The Washington Commanders drafted Alabama defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis in the second round at pick No. 47. Mathis, a redshirt senior, was selected as a permanent team captain at the start of the 2021 season and was an ascending player with the Crimson Tide each year .
His relative athletic score was incomplete and lacked a complete picture of his athletic ability because he chose to do a partial workout at the Combine. Alternatively, Mathis did do position drills at his pro day for NFL scouts and showcased his athletic ability relative to the position he plays.
I took a look into what Mathis will bring to the Commanders; his strengths and weaknesses of him against the run and pass.
Passing Rush Pros
Mathis possesses sneaky athleticism behind his 6’4” 310 lb frame that shows itself in several ways. Lining up as the 3-tech DL, Mathis displays a unique pass rush skill set from a collegiate defender, playing the position he does. Mathis has a fake double move, starting with his quick twitch at the line of scrimmage, which threatens the guard and forces him to react to Mathis’s long-arm power rush attempt. At that moment, Mathis uses that to his advantage, showing a good lean / dip followed by a chop / rip to win the corner against the guard. Next, he gets himself square to the quarterback after winning against the offensive lineman. He finishes with very good closing speed and a powerful hit to create a fumble in the backfield and recover it.
Passing Rush Cons
Mathis’s hands and his ability to stay in a rep on passing downs suffer when his first move is ineffective, whether through initial quickness to get upfield or a chop/swim move that the offensive lineman wins against. More specifically, Mathis struggles as a pass rusher in his use of hands, pad level, and at times in his rush path. For example, in this play, Mathis has a rush path that lands him directly in the middle of the lineman and is high, and typically when Mathis loses, he is playing too high and loses any leverage he could have had.
Run Defense Pros
Mathis has an advanced level of understanding of leverage in the run game and is one of the more selfless players on the Crimson Tide’s football team, which is what will translate to the next level as well. Mathis is facing a double team by the tackle and guard from the 3-tech position on this rep. This play for Mathis began with very good mental processing, immediately recognizing what the offensive linemen were trying to do, and knowing a double team was coming. As a result, he drops to a knee to reserve the leverage that he had, split the double team with very good play strength to survive the double, and finished this rep off getting in on the tackle.
Another way in which Mathis wins in the run game is with his violent use of hands and grip strength. His hands from him in the run game are consistently in the right place to lock in with long arms, create distance between him and the offensive lineman to find the football, and shed at the point of attack to make plays in the backfield.
Mathis’s pursuit ability is at an elite level. His motor and effort from him created several second or third-effort opportunities as a pass rusher and on the backend of plays recovering fumbles on the second and third level of the defense. Specifically, Mathis’s pursuit was evident on quarterbacks’ chase downs, backside pursuit on ball carriers, and completed passes. In one instance, Mathis was defeated on a double team and still recovered well and showed great effort to chase down a ball carrier. This is easily one of the top reasons Washington felt he was a fit for this defense and the defensive line unit.
Mathis’s presence should be felt right away. He has violent hands in the run game and is a legitimate disrupter as an interior defensive lineman. While Mathis has a ton of versatility and played snaps all over the defensive line, I see Mathis most effective at the 0-tech, 1-tech, and 2/2i-tech. Mathis’s burst and explosion are most evident from those alignments; it allows him to play in a phone booth where offensive linemen don’t have much space to work with at the snap.
As a pass rusher, Mathis wins with his initial rush plan. With very good play strength, Mathis has an effective bull rush to push a pocket or chop/rip and pull/rip moves. Against the run is where Mathis has the potential to be dominant. Mathis has very good mental processing in identifying the blocking schemes (zone vs. gap) and types of blocks (reach/base/down) he is up against. With his very good hand usage of him, Mathis controls his opponents, placing his hands high and inside their chest, enabling him to stack and shed without issue.
The timing of Mathis’s hand usage is impressive as well; for example, he can grab a lineman’s forearm at the point of attack, taking away any leverage that they had to block him. Because of very good leverage and vision in the backfield, Mathis displayed the ability to stalemate double teams, shed, and tackle the ball carrier.
Mathis’s primary struggles will be against the pass. Mathis has little upfield bursts to threaten offensive linemen with his get-off starting at the snap. Mathis displayed marginal body lean trying to corner and close on the quarterback when asked to line up outside of the offensive tackle. His use of his hands is below average. He has below-average play strength when attempting power rushes using the long-arm technique. Mathis lacks the counter moves to stay in the fight during pass rush reps. He also has marginal timing with his hands and below-average play strength attempting to shed blocks in pass rush reps.
While I think that he can have occasional success against interior offensive lineman, he should not be asked to rush against offensive tackles, as longer/athletic tackles may overwhelm him. Mathis also needs to get better with his timing on stunts and lacks force as the crasher when asked to stunt.
When it comes to Washington’s choice to draft Mathis, it really has nothing to do with him from a skills standpoint; it’s about value. A similar storyline following the Commanders first-round pick, Jahan Dotson, too. However, from an outsider’s perspective, not many people have a clear-cut picture of what NFL teams’ draft boards look like; that information is rarely made public, if at all. Who is to say that Mathis wasn’t viewed as a top 50 player on some teams’ draft boards? When the focus is on value, there’s a gray area that can only be measured over time against the prospects on the board when Mathis was taken. In the meantime, I view Mathis as a very good fit schematically and a need for this team.
I also do not subscribe to the idea that Mathis is a player who’s set to take Daron Payne’s job. Sure, Payne’s future with the Commanders is up in the air, but Mathis’s best fit with Washington differs from where Payne works best in this defense. I believe that Payne will best benefit production-wise in other alignments along the defensive line, specifically closer to the guard offensive and tackle, instead of the center and guard. With all that being said, Jonathan Allen, DaRon Payne, and Phidarian Mathis will see snaps from multiple alignments,
Former NFL tight end Logan Paulsen and I broke down Mathis in more detail; look at the video below to see the Phidarian Mathis film session.