The 26-year-old Mathieu was selected by Arizona in the third round of the 2013 draft after a standout career at LSU. He showed glimpses of his ball-hawking, playmaking abilities with the Cardinals, earning a Pro Bowl selection during the 2015 season, but also dealt with his share of injuries.
He tore ligaments in his left knee in 2013 and right knee in late 2015.
Mathieu signed a $7 million deal with Houston last season and wound up starting all 16 games. He tied his career high with 89 tackles, added three sacks and had a pair of interceptions, and his versatility — able to cover like a cornerback and tackle like a safety — is clearly appealing.
“It’s a passing league and everyone is trying to create mismatches in the secondary,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. “Just when you think you have enough corners you have to start moving them to safety, but I certainly think you are starting to see that trend of guys projecting corners to safeties and getting as many cover guys on the field as possible.”
The money the Chiefs intend to give “the Honey Badger” is roughly what they freed up Sunday, when they released pass rusher Justin Houston after failing to drum up trade interest in him.
Houston was due $15.25 million this season and carried a salary cap hit of $21.1 million, and the decision to release him freed up about $14 million. That allowed the Chiefs to actively pursue Mathieu while still giving them enough salary cap space to address other areas of their defense.
The Chiefs are switching from a base 3-4 defense to a 4-3 system under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and that means some of their old personnel doesn’t quite fit. The Chiefs used the franchise tag on top pass rusher Dee Ford, but they continue to listen to potential trade offers.
In the meantime, they are eyeing free agency and the draft to add an edge rusher, upgrade at middle linebacker and improve their secondary. Kendall Fuller was solid in his first season in Kansas City, but fellow cornerback Steven Nelson is a free agent and things are shaky further down the depth chart.
The Chiefs also were intent on finding a safety to pair with Eric Berry, who missed most of last season with a mysterious foot injury. Berry carries a massive salary-cap hit, but the Chiefs missed out on Landon Collins in free agency and appear content to keep him on the roster.
If he’s healthy, Berry and Mathieu would form one of the AFC’s best safety duos.
“We are comfortable with where we are with our players,” Veach said. “We have a plan in place for these guys and no one is more excited to get back at this thing than Eric.”
Anything would be an upgrade on last season, when the Chiefs allowed a league-worst 425.6 yards and 35.3 points per game. The defense ultimately let down Kansas City when it mattered most, failing to get off the field in overtime in an AFC title game loss to the New England Patriots.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was fired within days, the Chiefs quickly hired Spagnuolo, and now they are beginning to piece together what they hope is a vastly improved unit before next season.
“One great thing about Steve is he is going to put players in positions to make plays and I don’t think he is going to be pigeonholed into any one idea or concept,” Veach said. “We have a great coaching staff. We certainly have some talent on our roster now and hopefully we will add some more here soon.”