Evan Mathis' release will test Chip Kelly and Eagles' unproven linemen

PHILADELPHIA – Evan Mathis' release will be the biggest test yet of Chip Kelly’s apparent belief that his team’s culture is paramount.

When Kelly shockingly released wide receiver DeSean Jackson last year, he had Jeremy Maclin returning from a knee injury to take Jackson’s place. When Kelly topped that move by trading running back LeSean McCoy to Buffalo, he had DeMarco Murray’s signature on a contract within a few days. Trading Nick Foles brought Sam Bradford to the Eagles.

But Mathis was released Thursday late in an offseason in which the Eagles made no major additions to their offensive line group. The Eagles reportedly showed some interest in Broncos free agent guard Orlando Franklin, but he signed with the San Diego Chargers. The Eagles did not take a single offensive lineman in the NFL draft for the second consecutive season.

Last week, ESPN’s Adam Caplan reported the Eagles had a visit scheduled with guard Chris Chester. Chester, who was released by Washington, signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

Indeed, Kelly released his other starting guard, Todd Herremans, back in March. So the Eagles subtracted two players who started 178 games for them and added only a couple of undrafted rookie free agents.

Kelly has mentioned Allen Barbre, Matt Tobin and Andrew Gardner as possible replacements. And perhaps each of them has demonstrated to Kelly that they will be better culture fits than Mathis, who has been disgruntled about his contract for the past two offseasons. But none of them has proved much on the field against actual NFL opponents.

That makes this a big test for Kelly. It comes at a particularly challenging time. The Eagles’ offensive line will be protecting Bradford, who is coming off two tears to his left ACL, and opening holes for Murray, who led the league in rushing behind Dallas’ elite offensive line last season.

In 2013, with Mathis and Herremans starting all 16 games at the guard spots, McCoy led the NFL in rushing and Foles had a remarkable season. In 2014, with injuries costing Mathis seven games and Herremans eight games, McCoy’s rushing total fell by about 300 yards.

While Kelly might have seen those missed games as signs that Mathis, 33, was an injury risk, it must be noted that the 30-year-old Barbre missed 15 games with an ankle injury. Barbre was tagged to replace right tackle Lane Johnson during his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s PED policy. His tenure lasted less than one game.

Tobin started five games at left guard and two at right guard. He was benched after the Eagles’ loss to Green Bay and did not start again last season. Gardner started the last six games of the season at right guard. Earlier, Gardner replaced Barbre at right tackle. He started two games before Kelly benched him and inserted Herremans at right tackle.

Dennis Kelly, another player who could compete for a starting job, started three games at guard last season – twice on the left side and once on the right. He was inactive for the next 12 games.

The Eagles signed undrafted free agents Brett Boyko, Malcolm Bunche, Cole Manhart and Mike Coccia (who moved from center to guard during OTAs). Since signing them, the Eagles tried to sign Chester. So there is a chance that Mathis’ replacement is not on the roster yet.