The Jaguars have cemented into place another piece of the team's long-term future, as cornerback Rashean Mathis has agreed to a five-year contract extension that should make him a fixture in the Jaguars defense through the 2011 season.
"We feel like we were able to secure a player; a rising player with tremendous upside. To be able to secure a guy like him; it's a deal that's great for both sides," coach Jack Del Rio said of Mathis' new contract, which is added to the two years remaining on his current deal.
The Jaguars signed defensive tackle Marcus Stroud to a long-term contract last April and signed defensive end Reggie Hayward in free agency. Mathis, Stroud and Hayward represent three core players on a Jaguars defense that could become one of the league's elite units this season.
"When you get guys that buy into what you're doing and they play together and play fast, I believe special things can happen. We're preparing to do that. Now we need to go out and play on Sundays," Del Rio said of his defense, which also includes Pro-Bowl defensive tackle John Henderson.
The Mathis contract extension was inspired by Philadelphia's signing of young cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown to long-term deals last November. Sheppard and Brown each had two years remaining on their rookie deals, just as Mathis has on his. The Jaguars had previously not negotiated new deals with players who had more than one year remaining on their current contracts.
"I don't know if it's precedent-setting as much as it's something that makes sense in that market," team salary cap boss and lead contract negotiator Paul Vance said. "We have followed a course with core players. You have Stroud, Meester, Naeole, Mo Williams."
Mathis, the 39th overall pick of the 2003 draft, immediately became a starter at safety but was moved to cornerback in the seventh game of his rookie season. He intercepted two passes in '03. Last year, Mathis settled in at the premium left cornerback position and took steps toward stardom with five interceptions.
"It means a lot to me that the organization has seen enough in me to trust that I'm a good guy," Mathis said. "The free-agent market never crossed my mind. I love being here."
"From day one, he's been a tremendous athlete. He carried himself like a pro; on time, prepared, intelligent, extremely athletic," Del Rio said of Mathis, a Jacksonville native who played collegiately at Bethune-Cookman. "He should continue to improve at the position. He has the ability to track the ball and catch the ball. The work coach Campo is putting in with him is going to help him improve as a corner."
Six players – excluding kicker Josh Scobee – from Del Rio's and personnel boss James Harris' first two draft classes have become starters, and this year's draft class offers similar potential. Tom Coughlin's last two draft classes yielded five players, including Stroud and Henderson, who are currently starters, giving the Jaguars the distinct look of a "young team on the rise," as Del Rio characterized his team in remarks to reporters on Monday.
"'Shack' (Harris) and myself and Paul Vance all work together in building this roster. From day one 'Shack' has been very supportive of me, bringing in the players I need for my system," Del Rio said.