Realistic Expectations for Robert Mathis in 2015


The Indianapolis Colts and their fan base have been anxiously awaiting the return of Robert Mathis, and recent information would suggest they may be waiting a bit longer. Colts owner Jim Irsay stated that November would be a worst case scenario for Mathis return to the field.

Oct 20, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis (98) reacts during the game against the Denver Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts have added some defensive talent via free agency in order to solidify a more consistent pass rush regardless of the return date, with the additions of Trent Cole and Kendall Langford. The hopes for Bjoern Werner to emerge as Mathis’ replacement has thus far fallen by the wayside. Werner has been serviceable, yet hasn’t validated his first round billing from the 2013 NFL draft.

There is little doubt that Mathis will return to a hungry collection of fans and teammates with lofty expectations after sitting out the entire 2014 season due to a combination of a suspension and an achilles injury. These expectations however, may prove to be out of reach even for a tireless worker such as Mathis.

What should the organization, and fans alike, legitimately expect from the 34 year old pass rusher? History tells us that pass rushers between seasons in which they were 33 to the following season – are somewhat split on their production. In fact, of the top 25 all-time sack leaders, there are 18 that could be considered when gauging Mathis’ 2015 expectations.

Below are the margins between each of these players’ season in which they were 33, to that of their following season.

Bruce Smith: +.5

Reggie White: +4.0

Kevin Green: +5.5

Chris Doleman: +2.0

Michael Strahan: +7.5

Jason Taylor: -7.5

John Randle: +3.0

Richard Dent: -10.5

John Abraham: +.5

Lawrence Taylor: +1.0

Rickey Jackson: +2.0

Leslie O’Neal: -5.5

Julius Peppers: Even

Clyde Simmons: -3.5

Sean Jones: -4.0

Dwight Freeney: +3 (Injured in ’13)

Pat Swilling: -4.0 (Injured at age 33)

Trace Armstrong: -3.0

As you can see there some are mixed results, 10 of them improved while seven declined with only one staying even in their subsequent seasons. Those who declined averaged a decrease of nearly -5.5 sacks per season while, conversely, those who improved did so by an average of +2.5 per season. Mathis currently sits at 29th all time on the list of sack leaders and is a half-sack behind Dwight Freeney — and could climb into the top 10 within the next two seasons.

In order to set realistic expectations for Mathis’ production this season, we must consider the supporting cast of the 2013 season and compare it against a projected 2015 Colts defense. Obviously, we cannot predict drafted prospects, but we can plug in various statistics and current players’ attributes in order to get us a ballpark assumption. The Colts are also likely to heavily focus on defense throughout the draft.

2013 Supporting Cast:

In 2013, Mathis had a limited amount of help with a combination of free agent additions learning the new system and an underwhelming first-round selection in Werner. The Colts pass rush was almost completely dependent upon Mathis getting to the quarterback. Mathis racked up his DPOY worthy 19.5 sacks by either hitting or hurrying the quarterback a total of 75 times in ’13. The rest of the defense tallied only 27.5 sacks, and while they admittedly weren’t asked to rush the passer as much — they weren’t effectively capable either.

The Colts defense was 26th in the league against the rush giving up over 125 yards per game, and were 13th defending the pass allowing 231.9 yards through the air.

2014 Supporting Cast: 

Jan 11, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Indianapolis Colts linebacker Jonathan Newsome (91) celebrates against the Denver Broncos in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Colts defeated the Broncos 24-13. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It was very interesting to see the change in scheme that was implemented in Mathis’ absence, in an attempt to get pressure on the quarterback. The coaching staff understood that they were not going to get Mathis-type production from any one player, and chose to dial up blitz packages significantly more often than that of the previous season.

Erik Walden improved in getting to the quarterback and rookie Jonathan Newsome notched a team-high 6.5 sacks seemingly giving the Colts an element of unpredictability on passing downs without Mathis. The defense was able to notch 45 sacks in ’14, were 12th in the NFL against the pass allowing 229.3 yards per game, and were 18th stopping the run giving up 113.4 yards per game.

Strangely, the defense improved overall (minus the 2 fewer sacks) without Mathis in the lineup. Mathis’ return coupled with last season’s free agent additions Arthur Jones and D’Qwell Jackson along with the likes of Trent Cole, Nate Irving and Kendall Langford from this offseason — the Colts pass rush would appear to be inherently more productive.

Reasonable Expectations:

Mathis will not be able to replicate his ’13 season, but of the great pass rushers listed above, seven have had at least one year (after the age of 33) with 13.5 sacks in a season — with a handful of others with at least 10. Considering Mathis’ possible late start to the ’15 season, it would seem that a top 10 (all-time) pass rusher should conceivably be able to earn at least 8-10 sacks.

Oct 14, 2013; San Diego, CA, USA; Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis (98) during the second half against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers won 19-9. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

With an improved pass rush outside of Mathis, his mere presence will make a significant impact on the defense’s ability to get to the quarterback. Newsome should improve and hopefully be able to both lineup opposite Mathis as a threat, as well as spell him at times. Walden and Werner alike will be fighting for their playing time with another seasoned veteran in Cole, which will either result in “dead weight” getting dumped, or a much improved defense with added versatility.

With all things the same (durability, etc.), it is reasonable to expect Mathis to have a fantastic season in ’15. He clearly still has the love and drive needed to succeed in the NFL, the ability and quite possibly the teammates to have an incredible comeback season. Mathis will have a residual role in making his teammates better when he is on the field, and will no doubt have to be game planned against as a threat himself.

The new additions and Mathis will each likely benefit from each other throughout the season, which may just make the Colts scary again on that side of the football. Mathis could quite legitimately be leading a top five pass rush in the upcoming season.

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