This NFL prospect can help the 49ers against Tyrann Mathieu
The importance of divisional games cannot be overstated. Sweeping both games from a rival can be the difference between a bye week through the wildcard round and being out of the playoffs altogether.
The NFL has evolved into such a matchup-heavy league that it’s critical for teams to identify, evaluate and fix unfavorable matchups in the offseason — and one way to do so is the NFL draft.
Every day this week I will highlight one current NFL player that has recently dominated a divisional opponent, and pair him with the college prospect best equipped to shut him down. Today centers on Cardinals CB Tyrann Mathieu, and a college tight end that should be significantly more productive in the NFL than he was in college.
The NFL problem: Tyrann Mathieu, CB Cardinals
The NFL draft’s solution: Jerell Adams, TE South Carolina
Tyrann Mathieu was our top-graded cornerback last year even though he tore his right ACL in week 15 largely because of his versatility. He not only had the top coverage grade at his position group (+18.1), but also the top pass rush grade (+5.9) and he ranked second against the run (+5.3).
While most depth charts list Mathieu as a safety, we include him in our cornerback rankings because of how often he played in the slot (367 of 544 coverage snaps). When covering from the slot, QBs had an NFL rating of 70.3, ranking him fourth amongst corners who played at least 50 percent of their coverage snaps from the slot.
Mathieu was at his best last season in the Cardinals’ two games against San Francisco, as he posted a combined overall grade of +7.7 (more than 25 percent of his total grade for the season) and a coverage grade of +4.8. In the Week 3 match-up against the 49ers, Mathieu was targeted three times; he yielded a two-yard reception to Anquan Boldin while intercepting the other two targets, returning one for a score.
San Francisco backup QB Blaine Gabbert was more ambitious in targeting Mathieu in Week 12, but had only marginally more success than Colin Kaepernick did in the September game. The Cardinals’ star was targeted 11 times and gave up eight receptions and 97 yards, but he managed another interception and yielded a QB rating of just 61.6.
While most of Mathieu’s work in coverage over the course of his three-year career has been impressive, he has conceded 10 touchdowns. Four of those have been matched up against the likes of Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, Anquan Boldin (2014) and Martavis Bryant — all tall, bigger-bodied targets able to take advantage of Mathieu’s 5-foot-9 186-pound frame.
San Francisco’s tight ends were only targeted twice last season when opposite Mathieu (Vance McDonald had two catches for 31 yards in week 12), but while this appears to be a tactical mistake the 49ers don’t have the proper combination of size and athleticism on their current roster needed to attack him. Fortunately, this year’s draft class has several intriguing tight end prospects, but only one is truly viable both in-line and in the slot.
South Carolina TE Jerell Adams did not put up huge offensive stats the past two seasons (749 combined yards receiving) due in large part to terrible QB play, but he clearly has the size and athleticism to be a much more effective pro. He runs surprisingly clean routes for a tight end and shows the ability to consistently stretch linebackers vertically to separate, and at 6-foot-5 247, has proven to be a load to bring down in the open field.
In 2015, Jerell Adams had just 31 receptions but forced 10 missed tackles. This is comparable to Martellus Bennett’s 33 forced missed tackles on 143 catches the past two seasons for the Bears, albeit on a much smaller sample size. This is a skill that should translate to the NFL level and in particular against the diminutive Mathieu, who missed 12 tackles last season.
Adams brings the added benefit of being a strong, in-line blocker, as he had our ninth-highest run block grade amongst tight ends in this draft class. Tight ends capable of blocking and receiving both in-line and from the slot are rare in today’s NFL, thus Adams deserves more attention than his college production would traditionally warrant. He would be an excellent pick in the third round for the 49ers, and allow them to turn a difficult divisional match-up into a more favorable one.