Mathis is running, cutting, jumping and lifting -- all less than six months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee. He's not wearing a brace and is not lining up with the starters during organized team activities.
He could take the next step soon.
Mathis said Tuesday he is close to being cleared to practice, and could get permission when he visits Dr. James Andrews in Pensacola on June 4. If so, coach Mike Mularkey said Mathis would return in a limited role during next month's mandatory minicamp.
"It's not like I'm defying all odds," Mathis said. "I knew there was a possibility I could be way ahead of the curve. It's just all about how I took care of myself."
Mathis' progress has been a pleasant surprise for the Jaguars, who were so confident the veteran will make a full recovery that they released nickel cornerback Drew Coleman. The team signed Coleman to a three-year, $7.5 million contract last season, and he played nearly 50 percent of the defensive snaps.
Now, though, the plan is to have Mathis and former New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross compete for the starting job opposite Derek Cox. Whoever doesn't get the nod will be moved to the slot to replace Coleman.
"If I come back like I expect to come back, then I expect to play," Mathis said. "That's never a doubt in my mind. Control what I can control and then let the rest handle itself. What I control is being healthy when it's time to be healthy."
Mathis also would welcome moving inside, a spot he played earlier in his career in Jacksonville.
"Not saying I'm against it, but I know Aaron has a little more experience at it than I do," Mathis said. "He's done it before and he's getting reps at it now going inside. I've played it before. I can do it. It's fun. It allows you to make more plays because a lot of people target their slots on third down. The more you can do. That's the business that we live in. The more you can do the more you stay on the field."
Mathis has missed 19 games over the last five seasons, adding to speculation about his future in Jacksonville. He missed the final seven games last season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against Indianapolis in mid-November, and many wondered whether the Jaguars would want to bring back a 31-year-old cornerback coming off major knee surgery.
But general manager Gene Smith had little concern and signed Mathis to a one-year, incentive-laden contract that could be worth up to $5 million.
It was a low-risk deal that could be a steal if Mathis returns fully healthy and gives the Jaguars 10 returning starters on a defense that ranked sixth in the NFL last season.
"There hasn't been a day that I have been here that he has not been in that training room," Mularkey said. "Every day that I can think of he's been here trying to get back."
The biggest hurdle Mathis has left to clear is the psychological aspect of trusting his knee. He has returned from other injuries, including groin and knee. But he expects this one to be different.
"It's a mental thing," Mathis said. "I can understand how it can be tough just doing certain drills that I'm doing out there and knowing that it's a different speed once you're covering someone and having to plant down on the knee and not thinking about it. I know how that goes, not with the knee but with other injuries. It's definitely a mental thing, getting over that mental block, and I think I'll be strong enough mentally to do it when the time comes."