Return nearing, Mathieu's confidence builds

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- He didn't sound like the Tyrann Mathieu of old on Tuesday morning.

There was a hitch of hesitation in his voice, a major difference from Mathieu's rookie season, when he talked openly about goals of filling shelves with trophies. Maybe the reality of his return was setting in. Maybe he realized who was awaiting him.

Earlier in the day, Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Mathieu is "pretty close" to returning from the preseason physically unable to perform list -- words Mathieu has been waiting for since tearing his ACL and LCL in Week 14 last season. When exactly he'll return is still undecided but two weeks ago Mathieu worked out for Arizona's doctors and trainers, and they apparently were pleased enough with his progress to begin pinpointing his return.

Whenever he's cleared, though, Mathieu has his concerns. One is he doesn't want to be a liability on the field.

"I don't want get in there and slow anybody down," he said. "If anything, I want to be able to contribute."

One concern he doesn't have is with his knee.

"I'm more worried about my confidence in going against (wide receiver) Larry (Fitzgerald) and going against elite receivers," Mathieu added.

Before his injury, Mathieu began developing into a new breed of shutdown defensive backs. He played free safety, nickel back and slot corner -- a three-for-one package that has been replaced with two players during camp.

Confidence was never an issue for Mathieu before his injury. He was young, brash and fast. Now he's facing reality. When he returns Mathieu may not be the same player he was and he may not have the same role.

Cornerback Jerraud Powers and free safety Rashad Johnson are making it difficult for coaches to sit them in favor of Mathieu -- Arians called Powers the defensive MVP on Tuesday.

For as much as he wants to return, Mathieu doesn't want to disrespect the rest of the secondary by not playing at his full potential. That will come with time, but how long will it take?

The season begins in less than four weeks.

The quicker he can return the more time he'll have to find his place within the defense. And it's not like he hasn't been trying. He's been asking Arians almost on a daily basis to let him back on the field and help him scratch the itch of wanting to hit somebody. He's hoping to get a straight answer about a return this week.

"Just tap him on the backside and say, ‘Coach put me in,'" Mathieu said laughing.

For eight months, Mathieu has been preparing his knee to play again. He's ready to start preparing himself to return to his rookie form, but he's more humble about it now.

"I still want to be ready for the opener," Mathieu said. "But like I said, I don't want to slow our group down. I think last year, the focus was the front seven. I think that was our best group and now this year it's the back end.

"I don't want to get out there and slow anybody down."