It's been a long time since a player joined the New Orleans Saints with as much fanfare as Tyrann Mathieu. The hometown hero returned to New Orleans with lofty expectations as the crown jewel of their free agent class - and after some early-season frustrations, he met them. Now he's an integral piece of their defense moving forward.
So how do you grade Mathieu's first season with the Saints? Are those initial struggles worth holding against him, and did he do enough later in the year to make up for them? Let's review his 2022 season in our free agent report card:
Free agent contract
Mathieu signed a three-year, $28.3 million contract with the Saints last summer that carries a salary cap hit of just $8.9 million in 2023, so he'll return for another year in black and gold. His deal voids in 2025 and will leave $1.9 million behind unless the Saints agree to a restructure or earlier release in 2024.
Mathieu played a career-high 1,129 defensive snaps for the Saints in 2022; only linebacker Demario Davis (1,132 snaps) was on the field more often. That's really impressive for a player who turns 31 in May, and it did a lot to dissuade some of the durability concerns that trailed Mathieu from Kansas City.
Mathieu was officially credited with some of the highest stat totals of his career: 91 combined tackles (64 solo, 27 assists, 3 tackles for loss), 8 passes defensed, plus 1 sack and 4 quarterback pressures. He led the Saints defense in takeaways with 3 interceptions, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. And he missed 6 tackles, per Pro Football Reference, though Pro Football Focus is more critical with 10 missed tackles.
Either way you'd like to see that cleaned up. While it wasn't like Mathieu padded his stats by jumping on top of the pile after teammates swarmed to the ball (he did produce 64 solo tackles, after all) his average depth of tackle on run plays was 9.1, which isn't great. You'd like to see him more active closer to the line of scrimmage.
Pro Football Focus grade
Mathieu earned the highest PFF coverage grade among all safeties in the NFL (87.9) last season, which is really impressive. We can argue about the value in PFF grades all day long, but it's good to see their play-by-play charting charged Mathieu with 43 targets into his coverage and only 29 receptions allowed for 219 yards, per PFF (though PFR disagrees, saying Mathieu allowed 37 completions for 387 yards; it's tough to say who was responsible on some big plays and broken coverages).
But for the most part PFF was really high on Mathieu in 2022. His overall grade of 81.2 was third-best on the team behind Davis and Kaden Elliss. He also graded positively on 20 snaps as a pass rusher (70.7) and for his tackling (65.4). If there's something to criticize, it's that he wasn't active enough in run defense (62.9).
Season recap, future outlook
We're looking at Mathieu's first year in black and gold as a success. There are things he can improve upon but he provided enough splash plays to lessen the criticism going his way. The central issue here is that the Saints had so many injuries at other spots that Mathieu wasn't able to be deployed as creatively as the team hoped. If everyone had been at full strength more often, we could've seen something closer to the initial vision for him. He's going to start for this team again in 2023 and hopefully continue to play at a high level. If the Saints can improve the depth around him, he'll stand out more often.
There was a lot to like about Mathieu's first season with the Saints - probably more than his detractors would like to admit. It just took a little while for him to settle into place and play his best football. We're grading Mathieu well between his durability and playmaking skills, but his tackling mishaps and vulnerabilities in coverage as a deep safety can't be overlooked, and it keeps him from earning perfect marks.
Story originally appeared on Saints Wire