One of San Diego's most underrated offseason moves was re-signing DL Ricardo Mathews to a one-year, $920,000 deal. Mathews was San Diego's second-best defensive lineman last season yet is the fifth-highest paid player in Don Johnson's unit (behind Corey Liuget, Sean Lissemore, Kendall Reyes and Mitch Unrein).
The Chargers initially signed Mathews on Sept. 1, 2014 after he was released by the Texans. But it was his time in Indy, not Houston, that put Mathews on San Diego's radar.
The Cincinnati product entered the league as a seventh-round pick of the Colts in 2010, when Tom Telesco was serving as Indianapolis' assistant general manager.
Mathews appeared in all 32 games during his final two seasons in Indianapolis, starting six, and racked up 31 tackles, two pass breakups and a half-sack during that stretch. Not dominant numbers, but not bad considering he played just 996 snaps during those two years (an average of 31 snaps per game, meaning he was on the field less than half the time).
His efficiency was enough to win over Telesco, who claimed Mathews on waivers after he was released by the Texans. Mathews quickly rewarded Telesco for his loyalty.
Mathews cracked the rotation in Week 4 against the Jaguars and recorded a sack and a QB hurry in his first game. One week later against the Jets, he finished with three QB hurries and the third-best run-stopping grade of his career (+1.7), according to Pro Football Focus. He did even better two weeks later against Denver's vaunted running game, posting a +2.2.
In fact, two of Mathews' three best games of the season came against the Broncos, a good sign as the Chargers look to close the gap on the reigning AFC West champions.
"He brings energy and effort," Coach Johnson told the team's website earlier this offseaosn. "I can't quote Miley Cyrus, but I will. He's like a wrecking ball."
By the time the season was over, Mathews had accumulated 21 tackles, 12 QB hurries, two QB hits, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. His overall season grade (+3.4) was more than three times better than Liuget's (+1.1), according to Pro Football Focus, yet Mathews will make less than 10 percent of what Liuget collects this season.
By signing a one-year deal, Mathews is betting on himself. He hopes a second consecutive stellar season will help him close the wage gap with the player directly ahead of him on the depth chart.
Working in Mathews' favor is his increased familiarity with John Pagano's defensive system. After joining the team once training camp had already finished last season, he spent most of his first year in lightning bolts playing catch-up. This time around, he has an entire offseason program under his belt and feels much better as a result.
"I've never spent the offseason with the Chargers like I am now," Mathews told Chargers.com earlier this month. "This time is really critical because now I'm getting a real feel for the team. I'm being molded with the team this year instead of coming in and being behind like last season."
The biggest obstacle facing Mathews as he enters his sixth NFL season is the Chargers now have much better depth on the defensive line. San Diego signed Unrein as a free agent and drafted Arkansas' Darius Philon in the sixth round; both players will compete with Mathews for snaps at defensive end. Additionally, the development of NT Ryan Carrethers means tackle-end hybrid Sean Lissemore will spend more time on the outside.
The increased depth is a blessing and a curse for Mathews. On one hand, he is more effective when used on a limited snap count. He played just 303 snaps last season (an average of just over 25 per game), which played a big role in his increased efficiency. On the other hand, he needs to prove he can handle an increased workload if he wants to land a lucrative, long-term deal next offseason.
It sets up as a critical season for Mathews. But given San Diego's improvements at linebacker and in the secondary, he should have more time and opportunities to make plays than ever before. Expect No. 90 to take full advantage.
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Michael Lombardo has covered the San Diego Chargers since 2003. He spent 12 years covering the team for Scout.com and has also been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports, Footballinsiders.com and MySpace Sports. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter @NFLinsider_Mike.