New Orleans Saints fill biggest need by bringing safety Tyrann Mathieu home

METAIRIE, La. -- It’s not often a team makes its biggest splash of the offseason in May. But that’s exactly what the New Orleans Saints did by agreeing to a deal with free-agent safety, and local icon, Tyrann Mathieu.

Mathieu officially reached an agreement on a three-year deal worth $33 million, including $18 million guaranteed, on Monday with the team, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The Honey Badger is a New Orleans native and beloved former LSU star -- who also happens to fill the Saints’ most glaring position of need following the draft.

This had been a relatively slow offseason for the Saints, despite their aggressive pursuit of quarterback Deshaun Watson. They have actually shown a rare level of spending restraint after beginning the offseason about $75 million over the salary cap.

But suddenly, over the course of five days, they have filled their three biggest needs by adding Mathieu and drafting Ohio State receiver Chris Olave and Northern Iowa offensive tackle Trevor Penning in Round 1 of the draft. And in doing so, they have backed up their vow that they still consider themselves a top NFC contender under new coach Dennis Allen and didn’t plan to rebuild after Sean Payton stepped away in January.

Although Mathieu turns 30 on May 13, the three-time first-team All-Pro was still doing some of his best work over the past three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs -- with 13 of his 26 career interceptions over that span, plus another one in the playoffs.

The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder has been one of the NFL’s most versatile and dynamic playmakers at the position throughout his nine-year career with the Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans and Chiefs, with the ability to line up at the free safety, strong safety and nickel positions.

“If you’re looking for a safety who has probably the most multidimensional traits throughout his career, it’s Tyrann Mathieu,” said ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who added Mathieu can also line up with the slot and match up against tight ends. “And he has natural football instincts that, as a position coach, you can’t teach. And that’s why he’s consistently around the football -- because he sees things so fast, and he is so smart as a veteran player to identify what down and distance, formation, personnel and game situation are telling you.

“Now, he didn’t make as many plays last year, he is getting older. But he still is a veteran player, who can vastly improve your defense because of the multiplicity that he brings.”

Bowen also correctly pointed out that Mathieu’s presence should be popular in the Saints' locker room (new teammates have already been voicing their enthusiasm on social media) and that his leadership should be invaluable for the rest of the secondary.

And while the Saints don’t exactly need to boost ticket sales because they already have a lengthy waiting list -- this move should make tickets harder to come by on the secondary market this season. It won’t hurt to inject a bit of fan enthusiasm after the departures of Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, among others, in recent years.

ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky called Mathieu’s addition a “brilliant signing” on First Take.

“I believe they’re the third-best team in the conference -- and this only adds to that,” Orlovsky said.

To be fair, Orlovsky’s opinion is more bullish than most, since the Saints still have a number of questions after they also lost outstanding left tackle Terron Armstead and starting safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins this offseason. But it’s far from outlandish.

New Orleans went 9-8 last season and barely missed the playoffs for the first time in five years, despite major injuries that sidelined receiver Michael Thomas for the entire season, Winston for 10 games and decimated the offensive line.

The Saints set an NFL record with 58 total starters used during the season because of injuries and COVID-19 issues. Yet, they still swept the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the strength of their defense -- becoming the first team in 15 years to shut out Tom Brady with a 9-0 victory in December.

And now a fair argument could be made that the safety position is just as much of a strength after New Orleans also added former New York Jets starter Marcus Maye in March.

The Saints also have one of the NFL’s best nickel safeties covering slot receivers in C.J. Gardner-Johnson.

Unlike Williams and Jenkins -- who played distinctly different roles as the free safety and strong safety, respectively -- Mathieu and Maye have switched between both positions throughout their careers and can be used interchangeably.

“In a perfect-world scenario, you’d like to have the flexibility that they can both play back and both play down in the paint,” Allen said of the safety position earlier this offseason. “But that’s probably the exception to the rule rather than the rule.”

Bowen compared the Mathieu-Maye pairing to how the Buffalo Bills use Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer.

“At times they can almost be position-less,” Bowen said. “From an old-school football perspective, Marcus Maye has the physical profile of a strong safety and Tyrann Mathieu has the physical profile of a slot/free safety. But I’m telling you right now, based off what Dennis Allen has done with this defense, when a quarterback comes to the line of scrimmage, you’re not gonna be able to tell who’s playing free and who’s playing strong. You’re gonna have to wait ‘til the late rotation to figure it out. And then [defensive end] Cam Jordan’s in your lap.

“Mathieu has different traits than Marcus Williams (who was more of a deep center fielder) but is a more high-level playmaker than Marcus Williams. So let’s put him in position to make those plays.”