By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
Robert Mathis has seen the stories about first-round draft pick Bjoern Werner learning about the NFL from the Madden video game series and often choosing the Colts’ all-pro defensive end as his on-screen avatar.
“It makes me feel old,” Mathis said Wednesday in the team’s locker room at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. “At the same time, it lets me know what I’ve done has been respected.”
A fifth-round pick out of Alabama A&M in 2003, Mathis has recorded 91.5 sacks in 10 NFL seasons. He played as a defensive end for his first nine years in the league before adjusting to life as an outside linebacker in new head coach Chuck Pagano’s hybrid 3-4 scheme a year ago.
Werner, who played primarily as a 4-3 defensive end at Florida State before being selected No. 24 overall in last week’s draft, will make a similar transition this year.
The German native is one of at least 16 rookies who will descend on the Colts’ practice facility for a three-day mini-camp next week. Indianapolis drafted seven players last weekend and announced the signing of nine additional college free agents on Tuesday.
That group will be joined for the mini-camp by several rookies competing on a tryout basis.
And the youngsters would do well to warm quickly to the competition. Last year’s rookie class set a high bar, with five offensive contributors — quarterback Andrew Luck, running back Vick Ballard, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener — combining for 51 starts.
The first-year players didn’t just get into the lineup. They made a difference, helping the Colts improve from 2-14 in 2011 to 11-5 and a surprise AFC Wild Card playoff berth.
“In this day and age, you can’t just sit back and say ‘I’ll get my chance next year,’” veteran defensive end Cory Redding said. “You might have to come in and contribute now. So get your mind right because it’s going to be a good one.”
The rookies will begin trickling into the locker room May 10, and they’ll get a crash course in the way of the Horseshoe.
No one will wear a larger target than Werner, who will be asked to replace franchise sacks leader and fan favorite Dwight Freeney.
Mathis was brought along slowly, making his mark first on special teams before being eased into the regular lineup. Werner likely won’t be afforded that courtesy.
But Mathis plans to lend a helping hand the way Indianapolis veterans did for him when he was young.
“When I came in, it was Chad Bratzke,” Mathis said. “He was here, and he helped me a lot. I’m that guy. He was 10 years (in the NFL) my rookie year. I’m 11 years Werner’s first year. I’ll be the old guy, the angel watching over him, and guide him and advise him any way I can.”
And about those stories of a young Werner playing Madden as Mathis?
Despite the generational gap, Mathis is confident the two will find common ground.
“He’s a fellow quarterback-hater,” Mathis said. “So he’s all right with me.”