Tyrann Mathieu does not make sense for the New York Jets
After taking a look at the profiles of Marcus Williams, J.C. Jackson, and Quandre Diggs, today we will analyze another big-name defensive back who is set to become a free agent: Tyrann Mathieu of the Kansas City Chiefs.
A three-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-Team All-Pro, Mathieu is easily the most well-known safety on the 2022 free-agent market. He might even be the most well-known active safety in the league.
In my honest opinion, I believe the answer to that question is “no”.
While Mathieu remains a good player, there are quite a few reasons that the soon-to-be 30-year-old safety (he’ll turn 30 in May) would not be a wise investment for the Jets at their current stage in the rebuilding process.
Mathieu is expected to command a hefty contract in spite of his age.
Spotrac estimates that Mathieu will earn a three-year, $44.6 million deal ($14.8 million per year). In terms of average annual value, it would currently rank as the fourth-largest contract among safeties.
Mathieu and his agent will likely be pointing to Harrison Smith’s contract when negotiating with teams. At 32 years old, the longtime Minnesota Vikings safety signed a four-year, $64 million extension in August 2021. Worth $16 million annually, the contract ranks behind only Jamal Adams ($17.5 million) in terms of average annual value among safeties.
Coming off of back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances, Mathieu certainly has a strong case to match or at least come close to the deal that Smith earned.
Don’t get me wrong: Mathieu can still play at a high level. With that being said, I don’t think he is quite dominant enough to warrant such an immense contract at his age, especially for a team like the Jets that is not in “win now” mode.
I’m not going to just rag on Mathieu here. I want to analyze the complete package of his profile – both the bad and the good.
Let’s first get into the positives of Mathieu’s game that make him a player worthy of being considered for a top-five contract. After that, we’ll get into the weaknesses that I think make him a player the Jets should avoid if he costs nearly $15 million per year.
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On-ball playmaking in coverage
Mathieu is a certified ball hawk.
Over the last three seasons, Mathieu has 13 interceptions, tying Quandre Diggs for the second-most among safeties over that span (Justin Simmons leads the way with 14). He had three picks in 2021.
We’ve seen some solid consistency from Mathieu in this area. He has had at least three interceptions in three straight seasons and at least two interceptions in five straight seasons.
Mathieu is also tied for eighth among safeties with 27 total passes defended over the past three seasons.
It’s worth noting that Mathieu took a step back in the passes defended column last year. He had six of them in 16 games, which is a decent mark but represented his worst total on a per-game basis since 2014 (his second year).
While he isn’t otherworldly at it, Mathieu is pretty good at finishing tackles.
In 2021, Mathieu had a 9.8% missed tackle rate, which ranked 33rd out of 74 qualified safeties (56th percentile). The previous season, he ranked 18th out of 67 qualifiers (74th percentile) with a 9.0% miss rate.
The most appealing aspect of Mathieu’s game is undoubtedly his versatility. Mathieu can do anything for your defense.
Take a look at this snap distribution in 2021, per Pro Football Focus:
- Free safety: 28.1% of defensive snaps
- Strong safety: 24.1%
- Slot corner: 20.7%
- Inside linebacker: 19.9%
- Outside linebacker: 4.9%
- Outside corner: 2.3%
Mathieu hasn’t missed a game due to injury since 2016. He’s only missed two games over the past five seasons, and those were due to Week 17 rest and COVID-19.
This has been an encouraging turnaround for Mathieu after he missed 14 games across his first four seasons.
Mathieu offers plenty of intriguing traits. But there are some holes in his resume that have me skeptical about signing him to one of the five richest deals at his position.
One of those holes is the volatile nature of his year-to-year production.
Looking at some of Mathieu’s more advanced statistics, he has not had much stability in his career. He’ll be elite in a category one year and merely decent in that same category the next year. You never quite know what he’s going to give you.
On throws into his coverage, Mathieu has had two seasons in his career where he allowed a passer rating over 110.0, two below 71.0, and five in-between 77.0 and 94.0.
Back in 2019, Mathieu was an enforcer in coverage who gave up only 5.4 yards per target, which is incredibly good (the position average usually hovers around 8.0). The very next year, his yards-per-target average ballooned to a ghastly 9.6. It dropped back down to a fairly average rate of 7.8 in 2021.
In the past four years, Mathieu’s Pro Football Focus run-defense grade has gone as high as 85.5 (2018) and as low 47.4 (2021) with a 59.5 (2019) and a 70.3 (2020) sandwiched between them.
When you toss a lion’s share of cash at a player, you want to feel certain that you know exactly what you’re getting from him. Mathieu is an unpredictable roller-coaster ride – and as he now enters his age-30 season, that roller-coaster is more likely to continue barreling down than it is to turn back up.
2021 run defense
The Chiefs defense allowed 4.8 yards per carry in 2021, ranking 31st in the NFL. Mathieu played a role in those woes.
With five missed tackles in the run game compared to 20 total tackles in that phase, Mathieu had a missed tackle rate of 20.0% against the run. That ranked 79th out of 92 qualified safeties (14th percentile). Mathieu’s PFF run-defense grade of 47.4 ranked 86th (7th percentile).
Additionally, despite playing many of his snaps near the line of scrimmage, Mathieu barely made any plays against the run. He only collected two run-stops all season. His run-stop rate of 0.6% ranked 85th at the position (8th percentile).
As I pointed out earlier, bad run defense is not a consistent theme throughout Mathieu’s career. He’s had some great seasons against the run. But if you’re going to pay a safety enough money to buy 30,000 Play Stations, you would prefer his odds of being a good run defender to be greater than a coin flip.
Mathieu commits a lot of penalties for a safety.
In 2021, the average NFL safety committed 2.3 penalties per 1,000 defensive snaps. Mathieu has committed 32 penalties over 7,812 career snaps, which is an average of 4.1 penalties per 1,000 defensive snaps – a rate nearly 80% higher than the positional average.
Mathieu has been called for at least three penalties in four straight seasons.
Overall production level is solid but not dominant
Despite all of his accolades, I wonder if Mathieu really is an elite safety, which you’d like for him to be if you’re paying him a top-5 salary through his age-32 season.
Outside of interceptions and passes defended, there aren’t many categories where Mathieu is elite. We already talked about his woes in the run game. He does not produce a high number of total tackles, tackles for loss, or forced fumbles. He is not a uniquely productive blitzer from the safety spot.
But most importantly, Mathieu’s overall coverage numbers aren’t much to write home about.
Here are Mathieu’s coverage stats over his four seasons since leaving the Arizona Cardinals (2018-21), per Pro Football Focus:
- 2,470 coverage snaps
- 241 targets
- 168 receptions
- 1,864 yards
- 12 touchdowns
- 15 interceptions
And here are Mathieu’s efficiency statistics in coverage over that span, along with the 2021 NFL averages among safeties for comparison:
- 0.75 yards per cover snap (2021 NFL S average: 0.56)
- 7.7 yards per target (2021 NFL S average: 7.9)
- 69.7% completion rate (2021 NFL S average: 69.1%)
- 0.8-to-1 TD-INT ratio (2021 NFL S average: 1.5-to-1)
- 83.1 passer rating (2021 NFL S average: 96.1)
- 5.0% TD/target ratio (2021 NFL S average: 6.8%)
- 6.2% INT/target ratio (2021 NFL S average: 4.6%)
- 205.8 cover snaps per TD (2021 NFL S average: 205.8)
Overall, these are good numbers. They aren’t anywhere near elite, though.
Mathieu is strong when it comes to preventing touchdowns and producing interceptions on a per-target basis, but he is only around average in every other area. In terms of yardage and completions per target, he is very close to the league average.
Teams are not afraid to challenge Mathieu. He has ranked top-15 among safeties in targets for five years in a row. Since Mathieu gets targeted a lot, his per-snap numbers are worse than his per-target numbers. He is league-average at preventing touchdowns on a per-snap basis and performs below-average at preventing yardage on a per-snap basis.
In 2021, Mathieu played 603 coverage snaps and allowed 35 catches on 47 targets (74.5%) for 367 yards (7.8 per target / 0.61 per cover snap), three touchdowns (6.4% of targets / 201.0 snaps per TD), and three interceptions (6.4% of targets). That’s extremely average production overall.
Tyrann Mathieu isn’t a good choice for the New York Jets at his price tag
Looking at Mathieu’s track record of production, I just don’t see him as a $15 million player at 30 years old. He’s great at snagging interceptions and is highly versatile, but other than that, he ranges from average to solid in most categories. All in all, that makes him a good starter, but not a great one.
A price tag of around $10 million per year is more reasonable for Mathieu’s services in my opinion. However, even at that point, I think the Jets should probably look in another direction.
Mathieu is a very talented player and would provide a significant boost to almost any defense. There’s no question about that. If a “win now” team thinks Mathieu can be the final piece to their defensive puzzle, then they should go all-out to get him. Teams that are trying to win the Super Bowl this year can afford the long-term risk of a 30-plus DB in exchange for the short-term upside he brings.
But the Jets are trying to establish a core that can facilitate sustainable winning for years to come. Paying eight figures for a 30-year-old safety with unpredictable year-to-year production is not a smart way to try and accomplish that goal.
While Mathieu could assist the Jets’ rebuild by bringing his championship experience into a young secondary and by helping them return to relevancy in the short-term, I still find it hard to get around his track record of performance. I’m not sure if his overall production makes him a significant game-changer, which a player simply has to be at $15 million and still ideally should be even down at $10 million.
Toss in his age and the up-and-down nature of his production, and I simply would not be comfortable with spending any substantial amount of cap space on him as a team in New York’s position.
Mathieu is a good football player who would provide a big upgrade for the Jets and nearly any other defense in the NFL, but he is not a fit for the Jets at his rumored price tag and arguably still wouldn’t be even if he cost a few million dollars less than expected.
There are a lot of ways for the Jets to get more bang for their buck on the free-agent safety market.
Marcus Williams will be expensive but is a bona fide star in his prime. Quandre Diggs is only a year younger than Mathieu but offers a much more consistent track record of top-tier production. Jayron Kearse can provide similarly above-average play to Mathieu at a much smaller price tag. They are just a few of the many safeties on the market whose production more closely matches their likely price.
Avoid falling for the hype, Joe Douglas.