It was certainly a welcome sight to see Mathis, a second-round pick from a year ago, back on the field adding his skill set to the Washington Commanders' defensive front. After putting together a strong 2022 offseason and training camp, Mathis' promising rookie season was upended by a knee injury that kept him sidelined for most of the year.
Since then, Mathis has been working through rehab to make a full recovery. He's back on the field now, and it's all smiles from the defensive tackle as he strives to have a positive impact in Year 2.
"I know this is my dream," Mathis said. "This is what I want to do … At the end of the day, I know this is what I want to do with my life. I put all my work into [it]. I worked all my life just to get to this point."
There was mounting excitement about Mathis as he went through OTAs, minicamp and training camp last season. He wasn't going to be a starter with Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne manning the defensive interior, but as the primary backup for the position, he was still going to receive a healthy number of snaps.
Adding to the Commanders' pass-rush is part of what Mathis offers -- nine of his 11.5 sacks at Alabama came during the 2021 season -- but the support he added to the run game is Ron Rivera and the Washington coaches found more intriguing.
"He absorbed the double teams, allowed the linebackers to run. He allowed them to run and be productive," Rivera said. "And that's one of the things that I always go back to back in the day, watching guys who ran well as linebackers. That's because they had people in front of them that really knew how to absorb those blocks."
Washington never got to see how helpful Mathis could be for its defense outside of practice. Mathis was injured on the Jacksonville Jaguars' second offensive possession, and he was later placed on Injured Reserve.
"It felt like everything was taken away from me in one snap," Mathis said. "I had a lot of time to think about all the things I could have done better, things I want to do when I come back."
Check out the best photos of the Washington Commanders as they went through their OTA practice earlier today. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
It was a hard pill to swallow, Mathis said during locker room cleanouts in January, but the time going through rehab at the Commanders' facility gave him time to learn more about himself. He gained more appreciation for how humble he could be in a difficult circumstance.
"Anybody else probably would have given up on themselves," Mathis said. "Just stayed down, but I stayed in shape, and...I found out that my mental [toughness] was strong."
The Commanders have seen the results of Mathis' hard work over the past two weeks of OTAs. There hasn't been much of a "ramp up" period for Mathis, which can occasionally happen with players coming back from injury. He's been thrown in with the second group of defensive tackles -- the same role he had before his injury -- during 11-on-11 drills, and he has been no hint of irritation with his knee.
The knee's feeling good, Mathis said, and he's psyched to be back on the field with his teammates.
"Watching the games and seeing them having fun, knowing you're not a part of that, that really did hurt a lot, man," Mathis said. "Now to be back and just to be a part of it, it just feels good to be part of a good team."
Now that Mathis is back to being part of the Commanders' defensive front, he's determined to help elevate the group even further.
"He's just excited to get back and be with the guys," Allen said. "When you get hurt as a young guy, the biggest thing you realize is you miss doing the little stuff. You miss stretching with the team, you miss working out with the team. All the things that a lot of guys complain about, you miss it when it's not there. So, he's ready to work, and he's gonna be great for us this year."