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Raiders free agency 2022: A case for Tyrann Mathieu

Honey Badger would infuse secondary with both swagger, hard hits and cover skills

NFL: AFC Championship-Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs
Free agent Tyrann Mathieu would bring swagger, hard hitting and, more importantly, cover skills the Raiders strong safety position.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

With Tre’von Moehrig, the Las Vegas Raiders have a young deep safety who can be molded into an NFL takeaway artists — much like he was in college (TCU). Moehrig has the speed, instinct and tackling ability to be the free safety for a long time coming.

But what about his running mate on the opposite side?

Vegas has an incumbent heat-seeking strong safety who can lay the lumber with the best of them in Jonathan Abram. But that isn’t enough. Not in today’s NFL where aerial theatrics litter the landscape. The Raiders need an impact strong safety and there’s one of the open market who checks the boxes of swagger, hard hits, and — more importantly — cover skills: Tyrann Mathieu.

Allowed to walk by the Kansas City Chiefs into free agency, “Honey Badger” would give Las Vegas a disruptive presence on the backend of the defense. One that will be viewed as an asset in coverage rather than liability, which Abram has been his first three seasons in the league. According to Pro Football Reference, Mathieu was targeted 52 times last season allowing 36 receptions (69.2 percent completion rate) for 414 yards and three touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks who threw Mathieu’s way sported an 88.1 quarterback rating. He played in 94 percent of the Chiefs defensive snaps (998) and finished with 76 total tackles, three interceptions (one pick-six), six passes defensed and one sack. His 2021 exploits earned him a Pro Bowl nod.

Not impressed with the coverage stats and numbers? Abram, on the other hand, was targeted 72 times and allowed 57 completions (79.2 percent) for 483 yards and five touchdowns. Quarterbacks that threw his way sported a 112.0 rating. Abram played 99 percent of the Raiders defensive snaps before a shoulder injury shelved him for the year and he totaled 116 tackles, one interception and four passes defensed in 14 games.

We can even backtrack to the 2020 season to compare cover chops between Mathieu and Abram, and the numbers don’t improve the latter’s way. Abram was charted for an 81.8 percent completion rate that year compared to Mathieu’s 62.7 percent. Honey Badger was also a first-team All Pro that season — and in 2019 as well.

There’s a lot that goes into that, of course, such as overall defense around the safeties — such as pass rush getting quarterback’s off their landmark and making bad decisions — but for the most part, Abram hasn’t held up well in coverage. In fact, it seems with his tackling ability and size 6-foot, 205 pounds, he could make the transition down closer to the line of scrimmage and experiment at linebacker. If the Raiders were so inclined, that is.

Despite being much smaller at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, Mathieu brings the same intense confidence and heat as a tackler but gives teams the added luxury of holding up well in coverage. Which makes why the 29-year-old is still available on the open market, interesting to say the least.

Yet, if the bank account allows (salary cap), and Mathieu is willing to listen, it would be wise for the Vegas front office to give the safety a look-see. He’s accustomed to playing at both safety spots and for a Raiders team looking to adjust week-to-week, game-to-game, having personnel like Mathieu is a must.

In seven career game against the Raiders, dating back to his Arizona days in 2014, Mathieu has 18 total tackles, two interceptions and a trio of passes defensed and two fumble recoveries against the Silver & Black. Now’s a good time to turn a pesky thorn into a weapon of the Raiders’ own.

Otherwise, it’s trotting out Abram again and banking his cover skills improve under new Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, defensive backs coach Chris Ash, and defensive pass game coordinator Jason Simmons. It could happen. But Vegas could also roll the dice and bring in Mathieu, too.