The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide some insight on the NFL's 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven't fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
The crumbling of last year’s Eagles started at the foundation. There were problems throughout Philadelphia’s roster, but if teams really are made from the lines out, Andy Reid’s offense never had much on which to build. Weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon, All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters tore it again after the walker he was using broke. He missed the entire season (and just recouped $2 million from the walker company). Second-year center Jason Kelce tore both his ACL and MCL in Week 2. Former first-round pick Danny Watkins started just six games. In all, injury and ineffectiveness led to nine different starters along the Eagles’ offensive line. Only one of Philadelphia’s offensive linemen started all 16 games, and he just happened to be its best one.
Evan Mathis came to the Eagles following the 2011 lockout. He arrived on a one-year contract — a self-described “camp body” — following three underwhelming seasons in Cincinnati. The Eagles were actually Mathis’s fourth team in seven seasons. A third-round pick by the Panthers in 2005, he was cut by Carolina following training camp in 2008. The Dolphins signed him during Week 2, but he lasted just eight weeks in South Florida. Picked up by the Bengals late that season, Mathis actually became a starter in 2009, but a series of injuries hampered his chance for extended playing time. He played just 115 snaps in 2010 and, following the season, was allowed to walk.
Mathis came to Philadelphia as an afterthought, but by the end of a lockout-shortened camp, he’d actually emerged as the team’s starting left guard. He played 15 games during the 2011-12 season, his first full year as a starter, and became one of the best guards in football. His play earned him a five-year, $25 million deal following the season. As the rest of the Eagles’ offensive line fell apart during the 2012-13 campaign, Mathis only built on his success from the previous one. Playing one of the league’s most overlooked positions on a disappointing team, the recognition has been slow, but right now there may be no one playing guard better than Evan Mathis.
There are plenty of reasons a player with All-Pro potential can flounder with some teams before flourishing with another, and Mathis seemed to run into each of them in the early parts of his career. After Mathis started 15 games for Carolina in his second season, the Panthers fired their offensive line coach. With a new one in place, Mathis found himself down the depth chart going into his second year, and in trying to combat the problem, he only compounded it. His typical playing weight was between 290 and 300 pounds, but fearing that his size was a reason for the demotion, Mathis bulked up to about 320 before the 2008 season. The excess weight led to a loss of quickness that Mathis says he couldn’t overcome, and his play slipped. By the end of that season, he would be cut by both the Panthers and Dolphins before signing with the Bengals.
Knowing that the increase in size was actually a detriment, Mathis was back in the 290s when his first full season began in 2009. With his quickness regained, he became a starter for the Bengals in Week 2 and put together an excellent seven-game stretch. That’s when he suffered the first of several injuries that would define his time in Cincinnati. A high ankle sprain against the Ravens kept him out of the Bengals’ next three games, and when he returned, he did so as part of a rotation at guard. The next season wouldn’t even get started before Mathis was hurt again, this time with a torn calf suffered before minicamp that kept him out of OTAs and the first week of training camp. “When I returned I was playing catch-up,” Mathis says. “I guess the coaches thought I hadn't returned to my former self.”
It was near the end of that season that Mathis got an idea that would eventually change his career. In December of that year, Mathis was set to open a workout facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I was bored out of my mind [in Cincinnati],” Mathis says. “We were getting ready to open Zone in December of that year and I got the idea to make an impactful testimonial for the gym.” The testimonial would come in the form of an eight-week transformational workout program, starting in mid-January. In order to accentuate the change, Mathis spent the final few weeks of the season and the two after it putting on as much bad weight as possible. By March, Mathis claimed he’d lost 22 pounds and dropped his body fat by 10 percentage points. “For the next eight weeks I ate exactly what I was supposed to and worked my ass off with my trainer, Garrett Shinoskie,” Mathis says. “I was a free agent going into the lockout at that time, and not only did I want to show what Zone could do, I wanted to get ready to win a starting job wherever I landed.”
Clearly, Mathis stands to gain from claiming that time at his gym led to the best physical condition of his life — but the results are there. His 2011 season was the best of his career by far. Along with the physical changes, Mathis’s time in Philadelphia came with an offensive-line education that outdid anything he’d gotten in his previous NFL stops. That season was the first in Philadelphia for offensive line coach Howard Mudd, a man who, at the time, had 38 years of experience teaching the art of the block. “I think I was able to make up for all of those lost years earlier in my career just by being able to learn from him,” Mathis says.
At 290 pounds, the non-physical elements of offensive line play are an important factor in Mathis’s success. Few guards are quicker (and even at 290, he’s considerably strong), but his biggest advantage may be in how well he maintains contact and stays with every block on almost any given play.
In Philadelphia’s Week 12 loss to the Panthers, Mathis was about as dominant as a guard can be in the running game. Bryce Brown racked up 178 yards on 19 carries that Monday night, and several big chunks of that total were a result of Mathis’s work.
Above is a play from the first quarter. Mathis, at left guard, has an inside shade to his right.
The run is a zone play to the right. Mathis is at a disadvantage from the snap. There’s no way he can cut off the defensive tackle as he moves toward the ball, but as part of a zone running scheme, he doesn't have to. When the ball is snapped, Mathis takes the shade and gradually moves him in the direction the defender wants to go. The key here isn’t angles but using the defensive tackle’s momentum against him.
We’re now all the way outside the opposite hash mark from where the play began. Because Mathis maintained contact throughout, a massive cutback lane is available for Brown, who rips off a 19-yard gain.
Mathis has his moments of physical dominance, and he manages to get defensive linemen fully turned in a way rarely seen in the NFL, but his greatest strength is in getting defenders moving. His excellent quickness allows him to get his hands on more players than most guards could hope to track down, and when he does, his ability to sustain contact leads to massive running lanes like this one. On a team with a running back who sees the field like LeSean McCoy does, Mathis is a major asset.
More than those of any other position, the reputations of interior offensive linemen are built on pedigree. One reason that first-round guards have been consistent Pro Bowlers is that the only guards to whom people pay any mind are the ones taken in the first round. After two seasons as one of the top players in the NFL at his position, Mathis has yet to receive a single postseason accolade, and he understands why. “The problem is, most people aren't watching guards and there's no real stats to follow for OL,” Mathis says. “Who has time to watch every guard for 1,000 snaps a year, anyway? A lot of people just vote on name recognition.”
If there is a situation that could lead to Mathis becoming one of those names, it’s likely the new one in Philadelphia. Mathis’s quickness and ability to create movement along the line of scrimmage are an ideal fit in Chip Kelly’s zone-based scheme. With the rest of his line returning healthy in 2013, this may be the season that the Eagles’ offense does enough for Mathis to get the type of credit he deserves.