Now at 35 years old, the questions are understandably going to come for Robert Mathis.
Can he still be a consistent pass rush threat? Can he keep up with the young guns? Will he be utilized more as a third-down specialist?
It's the same questions all the great pass rushers hear as they enter what is sure to be the twilight of their Hall of Fame careers.
But in 2016, Mathis — just as much as he was from 2004-2013, when he averaged double-digit sack totals and was among the best ever at forcing the ball from the quarterback's hand — will be counted on as the unquestioned leader of the Indianapolis Colts' defensive front.
With a new defensive coordinator in town — and completely healed from the torn Achilles injury that forced him to miss the 2014 season — Mathis says he feels just fine entering his 14th NFL season, thank you very much.
"New defensive coordinator, new language, new players," Mathis said earlier this week. "Everything just hit the reset button."'He doesn't look his age'
But back to that Achilles injury for a minute.
In September 2014, Mathis, working out at his home in Atlanta, tore the Achilles tendon in his left leg. His 2014 season, already cut short due to a league suspension, was over.
Mathis, just a year removed from exploding for a career-best 19.5 sacks, would watch from the couch as his Colts teammates would win yet another AFC South title and advance to the conference championship game.
Mathis hoped to be back for the Colts' 2015 season opener against the Buffalo Bills, but another series of setbacks — in the form of the 10 (yes, 10) surgical procedures to repair his torn Achilles and the bad infection that followed — kept him out until Indy's Week 2 matchup against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football.
At times last season, it looked as if Mathis never skipped a beat, recording seven total sacks, including two-sack performances Week 8 against the Carolina Panthers and Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins.
But don't forget that Mathis, at 34, was recovering from a serious injury and didn't have any sort of full offseason workout program to prepare himself for the year. It showed at times, as Mathis had separate three- and five-game stretches without a sack, and he recorded just one forced fumble — Week 15 against the Houston Texans — all year.
Fast forward to Tuesday's second day of OTA practices for the 2016 season. Mathis, donning his white and blue No. 98 practice jersey, has a bounce in his step. It's finally time to put the offense vs. the defense, and at this point, age is simply just a number for the Alabama A&M product.
"Well I think if you just watch him running around obviously, he's in tremendous shape right now. He doesn't look his age, I'll tell you that," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said of Mathis. "So he feels really good and physically he's in a great place. Mentally he's in a great place and he's doing a great job out there not only executing the defense and picking up the calls and the terminology but help mentoring the young players."A new voiceTed Monachino's overall approach to defense is simple: he wants his players doing what they do best — and doing it as often as possible.
So with that in mind, it's easy to understand why a guy like Monachino, in his first season as the Colts' defense coordinator, is excited to turn Mathis loose just three and a half months from now.
Asked how Mathis is able to perform so well at his age, Monachino says it's all about the body and the mind.
"He's taken tremendous care of his body and continues to do that daily," said Monachino, who led the likes of Terrell Suggs as linebackers coach with the Baltimore Ravens for six seasons prior to joining the Colts in January. "He has a work ethic like – anybody that's in this league that long, you have to have that work ethic. And he's got a great supporting cast around him in his family and the people he trusts."
Mathis said he's noticed a trend from Monachino in his first few months in meetings and on the practice field: "a lot of rushing the passer."
It's certainly a formula that worked well for Mathis earlier in his career, when he teamed up with Dwight Freeney to form one of the greatest pass-rushing duos of all-time. While many are wondering if the 36-year-old Freeney, a free agent, could eventually land in Indy to ride out his own Hall of Fame career, Mathis' focus is on the here and the now, and that's getting on the same page with his new defensive coordinator.
"No-nonsense and he's very attacking," Mathis said of Monachino's attitude. "That's his theory: he's going to dictate to you before you dictate to him from an offensive and defensive perspective on football."
Monachino said Mathis will have to fight for his starting spot, just like everyone else on the defense. Asked if Mathis could potentially take on a third-down-only type of role, Monachino wouldn't bite.
"He's still in that same competition mode," Monachino said. "Yes, we will defer to Rob as a veteran, as a guy that's had a lot of production in this league. He has earned some deference, but he also understand he's got to earn his reps, and he'll do that, all spring."
Sticking to his overall theme, Monachino said, "Rob has the dominant trait as a pass rusher, and we've got to make sure that he does that as often as possible."
Which is just fine to Mathis.
"I kind of think that's the defensive formula throughout the league now," Mathis said of getting after the quarterback. "It's kind of catching on like wildfire which is nothing new. How I was raised in this game is pass rush is key. If you can't affect the other team's quarterback, you're not going to have a lot of success."
So, yes, at 35, the questions are going to come for Mathis. But if he has his way, the whole age conversation will be just another offseason storyline that can be forgotten about come Week 1.
"I'm just pretty like that," Mathis said with a laugh when asked how he hides his age so well. "It's just working hard. The older you get, the harder you have to work. These guys get younger and you seem to get older every year."