Why Releasing Evan Mathis Was the Right Call for the Eagles
One of the best things to aid year-to-year success of offensives lines is continuity. The more five offensive linemen can play with each other, the more comfortable they can become.
In 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles had just that. All five starting offensive lineman played at least 1,000 snaps during the regular season and the line saw success. Injuries tore that line apart in 2014. Eight different players saw at least 30 percent of the offensive snaps along the line last season.
There will be little continuity in 2015, but different reasons will be the cause.
On Thursday afternoon, the Eagles announced they had released left guard Evan Mathis, ending a long contract dispute in a rather shocking fashion. Mathis wanted a raise, the Eagles did not want to meet his price, and after failing to find a trade partner almost two years, Philadelphia cut ties with the guard. As recently as a few days ago, the Eagles had a long-term contract offer out to Mathis before it was pulled.
Philadelphia then decided to move on, and Mathis will be playing the 2015 season with a new team. Even entering his age-34 season, and after playing just 50.7 percent of the offensive snaps in 2014, Mathis is considered one of the best guards in the league. What might this move now mean for the player and his former team?
For the Eagles
During his time as the decision maker, Chip Kelly has shown he’s not afraid to move on from a player when he determines the value is no longer an asset for the team. The Eagles took a hardline stance that Mathis, with his $6.5 million cap hit in 2015 and $7 million hit in 2016, was no longer worth the price. In Kelly’s system, he could believe a replacement guard could fill in a reasonable amount of Mathis’ value, and he might not be wrong.
While the Eagles will have two new starters at guard this season -- Todd Herremans signed as a free agent with the Indianapolis Colts -- they still have three well above average players on the line. Both tackles, Jason Peters and Lane Johnson, and center, Jason Kelce, have been among the best players at their positions over the past few seasons. It could be Kelly’s thought process that having those three surrounding the two new guards will make a transition much easier.
Two seasons ago those three, along with Mathis and Herremans, helped establish the best run game in the NFL according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.
The Eagles ranked first in both Adjusting Rushing NEP and Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt during the 2013 season. They did that all while being the sixth most run-heavy offense in the league. While LeSean McCoy had an outstanding season, first in Rushing NEP per attempt among 22 backs with at least 200 carries, at least a portion of that success can be attributed to the offensive line.
As the Eagles’ offensive line turned into a rotating cast of starters in 2014, the rushing efficiency also fell off dramatically. Philly dropped to 16th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt and 18th in overall Adjusted Rushing NEP. McCoy also struggled to find his 2013 groove, falling to 11th in Rushing NEP per attempt out of 17 backs with at least 200 carries. McCoy also finished with a negative total Rushing NEP despite having the second most carries of any running back in the league last season.
While the inconsistency along the offensive line should receive some blame, it should be noted for running backs with at least 50 carries McCoy’s teammate Darren Sproles had the highest Rushing NEP per attempt.
During the line shuffling last season Matt Tobin played 44.5 percent of the offensive snaps, many filling in for Mathis. Andrew Gardner played 56.9 percent of the offensive snaps, shifting between three positions. Both are still on the roster and at least one figures to be a starter at guard. The favorite to replace Mathis may be Allen Barbre. Barbre barely played last season -- 2.8 percent of offensive snaps -- but the staff is reportedly high on his potential.
These players will also be blocking for a new set of running backs in DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews. Murray was more volume than efficiency for the Cowboys last season -- his 0.03 Rushing NEP per carry ranked 9th among the 17 rushers with at least 200 attempts -- but with a healthy offensive line, Kelly could conceivably envision something much closer to resembling the 2013 ground game as opposed to 2014.
The Eagles might be just fine without Mathis, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to offer as a player.
Mathis ranked as the number-two rated guard in the league last season by Pro Football Focus after playing just nine games. No one has to agree about his exact place among guards, but players don’t get rated that highly on accident. What that helps show is that Mathis performed his job exceptionally well when he was on the field. He doesn’t get those type of grades while blowing blocks. There are more than a few teams that could use the services of Mathis. There’s unlikely to be a shortage of suitors.
After ranking 23rd in Adjusted Rushing NEP and getting a head start on their yearly loss of linemen, the divisional rival New York Giants would be a fit. Geoff Schwartz, coming off an ankle injury, and John Jerry are slated as the team’ two starters. Placing Mathis with Schwartz would give the team two veteran pieces on the inside to aid Justin Pugh and rookie Erik Flowers at tackle, while offering one of the biggest upgrades imaginable over Jerry.
Before the release, the Miami Dolphins were rumored as a trade partner. The Dolphins currently have two former third-round picks slated at guard and used center Mike Pouncey at times last year to strengthen the position.
Reuniting with two former teammates could also make sense, in two different locations. Reuniting with Herremans on Indianapolis’ offensive line could give another boost to the run game along with the free agent signing of Frank Gore. The Colts were 27th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt last season.
Mathis would also be a significant upgrade blocking for his former back McCoy in Buffalo. The offensive line for the Bills figures to be one of the biggest weaknesses of the team and a guard of Mathis’ stature could help a team that figures to gameplan heavily around the ground game.
Even though this breakup could be seen on the horizon, it happened suddenly. While Mathis and the Eagles served each other well during their time together, this is likely to be a split that sees both sides come out just fine as they move on.