In the fifth round of the 2003 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts selected a defensive end out of Alabama A&M named Robert Mathis. The team already had defensive end Dwight Freeney, who had recorded 13 sacks in his rookie season a year earlier. Though Mathis would start only one game in his first three seasons combined, he began to develop into a very good pass rusher and the perfect compliment to Freeney.
Before long, the duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis was the best pass rushing duo in the entire NFL and it wasn't really close. Freeney got the majority of the publicity, as he began his career with four consecutive double-digit sack seasons including a league-leading 16 in 2004. But Freeney began to struggle with injuries and his absence to the team during the latter part of the 2007 season was a crushing blow that ultimately played a large part in the Colts' early playoff exit.
Since then, however, while Freeney would record three more double-digit sack seasons (2008-2010), Robert Mathis has really begun to emerge from the shadow of number 93 and create his own legacy as number 98. Last season when the defense switched from their traditional 4-3 to Chuck Pagano's hybrid 3-4, Mathis made the transition nicely while Freeney struggled. Mathis was a pro bowl player while Freeney managed the second-lowest sack total of his career with just five (while playing in five more games than his only season with fewer sacks, 2007).
In the offseason, the Colts made the not-so-surprising move to not re-sign the popular Freeney and instead to move on. It was the right move, most reasoned, because of course they would replace him... right?
Perhaps not. Well, at least not adequately. The Colts signed Erik Walden in free agency, an outside linebacker solid in run defense but awful at rushing the passer. But he wasn't brought in to rush the passer, that's the job of first round rookie Bjoern Werner. Himself transitioning from a 4-3 to Pagano's hybrid 3-4, Werner is going to be relied on for a lot of pass rush help (as a result, he appears at number 8 on this list series).
And, as if the pass rush was already questionable enough, the team recently traded the player who undoubtedly was the best pass rusher of the preseason, Caesar Rayford, who actually racked up a league-leading 5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Oh, and did I mention that the pass rushing linebacker they brought in on a smaller deal in free agency was placed on injured reserve?
Yeah, the pass rush is a huge, glaring hole in an otherwise solid Colts' defense. As a result of that, Robert Mathis becomes the most important player on the defense, and he also would appear this high on the list just based off of skill alone. He's probably the best defensive player the team has and it turns out he also is their most important in 2013 as well.
There's no more Dwight Freeney on the other side of the line to draw attention. Now, it's either going to be a run-stopping linebacker or a rookie. Not exactly even comparable, really.
Is Robert Mathis up to the challenge? That's the big question we all want to see answered.
Mathis doesn't like the fact that people are talking about this and has responded to both Andrew Mishler and myself writing about the question. We just don't know what to expect from him. And whether he likes it or not, it's a very fair and valid question, one that is absolutely crucial to the success of the Colts in 2013.
Really, there's no doubt that Mathis is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. He showed that last year yet again. In his career, he has notched 91.5 sacks and forced 40 fumbles, both among the best in the league. He has been disruptive and has been named to five consecutive pro bowls (2008-2012), has four career double-digit sack seasons and 20 career multiple sack games. He stands just 16 sacks away from tying Freeney's franchise record. Nobody is debating how good Mathis really is, and even if they tried to, Mathis' leadership makes him neccessary to the team regardless.
In 2012, a team in complete transition needed a leader. The offense found it in Reggie Wayne and the defense found it in Robert Mathis, both of whom stepped up into larger roles to lead a young team through an incredibly trying season and to the playoffs. Their leadership was crucial. Mathis returns this year as the defensive leader yet again, and his contribution to the team that way shouldn't be overlooked either.
Talent-wise, Mathis absolutely deserves to be near the top of this list. It just helps that he happens to have a huge role and responsibility on his shoulders.
Mathis will face double teams and the best that opponents have to offer, and he absolutely must come through. The team can't heavily rely on Walden (who has a career 9 sacks, with no more than 3 in a single season) or on Bjoern Werner, as first round pass rushers typically don't produce much in their rookie seasons. The Colts need Werner to step up big time, and that's probably unfair to do to a rookie. But Mathis? He's been terrorizing offensive lines for the past decade, and this year will be his biggest challenge to date.
Can Robert Mathis step up in the absence of Dwight Freeney and provide enough pass rush to not only get to the opposing quarterback but perhaps even more importantly to open up opportunities for other guys? The Colts need him to be, and the way that question is answered will go a long way in just how successful the team will be in 2013. For that, he earns the number two spot on the list of the most important players to the Colts' success this year.