The Eagles have had a strong, prudent start to free agency, so it’s hard to be critical of their early moves in the NFL shopping period.
But while it’s a no-brainer to lock up players such as Todd Herremans, Trent Cole and DeSean Jackson, and to wait for the linebacker market to settle rather than leaping in and overpaying early, the team might soon face a much tougher decision on left guard Evan Mathis, a key piece of the team’s much improved offensive line. According to a report from Adam Caplan, the Ravens have offered Mathis "a nice deal" (in Mathis' words) and the guard is flying home to Arizona to think it over.
While the Eagles have said they would like him back, they have also sounded comfortable with the idea that he might leave for a big deal elsewhere.
“You have that risk when players get to free agency that you’re going to lose them, you’re aware of that,” general manager Howie Roseman said Thursday. “We hope Evan Mathis remains a Philadelphia Eagle, but obviously when you’re on the open market things happen.”
Maybe that’s just posturing for negotiations. Maybe the Eagles feel confident they can replace Mathis. After all, he was a little-known journeyman until emerging last year under the tutelage of offensive line coach Howard Mudd, and Jason Kelce was an unheralded sixth round pick before ended up starting all 16-games. Maybe there's another unknown free agent or mid-round rookie who could step right in to the line up. With four offensive line places now set and Mudd having a full offseason to work with, the Eagles seem to think it would be easy to plug in a replacement at left guard.
They might be right – after all, the line went through much more drastic change last year -- but they might also be taking an unnecessary chance. Mathis, after all, was very very good for the Eagles last year, by some measures performing as one of the best guards in the NFL. His athletic style is perfectly suited for the screen passes and cut backs that so often sprung LeSean McCoy.
Remember what happened before last season. From the time Jamaal Jackson got hurt late in 2009 until the point when Danny Watkins found his sea legs, the Eagles offensive line was in a constant state of flux, with players such as Nick Cole, Max-Jean Gilles, Mike McGlynn and Kyle DeVan called on to play key roles. (The DeVan experiment, of course, showing that you can't just stick anyone into the line and expect success).
Amid all the shuffling, the linemen stuck to the mantra that continuity didn’t really matter – right up until the Eagles settled on a five-man line they could trust. Then the message changed to what intuitively sounds much more accurate: that having the same group together week after week leads to better, more consistent play.
That was reflected in a strong season for the line, including paving the way for McCoy’s breakout year. The Eagles can maintain that continuity, and have one fewer question mark heading into the season, if they can re-sign Mathis.
If his price goes into the stratosphere, that would of course change things. Smart cap management isn’t exciting, but it’s what allows the Eagles to hang on to their home grown players. But if Mathis is within reach, the Eagles would be smart to make a strong play to keep him.
Maybe he’s replaceable. But after taking so long to finally get such a key unit back in working order, is it worth the risk of yet another shake up?