Evan Mathis went out and did the free-agent thing. He got another team interested (the Baltimore Ravens) and forced the Philadelphia Eagles to pay up if they wanted him back. Mathis is a 30-year-old guard who's coming off his best season, and he wisely realized this was probably the best chance he'd ever have to really cash in. The Eagles ponied up a five-year contract that, Adam Schefter reports, has a value of $25.5 million with $7 million guaranteed. And on Saturday they announced that Mathis would return to Philadelphia for 2012 and possibly beyond.
The Eagles were wise to pay whatever it took to retain Mathis. Say what you will about their disappointing 2011 season and their decision to bring back more or less the same group to try to redeem themselves in 2012, but the offensive line was an unquestioned strength — one of the very best in the entire league. Mathis, who signed last summer as an insurance or backup plan but won a starting job in training camp, was a huge part of the reason why.
Our friends at ProFootballFocus.com, who grade every player on every play, rated Mathis the No. 1 guard in the NFL last year. No. 1 overall, ahead of Carl Nicks and Ben Grubbs and all those free-agent guards who got all of the headlines earlier in the week. Mathis graded out as the ninth-best guard in the league in pass blocking with a grade of +10.6. (New England's Brian Waters led that category with a +17.7, and Nicks came in second at +16.6). But in run-blocking, Mathis graded out as a +20.4. The next-highest run-blocking grade among guards from PFF was Baltimore's Marshal Yanda, at +6.9.
So Mathis, along with his Eagles linemates, was clearly a big reason for LeSean McCoy's stellar season. And as the year went along, the line did better in pass protection as well. Continuity is vital to an offensive line, and the fact the Eagles will keep their 2011 starting five together is a good harbinger for 2012. Mathis took right away to the complex blocking schemes of first-year offensive line coach Howard Mudd, and he and the rest of that crew should thrive together in Mudd's second year.
You can guarantee McCoy was excited to hear about this signing. Whatever backup plan the Eagles may have had at guard, it would have represented a significant downgrade in the quality of their run blocking. And it would have been a new guy who would have had to learn Mudd and the guys on either side of him. The Eagles haven't been very active in free agency, so far focusing most of their efforts on contract extensions for their own players. But saving room in the budget for Mathis was a wise move and prevents a potentially major headache.