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The Evan Mathis Bronc-ography

Doc Bear chronicles the Bronc-ography of newly acquired Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis

The Denver Broncos have achieved what’s becoming a normal part of the Broncos approach—they brought in All-Everything guard Evan Mathis. At 6-foot-5 and 298 pounds, he’ll turn 34 on November 1st of 2015. In an example of age equalling experience, Mathis has graded out as the top guard in the NFL by Pro Football Focus in three of the last four years.

Last season, he was graded as ‘only’ second in the league —he missed seven games with injuries, and was physically limited during some of the games he played. He comes to the Broncos not only healthy, but with very good conditioning.

Mathis grew up in Alabama, where football is nearly a religion. At Homewood High School, Homewood Alabama, Mathis competed in football, track and wrestling. A lot of top lineman have a background in wrestling—they often play in a ‘phone booth’ area against aggressive defenders—the balance, leverage and dominance that wrestling teaches translates well into helping them improve those qualities.

Unsurprisingly, Mathis chose Alabama as his college. He was redshirted as a freshman in 2000, in hopes of adding to his 276-pound frame. It worked. In 2001, he and Paul Crane were named the Most Improve Lineman, along with tight end Theo Sanders. Evan backed it up by beating out Dante Ellington for the right tackle position.

Mathis started in all four seasons with the Tide. He played tackle for the first three, but moved to guard (partly in preparation for the NFL) in 2004. That year, the Tide led the SEC in rushing yards per game. Mathis started 47 consecutive games, starting with the fourth game of the 2001 year. He plays hurt (too often) and while last year was a concern, he passed his Broncos physical with flying colors. There’s no clear reason to believe that his injury karma from 2014 will continue in 2015. 

A quick look at his Combine performance was a harbinger of things to come. Mathis ran the 40-yard dash in 4.92 seconds—fast for a guard. He managed 35 reps on the bench press (225 lbs) with a 35.5-inch vertical leap and a 9-foot,-9-inch (117 inch) broad jump. Those final two indicate an ability to bring an explosive athletic skill to the table. The 40 showed that he’s also fast. The Carolina Panthers took him with pick No. 79, in the third round of the 2005 draft.

Mathis spent part of 2008 with the Miami Dolphins when their starting guard, Donald Thomas, went to injured reserve. The Dolphins didn’t work out—he was released on November 8th, after playing only seven games for them. Mathis found the Cincinnati Bengals a better fit—he didn’t allow a single sack during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Even so, in 2011, Mathis was signed to a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Mathis won the starting left guard slot that year and played so well that the Eagles gave him a five-year, $25.5 million contract in March of 2012. That began his string of winning the ranking of the best guard in the league in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He took second in the league in 2014, despite a string of injuries.

Philadelphia balked at taking back a 33-year-old veteran, who’d had several injuries the year before, limiting him to seven games. Mathis countered by pointing out that he’d been the second best guard in the league (according to PFF), despite the lower number of starts. It’s a common story—Peyton Manning was supposedly over the hill and physically incapable of performing, according to the Indianapolis Colts. That was right before Denver took him. He promptly led them to three division titles and one Super Bowl.

At 39, Manning needs an offensive line that keeps him upright. Manning took a $4 million cut in pay recently. Mathis accepted a $2.5 million contract with incentives that will take him to $4 million if he stays fairly healthy. It worked out for everyone. Mathis was quoted as saying that his deciding factor was that Denver is a playoff contender with Manning at QB. Like so many elite players who are facing the realities of time, he’s looking for that ring to cap off his career. He’s on a one-year contract with Denver.

Mathis owns a training center in Scottsdale, AZ, so the fact that he came in already in shape isn’t a surprise, but it’s a comment on the kind of player he still is. While he won’t compete in preseason games, he’s expected to start Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens. Given the footspeed he showed at Combine and the athleticism that has marked his career, Mathis should be at home in Denver’s zone blocking scheme.

He’ll be anchoring the left side of the line, working between Ty Sambrailo [LT] and Matt Paradis [C]. Sambrailo is still having trouble handling inside moves. Having Mathis there should improve that right from the start. Paradis was on the practice squad last season, but he’s improved to the point that he’s become the leader on the OL. For a second-year player, center or not, that’s quite a feat. Mathis will make him even better.

The rational knock on the Broncos OL was that it featured three players, from center to LT, who have never taken a regulation NFL snap. That perspective has now changed. Ty may still be a work in progress, but Matt Paradis is a player I don’t worry about. Louis Vasquez will be back in his normal RG position after a rough year at RT in 2014. Ryan Harris has returned to the Broncos and immediately took over the starting RT position.

Right now, second-year tackle Michael Schofield has a shot at achieving the all-important role of starting swing tackle. Max Garcia had a talk with head coach Gary Kubiak when Mathis came in. He was assured that the signing of Mathis had nothing to do with anything he had or hadn’t done. It was a chance to upgrade the position for a year—nothing more.

Garcia may take on the ‘swing guard’ role, since he can play center, as well as guard. Schofield will be taking the swing tackle role. Schofield is a work in progress—he’s impressed enough to earn a role, but which role remains a question mark.

The Eagles considered Mathis too big a risk, due to his injuries last year. As far as Mathis is concerned, he has the final say on the matter:

"My body of work was limited last year due to the injury," he told Doug Farrar. "I'm very much ready to come back strong for an entire season and have my best year yet. I'll listen to the age talk when I lose a step."

Starting on September 13th, 2015 against the Ravens, we’ll get to see that thought in action. Like most of Broncos Country, I’ll be watching with excitement to see how strongly he can back it up.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter@alloverfatman.

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