What Does the Evan Mathis Signing Mean for the Broncos, Seahawks, and Dolphins?
It took a while, but Evan Mathis has found a new home.
After an offseason of being linked to any team that might need offensive line help of any kind, Mathis agreed to a one-year deal with the Denver Broncos on Tuesday evening.
Mathis is entering his age-34 season and is coming off a year in which he played in only nine games because of an MCL sprain. Despite that, Mathis is still considered one of the top guards in the league, enough so that the Broncos gave him a contract worth up to $4 million for 2015 should certain incentives be reached.
Since being released from the Eagles in June, Mathis had been linked to a number of teams. Whether there was ever any serious interest, or that interest was agent fabricated, we’ll probably never know. Mathis’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, claimed there was a one-year offer on the table for up to $5.5 million -- equal to his 2015 salary with Philadelphia -- but Mathis decided to sign with a contender in Denver for less money.
This mystery non-contender is interesting because there’s a high enough probability it doesn’t exist. Mathis went on a visit to Seattle at the end of last week with the undertone of “Hey I might actually sign here, so other teams get your offer in now. I’m really serious, you guys.”
There was always going to be some market for a guard this good, even at his older age. Whether it was the type of market either Mathis or his agent were expecting, that's probably debatable.
Regardless of what did or didn’t develop, Mathis’ choice of Denver still leaves those other teams in their current state at offensive line. Let’s first take a look at the teams that missed out and how their lines look heading into the season.
Seattle was the most closely linked team to the guard recently due to his visit last week. The Seahawks, as has become custom on a roster loaded with talent everywhere else, have a concern along the offensive line. With Justin Britt’s move to left guard for the season, Seattle now has two undrafted free agents in line to start on the line at center and right tackle. The Seahawks parted ways with John Carpenter, via free agency, and Max Unger, via trade, during the offseason, leaving these holes to fill up front. But for Seattle, a weak offense line might be an issue they can overcome.
Last season, Seattle was the best rushing team in the league per our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric -- by a wide margin. For the uninitiated, 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.
According to our Adjusted Rushing NEP per play metric, there was a bigger gap between the Seahawks (0.18) and the second-ranked Kansas City Chiefs (0.06) than between the Chiefs and the 26th-ranked Arizona Cardinals (-0.05). Most of that was because of the combination of Marshawn Lynch (27.34 Rushing NEP) and Russell Wilson (60.50). Both of those marks led their respective positions in 2014.
The narrative can be formed to say Mathis signed for less money to play for a contender, but he priced himself out of the Seahawks’ budget with the contract he signed in Denver. Seattle is up against the cap -- due to having to pay just about everyone on the roster -- and only has about $5 million in 2015 cap space, per Spotrac.
Mathis would have been an instant improvement on the offensive line, but if there’s a team that can figure out how to get by, it would be Seattle. The future of the offensive line is still a question, but that's unlikely something Mathis would have fixed anyway.
The Miami Dolphins appeared to be in a will-they-won’t-they television storyline with Mathis throughout the season. He was a natural fit in the offense, crafted by offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who was the quarterbacks coach under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia in 2013. While the fit and need aligned, the money never did, as the Dolphins were reportedly only willing to pay less than half of the $5.5 million Mathis was originally asking for.
Miami, like Seattle, was still among the league’s best rushing teams last season.
The Dolphins ranked fifth in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt (0.04), and the line could be in better shape entering 2015 pending the health of left tackle Branden Albert. Without Albert last year, the entire line had to shift.
Ja’Wuan James moved from right to left tackle, Mike Pouncey slid in at right guard, and Samson Satele took over at center. With full health, everyone on the line shifts back to a more natural position with Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner at the guard spots.
That’s not an ideal combination, but if Albert can stay healthy, the guards could be covered by the tackles and the center. Mathis would have left just one weak spot on the line instead of two, but losing out is not going to derail what Lamar Miller and Ryan Tannehill should be able to accomplish.
Mathis at Mile High
While the Dolphins can get by with a healthy left tackle, the Broncos were put in need because of their injured one.
Ryan Clady tore his ACL during OTAs and left Denver with a void at the position. Even though Clady had a slightly down year in 2014, his loss is significant as it places 2015 second-round pick Ty Sambrailo as the team’s starting left tackle. Until the Mathis signing, Sambrailo was stationed next to fellow rookie Max Garcia, who was in line to be Denver’s starting left guard.
Garcia had played decently through limited time in the preseason and earned praise during training camp, but starting two rookies on the left side of an offensive line is not what anyone would like to put in front of Peyton Manning. Mathis is obviously an improvement over the fourth-round pick, and moving Garcia to a swing position strengthens the line more, as he had experience playing both guard and center in college.
Mathis will be a natural fit on the left side for Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking run scheme and sets up a solid set of guards for the run game with Louis Vasquez on the right side. Like the other teams mentioned above, Denver did not lack in run efficiency last season. They tied for eighth in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt. But of course, the main factor for the success of the offense is the quarterback.
Manning trailed off a bit during the second half of the season last year, and the Broncos relied more on the run to get them through games. Through Week 10, the Broncos dropped back 1.58 times for every rushing attempt on offense, which was the eighth highest ratio in the league.
By the end of the season, that ratio had dropped to 1.41, which was 19th. Some of that had to do with Denver leading in many games, but it was also to protect Manning and keep him from having to throw 40-plus times per game. The addition of Mathis will help with pass protection and run blocking. It will allow Denver to rely on the run game earlier with C.J. Anderson or to shift game plans late in the season should that need arise again.
Manning also played a slight part in the Mathis signing because of the pay cut he took in the offseason. Denver reportedly wanted Manning to take a $10 million pay cut from his $19 million salary, but a $4 million cut was agreed to instead. It could be seen as an oversimplification to match the $4 million pay cut to Mathis’ potential $4 million salary, but the Broncos had about $8 million in cap space and probably would not have been able to offer the deal they did without the extra $4 million to work with.
The Broncos are clearly in a win-now mode with a 39-year-old quarterback, so paying a high price for a 34-year-old guard is not a bad investment, especially when he’s been among the league’s best at the position over the past few seasons. Denver was the second best offense in the league in terms of Adjusted NEP per play last season, and while this move doesn’t guarantee they stay there in 2015, they’re certainly much better off than they were on Tuesday morning.