GLENDALE, Ariz. — As the Arizona Cardinals training camp drags on, Tyrann Mathieu is looking more and more like his old “Honey Badger” self.
“There’s been a bunch of it,” coach Bruce Arians said before Thursday’s practice. “He’s got his hands on a lot of balls and just missed a couple, but until there’s real bullets, we’ll have to see it then.”
It’s a critical season for Mathieu, who when healthy is one of the best defensive players in the NFL. But staying healthy has been a problem. Last year, a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve in late December.
Now, he said, he feels the best he’s felt in two years. That would date back to his 2015 All-Pro season.
“I think the last couple of weeks I’ve been taking tremendous strides,” Mathieu said.
He’s approached this training camp methodically.
“I told myself when I was coming into camp that I would take things slow,” Mathieu said, “that I would pace myself. There’s a lot of expectations outside of me that you try to live up to. So I just try to quiet all the noise and really just take my time with coming back, getting my confidence back, my swagger back.”
He is in the second year of a five-year, $62 million contract he signed before the start of last season. The deal had an initial $21.25 million guaranteed and another $18.75 million guaranteed if he’s on the roster next season. Further injury problems might make the Cardinals re-think that investment or at least ask him to take a pay cut.
Mathieu, who has had surgery on both knees, said he has learned to simply take the good with the bad.
“I just try to balance it out,” he said. “But at the end of the day it’s life, so I don’t worry about it too much.”
He said one thing he has this year is a better attitude about playing free safety, often his position with Arizona is its base defense. He played the position a lot last season when he was coming back from knee surgery.
“It’s just boring,” Mathieu said. “It’s like everything is going on in front of you, and you’re the safety. I just like being in the mix of things. I had to challenge myself, just try to raise my game.”
Now, he said, he’s trying to learn more about the position and take pride in playing it.
“It’s boring back there for him just covering the middle of the field,” Arians said. “He likes the action. I like him in the action, too.”
The “Honey Badger” aggressiveness shows when he’s moved up closer to the line of scrimmage in the team’s nickel defense, sometimes blitzing, sometimes defending passes, sometimes coming up to play the run.
Last season, the Cardinals played the nickel scheme more than they did their base defense and Mathieu is showing he may be ready to resume his old versatile role.
“I think the more that I put on tape in camp, the more things I do,” he said. “Quite frankly, I just have to stay available. I think if I’m available and healthy, my coach can do a lot of different things with me.”
It’s been a long time since Mathieu arrived under a cloud after character concerns allowed him to slip to the third round of the 2013 draft after he was out of football for a year. But he has been nothing but a positive influence since he came to Arizona.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I’ve always been blessed. Hopefully, I’ll continue to be blessed.”
Notes: Cardinals general manager Steve Keim underwent surgery last Friday to repair a torn ACL, the most significant injury of camp thus far. … After Saturday night’s home game against Chicago, Arizona plays its next four on the road — the last two in preseason and first two in the regular season.