Robert Mathis returns for 14th season, still Colts’ top pass-rush threat

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Robert Mathis

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (April 19, 2016) – Help might be on the horizon for a tepid Indianapolis Colts pass rush.

Perhaps the upcoming NFL draft will deliver Clemson end Shaq Lawson to the defense. Maybe the newbie is linebacker Reggie Ragland of Alabama or Leonard Floyd of Georgia. Red flags swirl over Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence, but there’s no denying his ability to harass quarterbacks.

Until someone new shows up, and perhaps even after he does, Robert Mathis remains the man.

At 35, he’s the relentless self-motivator who stubbornly refuses to yield to Father Time. His motivation when the Colts opened their offseason work Monday was the same as it was when they selected him in the fifth round of the 2003 draft.

“Love for the game,’’ Mathis said, sticking to his to-the-point approach. “You learn not to take it for granted. There are a lot of guys that are not in the league that want to be here that still have the passion and aren’t able, so I realize it’s a blessing (and you) can’t take it for granted.’’

Mathis’ presence is a reminder of the state of a Colts’ pass rush that too often failed to assert itself last season. It generated 35 sacks, tied for 10th-fewest in the league. It’s no coincidence that of the 11 teams with 35 sacks or sacks, none reached the playoffs.

Even entering his 14th season, Mathis remains the Colts’ premier pass-rush threat. And there’s a sizable gap to whomever you opt to rank No. 2.

Kudos to Mathis, but shame on the Colts for failing to provide him with a suitable sidekick or successor. They continue to chase mistakes at a difference-making position.

It began when the previous regime missed on Jerry Hughes, taken with the 31st overall pick in the 2010 draft. Even though he emerged as a legitimate pass rusher with Buffalo following a trade prior to the 2013 draft, he never was a factor with the Colts: 5 sacks in 40 games.

Subsequently, general manager Ryan Grigson and his personnel staff also have whiffed.

Bjoern Werner, the Colts’ 2013 first-round pick, was waived in March, the result of 6.5 sacks and little impact in 38 games. Trent Cole, one of Grigson’s high-priced free-agent acquisitions last offseason, is back only after agreeing to take a pay cut after managing 3 sacks in his first year with the team.

And let’s not forget Jonathan Newsome, a 2014 fifth-round pick who led the Colts with 6.5 sacks as a rookie. He was waived in February after being arrested for possession of marijuana.

Throughout the process, Mathis has gone quietly about his business. He’s the Colts’ career sack leader with 118, a figure that ranks No. 5 among active players.

Mathis’ 14th season figures to be a defining one. His contract expires after the season, and it’s uncertain if the Colts will re-invest in what will be a 36-year player next offseason. His agent approached management about a possible extension in February, but nothing came of it.

“No comment,’’ he said.

No one should be surprised if the Colts face a difficult decision regarding Mathis. He was effective last season, sharing the team lead with Kendall Langford with 7 sacks and adding a team-high 14 quarterback hits, despite never being 100 percent. Mathis appeared in 15 games, 10 as a starter, after missing the 2014 season with a ruptured Achilles.

“When I first started getting into the game, I was probably 80, 85 (percent),’’ he said. “As the season progressed, I started getting into the 90s. Then the season ended before I wanted it to. I did feel good the last few games, better than I did the first few games.

“Coming into this season, I feel great. Leg feels great, body feels great.’’

In many instances, a player is markedly better the second season after a major injury.

“All the other little injuries, everything has healed,’’ said Mathis, who needed 10 different procedures to repair the Achilles injury. “I’m just laying low and working. Now it’s time to get after it.

“Like I said, I feel great.’’

There were times last season he battled frustration as well as blocking schemes.

“Sure,’’ Mathis said. “As I’m going through it, you’re kind of stubborn. I thought I could do more than I actually could.

“It humbles you. Being hurt and being away from the game, (you) kind of have a greater appreciation for it.’’

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