By Peter Gleason
When Eagles Supreme Leader Chip Kelly cut All-Pro left guard Evan Mathis on June 5, blowhards like Angelo Cataldi and even experts like Reuben Frank were sure that:
This is the last straw — Kelly is way in over his head as a GM and a judge of pro talent!
Well, here it is a month later and no NFL team has signed Mathis.
Despite nearly every fan base dreaming about adding a game-changing player this late in the offseason, NFL teams aren’t rushing to do the same.
As the Bleacher Report has opined:
If any team could use Mathis, the St. Louis Rams could: Pro Football Focus graded their two primary guards, Rodger Saffold and Davin Joseph, 41st and 75th out of 78 qualifiers in 2014. PFF also ranked their line sixth-worst in pass blocking and 10th-worst in run blocking. The Rams drafted four linemen this spring, but it’s hard to imagine any of them stepping in and playing at Mathis’ level.
Still, Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole reported the Rams have “no interest” in Mathis. Per Cole’s source, they “prefer to let [their] young players grow together,” which sounds like an awfully fishy reason not to sign one of the game’s best players at a position of need.
Is Mathis hurt? Is he just not as good as everybody thinks? Are his contact demands too high?
Mathis missed seven games with an MCL sprain in 2014, but he came back to play the last eight games of the season. In three prior seasons, Mathis made 47 of 48 starts, so there aren’t any chronic issues. He also missed any real offseason contact when he held out during OTAs, so any new injury is very unlikely.
Offensive line play is tricky to evaluate and highly subjective, but Mathis was PFF’s No. 2-ranked guard in 2014 (despite the missed games), and No. 1 overall in 2013, 2012 and 2011. If the Pro Bowls and first-team All-Pro nod weren’t enough to dispel that theory, the PFF grades ought to do it. If he’s not the best guard in the NFL, he’s on the shortlist.
His contract? That makes more sense, as it’s the on-the-record reason for his leaving Philly.
“We weren’t going to come to a conclusion in terms of a contract extension,” Kelly said at the time of Mathis’ release. “We weren’t going to extend any contract or adjust any contract, so we granted him what his agent asked for.”
Kelly, whose stated desire this offseason has been to balance cap spending between offense and defense, understandably was not eager to set the market for what’s traditionally been one of the lowest-impact, lowest-priority positions on the roster.
Further, adding a premium contract at this point in the summer is hard—surely why Mathis’ agent, Drew Rosenhaus, pushed for an earlier release—as team’s rosters and salary caps are largely set. Indeed, the Rams have the seventh-least amount of space under the cap right now with just $6.8 million to spare, per OvertheCap.com.
This is the real reason Mathis hasn’t signed anywhere: Teams aren’t sure they need him yet.
“I think we’ll be methodical,” Rosenhaus told WQAM. “We won’t necessarily rush into signing immediately.” Rosenhaus said “half a dozen” teams were interested in Mathis, who “is one of, if not the top overall free agent right now that would be available in the NFL.” As other teams with needs at guard (and more cap space) hit training camp, Mathis’ market opens up—and his asking price goes up.