Tyrann Mathieu's breakup with Cardinals came down to money -- a lot of it

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Cardinals avoid paying Mathieu's contract (0:46)

Bill Polian says the Cardinals parted ways with Tyrann Mathieu to avoid his backloaded contract after he declined to take a pay cut. (0:46)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The news came down mid-Wednesday morning.

Tyrann Mathieu was getting cut by the Arizona Cardinals after five seasons. One of the state’s most beloved players was gone, about to hit the open market as a free agent for any team to bid on.

So how did he and the Cardinals get to this point?

Money. And a lot of it.

It all started with Mathieu’s 2015 All-Pro season.

Even though that season ended with the second ACL injury of Mathieu's short career, the Cardinals still went all-in on the Honey Badger. They gave him a five-year extension worth up to $62.5 million in August 2016, making him the highest-paid safety in the NFL at the time. Mathieu received a $15.5 million signing bonus and a $1 million base salary that was fully guaranteed in 2016. His 2017 salary of $4.75 million was also fully guaranteed at signing, giving Mathieu $21.25 million before he was completely healed from the injury.

Mathieu came on slowly in 2016, and his season was cut short by a shoulder injury, landing him on injured reserve for the third time in four seasons. He returned for 2017 set on getting over the mental and physical hurdles that impeded his growth in 2016. By midseason, Mathieu began showing signs he was turning a corner. The 25-year-old was playing more snaps in the box, and he played the most snaps in the NFL in 2017. He was blitzing and coming off the edge more. He was looking more like the Honey Badger than he had at any point since the 2015 injury.

But Mathieu's future with the franchise was clouded by money.

He was guaranteed $13.75 million of his 2018 and 2019 salaries if he was on the Cardinals' roster at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday when the new league year began, and was due a $5 million roster bonus Friday.

The Cardinals didn’t want to pay him that much and carry a $14.1 million cap hit in 2018, so on Thursday they asked Mathieu to take a pay cut, one that reports since have characterized as reasonable. But Mathieu refused. Efforts to restructure the contract reportedly failed, leading to his release.

The mega-deal the Cardinals gave Mathieu started with hope and promise 10 months ago, and Wednesday it was the reason Mathieu’s time with the Cardinals came to an end.