"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: Evan Mathis
Experience: 12th NFL season
Contract status: 2016-$4,006,900
2015 season in review: For just the sixth time in his 11-year NFL career, Mathis started more than half of his team's games in 2015, his only season with the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Mathis spent the year starting at left guard, although he is expected to transition to become the starter at right guard with the Cardinals. Even at his age, Mathis is widely regarded as one of the best offensive guards in the NFL and at this point in his career, Mathis is solely focused on making Super Bowl runs. Last offseason, Mathis reportedly turned down a $5.5 million offer from the Miami Dolphins to sign a $4 million deal with the Broncos because he believed Denver could win a championship. The decision paid dividends for Mathis, who now finds himself with another franchise hungry for a title.
Projected roster status: The Cardinals are counting on Mathis to replace the up-and-down Jonathan Cooper who never materialized into the player the franchise believed he would become. With the veteran leadership Mathis provides and the experience he brings to the table, his spot on the Cardinals' active roster is a certainty as long as he stays healthy.
Projected depth chart status: Though Mathis has played left guard for much of his NFL career, he does have experience starting at right guard and is expected to hold down the No. 1 slot on the depth chart for the Cardinals at that spot. Cardinals' reserve Earl Watford will likely be the player providing immediate depth behind Mathis.
Position group analysis: The addition of Mathis gives the Cardinals' a pair of starting guards with plenty of NFL experience and excellent reputations as run blockers. Paired with Mike Iupati, the team's left guard, Mathis gives the Cardinals the potential to have their best guard tandem in a number of years. Behind the starters, Arizona will have strong options as well. Even though the Cardinals are replacing three of their five starting offensive linemen from a season ago, Watford will return in a reserve role and the loser of the battle at center between A.Q. Shipley and Evan Boehm should be versatile enough to provide depth if needed at guard. When you toss in fifth round draft pick Cole Toner, Arizona should have options and competition behind its two starters.
Moving forward: At this point in his career, Mathis' only option was likely to sign a one-year contract because he'll turn 35 during the 2016 season. Though Mathis has struggled with durability at times during his career and battled through quite a bit of pain last season, he is widely considered an intensely focused player who will do whatever it takes to prepare himself for games. Mathis was reportedly contemplating retirement after the Super Bowl victory, but elected to comeback and pursue another championship with Arizona. Regardless of whether the Cardinals reach their ultimate goal, it's difficult to see Mathis playing beyond this season. If he does, the 2017 season will likely be the last for a guard who is still playing at a high level late into his career.
Key skill: Run blocking
Run blocking is obviously a key skill for any interior offensive lineman, but especially for Mathis, who in the late stages of his career has graded out as Pro Football Focus' top run-blocking offensive lineman in four of the past five seasons.
Mathis brings an offensive line a player who can handle tough blocks and assignments at the line of scrimmage on his own, as well as a player who can pull and get out in space. Coupled with Iupati, who brings excellent athleticism for his size to the Cardinals' left side of the offensive line, Mathis should give offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin plenty of flexibility on the right side.
A great example of Mathis' abilities as a run blocker comes on a six-yard gain that took place in last season's AFC Championship gain. In the image below, notice the New England Patriots' defensive alignment and look closely at the defensive linemen playing in an outside shade over Mathis in the B-gap.
Based on this alignment, it would seem the Broncos would have relative difficulty running an off tackle running play because the team has four wide receivers split out and no fullback in the back field. Without a tight end or a fullback to account for the Patriots edge defenders, if the Broncos wanted to run off tackle to the left, they would need Mathis to block the defensive tackle in the B-gap. Nevertheless, that's exactly the play and assignment the Broncos call for, and in the image below, we see that Mathis managed to square up with the B-gap defensive tackle.
Even though Mathis is standing up a bit more than he would probably like, he still maintains great leverage against the defensive tackle because he had quick feet off the ball and beat the tackle into the B-gap. As you can see, Mathis is already engaged in his block before Peyton Manning even executes the handoff, which puts into context Mathis' impressive quickness.
Before the snap, sealing off the B-gap and providing his running back with a hole to run through looked fairly difficult for Mathis, but the image above shows us the result of the play. Mathis is standing over the defensive tackle he was assigned to block after pancaking him to the ground in an outstanding display of strength. Despite being in a tough position before the snap, Mathis possesses great fundamental technique that allows him to execute blocks like the one above that result in a flattened defender.
If Mathis can remain healthy throughout the season, he and Iupati can give the Cardinals a dynamic one-two punch as run blockers at the guard positions.
Overall value: After signing a one-year deal with the Cardinals worth just north of $4 million, Mathis' cap hit toward the franchise is the 18th largest of any guard in the NFL. Even though Mathis will turn 35 during the season, his recent production has proven Mathis is still an effective run blocker who can dominate at the point of attack and open up holes. If Mathis is even an average pass blocker this season and continues to excel as a run blocker, the Cardinals shouldn't lose any value on this contract. All things considered, Mathis' salary for the upcoming season is fairly close to the relative value we expect him to bring to the franchise, so this could turn out to be a nice one-year signing for general manager Steve Keim.