TEMPE, Ariz. >> The Arizona Cardinals made relatively safe choices in the first two rounds of this year’s draft and decided to gamble a bit with their third pick.
To some, taking Tyann Mathieu wasn’t a small risk, either.
Once one of college football’s most dynamic players, the LSU defensive back and kick returner had a very public fall from grace and down NFL draft boards after being kicked off his college team and being arrested for marijuana.
After talking to Mathieu and seemingly everyone who knows him, the Cardinals believed the potential reward was worth rolling the dice.
“We felt comfortable with the risk that was involved,” Cardinals first-year general manager Steve Keim said.
The Cardinals weren’t the only team to go out on a limb during last month’s draft.
Pittsburgh used its first-round pick on Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones despite a poor time in the 40-yard dash during a pre-draft workout and a diagnosis of spinal stenosis early in his college career.
The Chargers took a minor gamble by moving up seven spots in the second round to get Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who played poorly in the national championship game and has been dogged by a hoax involving a fake girlfriend.
The Oakland Raiders made one of the boldest moves, using the No. 12 overall pick to get Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden, a player who was moments from death last November after an on-field collision with a teammate in practice tore a blood vessel off the back of his heart.
“Of course, we researched the health issues,” Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said. “Now, everything we got back from that standpoint was more than positive so it became a non-issue for us in that regard. He’s going to have to mentally go through it now, that’s the only issue we had.”
Risky picks haven’t always panned out.
In the 1996 draft, the St. Louis Rams used the No. 6 overall pick on Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips despite his arrest on charges of assaulting his ex-girlfriend. He was a bust in the NFL and continued to have legal problems, culminating with convictions for assault with a deadly weapon and assault on his girlfriend that landed him in prison.
The Denver Broncos took a leap in the 2005 draft, using a third-round pick on former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, who had not played in two years and had a history of off-the-field problems. Clarett came into training camp overweight, was released before the season started and continued to have legal issues, spending 3 1-2 years in prison for holding up two people with a gun outside a Columbus bar.
Of course, not every gamble comes up short.
In the 1987 draft, the Oakland Raiders used a seventh-round pick on former Auburn two-sport star Bo Jackson, not knowing if he would ever play football after signing with baseball’s Kansas City Royals. Though his NFL career was cut short by a hip injury, Jackson was one of the most dynamic and recognizable players in NFL history.
The Buffalo Bills took a bit of a chance in the 1988 draft by picking Oklahoma State running back Thurman Thomas, whose stock dropped because of a knee injury. He went on to set numerous team records and helped lead the Bills to four Super Bowls. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
Teams run prospective picks through a litany of physical tests and interviews before the draft, but sometimes it just comes down to a gut feeling.
“We’ve all made mistakes in our lives, especially when we’re at that age,” Cardinals first-year coach Bruce Arians said. “To take away every opportunity? That’s not what I believe in.”
The Raiders took a chance on Hayden, believing his heart issue was a fluke, not something that would be a recurring problem.
Practicing before Houston’s homecoming game against Tulsa on Nov. 6, he went up to defend a pass and collided with freshman safety Trevon Stewart, whose knee hit Hayden in the sternum.
Hayden felt pain in his chest and had trouble breathing on the field, then his condition started to deteriorate and he went into shock. Hayden was rushed to the emergency room, where doctors found he had torn the inferior vena cava, the main vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart.
Hayden, whom doctors said may not have made it if he had gotten there five to 10 minutes later, underwent two hours of surgery and was cleared to resume workouts three months later. He performed well enough at the draft combine for the Raiders to use their first-round pick on him and had no health issues during the Raiders’ rookie minicamp last week.
“I don’t even think about it,” Hayden said last week. “The only time I think about it is when somebody asks me. But when I’m on the field I don’t think about that. I think about the play and I think about the coverage that I’m in. I put it past me.”
The Cardinals are hoping Mathieu can put his troubles behind.
A Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011, the player known as the Honey Badger was kicked off LSU’s team before the start of last season and was later arrested on marijuana charges with three former teammates after police found 10 bags of pot and drug paraphernalia in his Baton Rouge apartment.
Mathieu spent the next few months working on his image and keeping himself in shape. He impressed the Cardinals with his answers to all their questions and got a boost from former LSU teammate and current Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, who vouched for his friend.
Mathieu hit the field with the Cardinals for the first time during a rookie minicamp last week and has vowed not to let the problems of his past become an issue again.
“I definitely have a long journey ahead of me and there are definitely going to be some challenges, but I think I’m prepared for it,” Mathieu said.
The Cardinals, like the other NFL teams that gambled with draft picks, sure hope so.