieu has come, it happened in September of last year. That’s when the LSU Board of Supervisors approved a name change for the Tigers’ football players lounge to the “Mathieu Players’ Lounge at Football Operations” after a $1 million donation by Mathieu.

Seeing his name on the lounge will be “humbling,” Mathieu said, and will make him feel like “one of those old, rich dudes.”

“I’m still in awe about that,” said Del Lee-Collins, Mathieu’s defensive backs coach at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans and a close confidant. “Nothing ceases to amaze me with him. I never would’ve imagined it. I said things to coaches like, ‘He’s going to be a Heisman candidate.’ But I would never had imagined that he would have his own legacy on that campus.

“When you think about it, how great is that, that you can play for a university — and only play two years — and have trouble and get kicked off of the team, and you can still go back and donate for the betterment of the university and football program? I applauded him for a long time for that.”

On a chilly December 2017 winter night in Phoenix, five years ago seemed like a different lifetime.

‘I’m just taking it in stride, all of it.’

Mathieu was behind the wheel of his military-like Mercedes SUV, one hand on the steering wheel, the other elbow resting on the door. Chaka Khan’s voice filled the car, followed by Stevie Wonder’s, Drake’s and J. Cole’s. Mathieu’s diverse taste in music doesn’t come as a surprise. This is a man who’s as comfortable talking about the intricacies of an NFL defense as he is explaining the latest conspiracy theory he’s researched — and there are plenty of those.

Mathieu was navigating the streets of Phoenix, stopping at homes of families in need, surprising kids with $1,000 worth of food, toys, clothes and cash, just in time to finish their Christmas shopping. The $10,000 Mathieu spent was all his. He didn’t take donations from corporations and then put his name on it. He wanted to give back, just like so many gave to him throughout his life, throughout the past five years.

“The inside of Ty has always been a humanitarian side because he gives more than he receives,” said Nick Rapone, Mathieu’s former position coach with the Cardinals. “The part that’s remarkable is Ty is no longer a follower. When you deal with marijuana and all that stuff, you’re a follower. Ty now has matured to where he’s making decisions for himself, his family and his livelihood. That’s the maturity that I saw.”

Part of Mathieu’s evolution has been the five-year contract extension he received in August 2016.

It was evidence of not just Mathieu’s development as a football player, it fulfilled the belief the Cardinals put in him. They gave him a back-loaded contract as a rookie, deferring most of his signing bonus to the last three years of his four-year rookie deal to protect them in case Mathieu wasn’t the rehabilitated person he told them he was and who they believed he was. In August 2016 — four years after he was suspended by LSU — he was given a five-year extension worth as much as $62.5 million. Of that, $21.25 million was guaranteed at signing.

In November 2016, Mathieu donated $1 million to LSU’s football program.

“I don’t have any bad vibes with LSU,” Mathieu said. “I learned so much there. I experienced so much there. I had so much fun. I met great people. I still have relationships with people there, but they just gave me the platform to really just be who I am and to show the world who I was, and I was cool with that.

“It’ll always hold a sweet place in my heart just because of the opportunity it gave me to just be who I am.”

To get from 2013 to today hasn’t been easy for Mathieu. It’s been, to some degree, a daily struggle.

He’s not ashamed of his past. He doesn’t hide it. He uses it as a reminder of what could’ve been and what could still happen. Mathieu carries it with him every day, learning from it, using it as his moral compass.

The key to getting through the past five years, Mathieu believes, was staying “levelheaded.”

“I think just me being patient, too, with myself,” he told ESPN. “All of it is learning experiences and all of it is just taking things as they come, so I don’t think you can really prepare yourself for situations or experiences unless you actually live it or do it.

“I’m always thankful for the stuff I went through and thankful for the people I’ve met, and I’m thankful even for some of the bad times because all of it helps get you to wherever you are in your life.”

So, where is Mathieu?

He’s 25. He just finished his fifth NFL season. He has two sons, a big house, fancy cars, a lot of money in the bank. He’s been an All-Pro and a Pro Bowler. He’s had two major knee injuries and has finished just two of his five seasons healthy. He’s also been a team captain, and he’s one of the Cardinals’ NFLPA player reps.

But Mathieu’s still not who he ultimately wants to be.

“I’m working toward that person and I’m trying to be that person, and I’m trying to handle relationships and I’m trying to be better with being a father and being a better football player.

“I’m just taking it in stride, all of it.”

‘Life is funny and weird. It’s real.’

He had to grow up faster than most people.

Mathieu’s biological father is in prison for murder. He was adopted by his aunt and uncle, Sheila and Tyrone, at 5 years old from his birth mother — Tyrone’s sister. In 2005, when Mathieu was 13, he had to evacuate New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina was approaching. He lived in Alexandria, Louisiana for two weeks before relocating to Houston for a few months. When his family decided to return to New Orleans, they found four and a half feet of water in their living room. Mathieu then watched them rebuild. In college, Mathieu turned to pot to escape the mounting pressures of being not just an SEC star but a national phenomenon nicknamed the “Honey Badger.”

The rest, well, is history.

He was suspended from the LSU football team on Aug. 10, 2012. To this day, former LSU coach Les Miles said it was one of the “hardest things” he’s ever done in coaching.

“It was terrible,” Miles told ESPN. “It was a standard policy and not one you changed on a whim. It was what you did.

“It was tremendously hard for me because I knew what kind of person Ty was. Ty was going to give you everything that he had and be a great teammate — a great leader and a quality teammate. He was never going to be a social problem.”

Mathieu was arrested in October that year. Any hope of returning to the Tigers was gone. Mathieu left school and began his full-time pursuit of the NFL. He was 20 years old at the time.

Mathieu doesn’t know how close he is to being the person he wants to be.

“Life is funny and weird,” he said. “It’s real. It’s challenging. It’s all those things. At the end of the day, I just try to balance it all out and not focus on the good, not focus on the negative, but just focus on moving forward, whether things are going good or bad.”

When Mathieu was drafted, he made a conscious decision to “walk a fine line.”

He knew the stakes. He understood his reputation. He saw the temptations. He just didn’t put himself in situations where the ability to make career- or life-defining decisions were easy.

“I just didn’t do a lot of stuff,” Mathieu said. “I didn’t go a lot of places. I didn’t put myself in situations because I didn’t think I could really handle it.

“Now, I’m cool. It’s cool. Temptation is what it is. I think my mind’s a little bit stronger.”

Mathieu feels like he missed out on the fun of his early 20s as a young adult in the real world with money in his pocket. There were times he stayed home from Las Vegas when his teammates took the short flight for a few days in Sin City. But, while he feels like he missed out, he doesn’t see it as a negative.

It was just Mathieu doing what he felt he had to do.

“I was just being me,” he said. “Other people were being them, and I was just being me. I try to hold on to that the most because, to me, that’s what’s so easy to lose, is yourself. That’s the first thing you lose before we lose anything else. I just try to be me, hold on to me, and that’s it.”

The closest Mathieu has come to giving into those temptations was after his first knee injury. Even today Mathieu said he has “about three or four reasons that I could probably use as an excuse to do whatever I want to do,” he said. “That was the way I used to think. Now, I’m 25. I feel like I’ve been in the NFL 12 years.

“I just got a different way of looking at stuff.”

‘He is a mature man at this point.’

The challenge of not giving in, of not regressing, surrounds him daily. As he keeps fending off temptation, Mathieu said he won’t look at life’s “scoreboard” to see how well he’s doing. He’s not even tempted to sneak a glimpse.

“Because, at the end of the day, I’m not perfect, so I don’t try to be perfect,” Mathieu said. “I don’t even worry about the score. I just try to live my life.”

Among all his guiding lights, Mathieu believes the biggest are his two sons, Noah and Tyrann Jr. Everything Mathieu does — good, bad or ugly — will affect them to some degree, he said. He wants them to learn from him, but he also hopes he’s the type of father and man who doesn’t have to teach his sons how to do things differently than how he did them.

Unlike Mathieu’s biological father, Darrin Hayes, who has been incarcerated for most of Mathieu’s life.

“I want to be present for my kids, and my biological father wasn’t present for me,” he said. “I have an adopted father [and] there’s certain things, good and bad, that I try to take from that relationship and try to make myself better at being a father.”

Fatherhood put a lot into perspective for Mathieu.

Lee-Collins talks to Mathieu often about providing for and protecting his kids, and when Mathieu sees his sons, he understands what that message means, Lee-Collins said.

“He grew up real quick and real fast when he was able to see it for himself in front of him,” Lee-Collins said.

Those who have known Mathieu the best during the past five years have seen the changes in him.

He’s more mature. He’s more responsible. He’s smarter. He’s more reserved. He tends to sit back and listen, then analyze what’s happening in front of him more now than he used to.

Lee-Collins used to have conversations with Mathieu where Mathieu would pepper questions about any variety of topics at Lee-Collins. Now Mathieu is the one informing Lee-Collins about different things.

When Lee-Collins visits Mathieu in Arizona, he sees an adult. Mathieu’s always been an emotional person, Lee-Collins said, but now he doesn’t let things bother him like he used to.

“He’s really at peace with himself and his surroundings,” Lee-Collins said. “You can only see that when you’re with him in his own home or with him out to eat. He’s really comfortable with himself.”

Miles believes Mathieu was trying to please everyone in college, and that’s one reason why his story at LSU ended how it did.

“I think he’s realized he can’t live his life for other people,” Miles said. “As long as he controls those things, and it appears he has, he’s going to do all the things he’s going to do.”

Rapone, who saw Mathieu as much as anyone during the season, watched Mathieu mature each year. It started when Mathieu met with the Cardinals in 2013 during a pre-draft visit in a full suit and tie, while others wore buttoned-down shirts and slacks. From there, Rapone said Mathieu has continued to grow.

“Just the accomplishments of him being able to depart from who he was and the world he was living in to what he is now is just remarkable,” Rapone said. “He is an example to every person who needs a second chance or third chance.

“Each year, he would get more and more mature. He fully understands the situation he is in at this moment, and that is because he is a mature man at this point.”

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Sources — Free agent J.J. Watt has offers from multiple NFL teams

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Free-agent defensive lineman J.J. Watt has received contract offers from multiple teams, league sources told ESPN’s Dianna Russini.

Multiple sources told Russini that the most lucrative offer Watt currently has on the table is believed to be worth between $15 million and $16 million.

The Browns are among the teams interested in Watt, according to ESPN and multiple reports, but it was not clear as of Thursday morning whether Cleveland has submitted an offer to the five-time Pro Bowler. Cleveland.com reported last week that Watt had some mutual interest in signing with the Browns.

The Texans released Watt earlier this month, ending the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year’s decade-long run in Houston.

At the time of his release, sources told ESPN that approximately a dozen teams — including the Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills — had already expressed interest in Watt.

Watt, who turns 32 next month, finished last season with five sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception that he returned for a touchdown. He ranked 15th out of 119 qualified pass-rushers in pass rush win rate in 2020, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and ended his Texans career as the franchise’s all-time leader with 101 career sacks.

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Defending Baker Mayfield: Why wouldn’t the Cleveland Browns give him an extension? – Cleveland Browns Blog

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BEREA, Ohio – In the wake of Jared Goff and Carson Wentz being dealt away from the teams that drafted them, the same phrase has begun to reverberate with regards to the Cleveland Browns and their quarterback, Baker Mayfield.

“Cautionary tales.”

Two years ago, Goff and Wentz, the top two picks of the 2016 draft, signed the richest contract extensions in NFL history. Yet just this month, the two were jettisoned before those record extensions had even kicked in, leaving their former teams with record heaps of dead-money blows to their respective cap sheets.

This offseason, another former top pick is extension-eligible coming off a banner third season quarterbacking his team to the playoffs. And yet, some are wondering if the Browns should kick the can down the road on a Mayfield extension, largely because Goff and Wentz cratered soon after signing theirs.

Of course, that’s a rather fatalistic viewpoint of Mayfield and the Browns. And one focused on events elsewhere, instead of the facts on the ground in Cleveland.

True, Goff and Wentz regressed for various reasons after enjoying success early in their careers. But that doesn’t mean Mayfield will follow suit. In fact, all signs point to him getting better — next season and beyond.

For the first time since the Browns drafted him in 2018, Mayfield won’t have to dedicate his offseason to learning yet another new offense. After playing for three different head coaches over his first two seasons in the league, Mayfield thrived during the back-half of last season in first-time head coach Kevin Stefanski’s scheme, portending their budding future together.

“That’s a huge part of this,” Stefanski said last month, while revealing how thrilled Mayfield was to finally begin growing within the same offense. “We can start at that baseline and that foundation and build on what we’ve done.”

Mayfield had some rough moments early while adapting to Stefanski’s offense following a virtual offseason learning it. But from Week 7 through Week 15, just last year’s MVP (Patrick Mahomes) and this year’s MVP (Aaron Rodgers) posted a better QBR than Mayfield, who during that stretch tossed 15 touchdowns with just two interceptions. As a result, the Browns wound up finishing the regular season with 11 wins, their most since returning to the NFL in 1999.

“Once he started getting comfortable with what we were doing and once I was using more concepts that he was comfortable with, which is a big part of this,” Stefanski said, “he really started playing at a high level.”

Mayfield continued to play at a high level in the postseason, throwing for 263 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in Cleveland’s first playoff victory in 26 years, a 48-37 win in Pittsburgh — where the Browns had not won in 17 attempts.

“You saw growth from him as a player from the first game to the last,” Stefanski said. “Really pleased with his progress, and I think he recognizes that he has room to grow.”

Any extension to any NFL player comes with at least some risk, as the cases of Goff and Wentz underscore. But at this point, the Browns either believe in Mayfield — or they don’t, at least not yet.

Cleveland already demonstrated that belief last offseason, committing a franchise-record $60 million in guaranteed money in free agency to upgrade Mayfield’s supporting cast, with All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin and Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper, plus veteran quarterback Case Keenum, to serve as Mayfield’s mentor.

The Browns also used the 10th pick in the draft on left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. to solidify the offensive line. With vastly improved protection and a scheme befitting his skill set, Mayfield rekindled the confidence and touch he flashed during his first season when he broke the NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes. He also emerged as the unquestioned leader of the locker room.

Given the upward trajectory of Mayfield and the Browns, there’s nothing to suggest Cleveland won’t double-down again on the former No. 1 overall pick in the coming months.

The Browns already will have to make a partial commitment to Mayfield this summer. As colleague Dan Graziano pointed out, starting with Mayfield’s 2018 draft class, fifth-year options for first-round picks are now fully guaranteed at the time they’re executed, at a significantly higher price than before.

But going halfway and pushing off an extension invites downside, too. What if Mayfield is better in 2021? A potential extension would cost the Browns even more down the line, as Tim Hasselbeck noted on ESPN this week. That would only make it more difficult to get one done at all.

On Wednesday, ESPN colleague Ed Werder suggested that the Dallas Cowboys might have to use their first-round pick on another quarterback, if they can’t lock up Dak Prescott to a multiyear deal before March 9. Returning to square one at quarterback is not where Cleveland wants to be again anytime soon.

To get a deal done with Mayfield this summer, the Browns probably will have to start in the neighborhood of $35 million over four years. That would make Mayfield one of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in the league, pending what happens with Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, who also are extension eligible.

But others down the line, like Mayfield’s former Oklahoma teammate Kyler Murray, are going to continue to reset the quarterback market next offseason. What might seem expensive now could quickly become a bargain, especially as the league negotiates new rights deals.

The Goff and Wentz situations also showed that even the worst-case scenario can still be mitigated. The Rams were able to turn Goff into Matthew Stafford; the Eagles flipped Wentz into draft capital. Sure, the cap sheets in Los Angeles and Philadelphia will be a mess this year as a result of those trades. But if Mayfield proves not to be the answer at quarterback, the Browns will already be in short-term trouble anyway, whether they extend him or not.

Franchise quarterbacks are incredibly hard to find, and it’s virtually impossible to win without one, as Cleveland has had to painfully learn over the years. Now is not the time to get cute, dodge about or worry why it might go wrong, just because it did in Philly or L.A.

The Browns appear — finally — to have their franchise quarterback. Acting otherwise could prove to be a cautionary tale of its own.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be ‘elated’ to extend Tom Brady’s contract beyond 2021

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Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said Thursday that he and coach Bruce Arians would be “elated” if they could get a deal done with quarterback Tom Brady to keep him in Tampa beyond his two-year contract, which will end after the 2021 season.

Licht said Tuesday on the Rich Eisen Show that signing Brady to extension is a possibility, but declined to discuss the specifics of any conversations with Brady’s agent Don Yee when asked Wednesday in the Bucs’ pre-combine and free agency zoom conference.

“Bruce and I both have a great relationship with Tom, and I have a good relationship with his agent,” Licht said. “We thought Tom played incredibly well this year, along with the entire team. We would love to have Tom play here — I can speak for Bruce — I think as long as he continues to want to play. If that comes to fruition at some point, we’d be elated. But I’d like to keep those conversations private right now.”

Brady, 43, is set to earn $25 million next season. He had previously said his goal was to play until age 45, but Brady said last month the week of the Super Bowl that he would now consider playing beyond 45. Brady would be 44 next year and tacking on a year to his deal would keep him under contract through his 45th birthday.

A new contract would not only ensure more long-term stability at the position, but could help the Bucs’ salary cap situation. They will have less than $30 million in salary cap space, with a number of high-profile players who need to be re-signed, including Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin, inside linebacker Lavonte David, outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Leonard Fournette.

While there is uncertainty as to whether or not there will be an offseason program, Arians anticipates Brady would be recovered from his offseason knee procedure and ready to fully practice by early summer. If there is no offseason program this year, they could lean on Brady’s player-organized workouts similar to what he led at Berkley Prep last summer.

“I think he’s probably looking [at] somewhere around June, right now, from what I hear,” Arians said. “His leadership — he doesn’t have to be out there throwing it anymore. He can be there standing and coach the s— out of them. Wherever they meet and work out — I’m hoping we have an offseason for the younger players. Tom doesn’t need it, but for the younger players — first-, second-, and third-year players — we’ve missed two years of player development with where we’re at now. We don’t need to miss another one.”

Licht also said he “expects” center Ryan Jensen and left tackle Donovan Smith back next year. Both are under contract but neither are due any guaranteed money. With Smith set to count $14.25 million against the salary cap this year and Jensen $10 million, some had questioned if they’d be cap casualties. But the Bucs were thrilled with their performances down the stretch and in the postseason.

“We love Ryan and Donovan,” Licht said. They played a pivotal role in our offense — in their protection, in the run game. We envision Ryan and Donovan both being on this team. We expect them, not just envision them.”



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