Ryan Mathews

Duce Staley never asked Ryan Mathews to tone down his physical style

Duce Staley never asked Ryan Mathews to tone down his physical style

Ryan Mathews' two-year run with the Eagles came to an unceremonious end last week when he was finally released after months in limbo. 

Mathews still had a roster spot and a locker for the last few months but most fans probably forgot he was on the team. He was even given special permission to rehab from his neck injury and subsequent surgery away from the team facility. 

Cutting him last Tuesday was merely a formality. The Eagles were simply waiting for him to heal completely and be cleared by doctors. 

It wasn't much of a surprise that Mathews ended his 2016 season on the injured reserve. In fact, that's kind of been a staple of his career. In seven NFL seasons, Mathews has played all 16 games just once. He missed a total of six games in two seasons with the Eagles.

It's possible that Mathews, who turns 30 in October, has already played his final NFL game. If that's the case, it will be a shame. Because when he's on the field, he's a dynamic and tough runner. But it seems like he's never on the field. 

And a lot of that has to do with his hard-nosed running style. Mathews is a punishing runner. It's just that often he's the one who comes out on the wrong side of it. 

While that physical style of running has been Mathews' hallmark, it's also likely been the biggest obstacle in his career. 

Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley emphatically said Saturday he never thought about asking Mathews to tone it down. 

"I would never do that," Staley said. "I think once you start talking about telling a guy to change his running style, I think you're kind of pointing him in the wrong direction. You have to understand this is something that's been done by that individual for a very long time. So to come along and be here for a year or two and all of a sudden try to change the way he runs, nah, not a good idea."

In 26 games with the Eagles, Mathews' yard per attempt average was 4.60. That's the third-highest mark in Eagles history among running backs with at least 250 attempts. LeSean McCoy's average with the Eagles was 4.65 and Ernie Steele's average in the 40s was 5.18. 

Because of his injuries, Mathews won't be remembered extremely fondly in Philly and that's a shame too. He was fun to watch — despite the fumble in Detroit — and played the position the way most fans really appreciate. 

"He's one of those guys that's going to pin his ears back, he's going to go and he's going to try to run you over," Staley said. "He plays with that physical style that old-school style of running back. That's what he plays with. I like it actually. 

"But you have to understand how fast and physical this game is. Things do happen. It's very unfortunate that injury came about. I thought he was having a good year. Once again, this is a violent game we play and things like that happen. You have to adjust and move on."

RB Ryan Mathews passes physical, released by Eagles

RB Ryan Mathews passes physical, released by Eagles

After months of waiting, Ryan Mathews is gone. 

The Eagles on Tuesday finally cut the veteran 29-year-old running back in a move that will save the team $4 million in cap space. 

While Mathews has been rehabbing elsewhere, he has taken up a roster spot all spring and summer while he recovered from a serious neck injury. He even still had a stall in the Eagles' locker room. The Eagles were waiting for him to completely heal before releasing him. 

Mathews was set to have a cap hit of $5 million in 2017, the last year of the three year contract he signed before the 2015 season. 

Before the move on Tuesday, the Eagles had $8.665 million in cap space. This will create $4 million more. 

The team released the following statement regarding Mathews' release:

“We want to thank Ryan for his contributions to the Philadelphia Eagles over the past two seasons. We spoke today and had a productive conversation about his future and the direction of our team going forward. First and foremost, we are glad that Ryan is healthy and has been cleared to return to football activities, but given the current state of our running back position, we feel like it is best for both sides to go in a different direction. We wish him all the best as he continues his career.”

When he was healthy, Mathews was actually pretty productive as a member of the Eagles. But as it has been in the past for him, staying healthy wasn't easy for Mathews. His Eagles career ended in Week 16 when he suffered a herniated disc in his neck.

In 26 games with the Eagles, the former first-round pick carried the ball 261 times for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns. His yards per attempt average was 4.6. 

Among Eagles running backs with at least 250 career attempts, Mathews ranks third in yards per attempt behind Ernie Steel (5.18) and LeSean McCoy (4.65). 

Only 12 players had more rushing touchdowns over the last two years and his 4.6 yards per attempt was the ninth-highest average among players with at least 250 attempts. 

Mathews, throughout his career, has been a good running back when healthy. The problem is he never seems to be healthy. 

While Mathews played well in two years, it wasn't very surprising the Eagles decided to move on from a 29-year-old with a big cap number, who can't stay healthy and who is coming off a serious injury and surgery. 

The Eagles have Darren Sproles, LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey as their running backs right now. 

The Eagles used the roster spot vacated by Mathews to bring back cornerback Mitchell White. The roster now stands at 90.

With uncertainty at position, is Wendell Smallwood ready to be Eagles' lead back?

With uncertainty at position, is Wendell Smallwood ready to be Eagles' lead back?

Once again the Eagles didn't select a running back early in the draft, and for the first time in probably a quarter of a century, they don't have a de facto starting running back on the roster.

The Eagles haven't drafted a running back in the first three rounds since LeSean McCoy in the second round back in 2009.

And it's left the position without a proven back for the first time in a generation.

Ryan Mathews, a former Pro Bowler and two-time 1,000-yard rusher, remains on the roster but suffered a serious neck injury late last year and is unlikely to be with the Eagles moving forward.

Asked after the draft about Jason Kelce and Mychal Kendricks, Howie Roseman said, "We fully anticipate that they're going to be here moving forward."

But asked about Mathews, Roseman said, "Can I tell you anyone who's going to be on this team in September?"

See what he did there?

The Eagles can't release Mathews until he passes a physical, but if they do — when they do — they would save $4 million in cap space. If the injury-plagued Mathews spends the 2017 season on the roster, he'll count $5 million against the Eagles' cap. If they release him, they'll carry only $1 million in dead cap money.

So we'll operate under the assumption Mathews will be gone.

That leaves Wendell Smallwood, a fifth-round pick last year; 33-year-old Darren Sproles; and rookie fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey, who is the all-time FBS rushing leader but stands just 5-foot-8, 175 pounds.

Also on the roster are 2016 undrafted free agents Byron Marshall and Terrell Watson.

The Eagles haven't officially announced the signing of Corey Clement, but Clement tweeted out that he had agreed to terms here, and Roseman — without referring to him by name — said the Eagles had a draftable grade on the 5-foot-10, 220-pounder.

Clement, a graduate of Glassboro High School, ran for over 3,000 yards at Wisconsin with a 5.4 average and 38 touchdowns.

This collection of unproven backs is a real departure for an organization that from 1994 through 2014 brought you an uninterrupted running back lineage that went from Charlie Garner to Ricky Watters to Duce Staley to Brian Westbrook to Shady.

Watters was a free agent, but Garner, Staley, Westbrook and McCoy were all second- or third-round draft picks. All those backs were among the most productive receiving backs in the NFL over the last 20 years, although Garner's best years came with Oakland.

Before Watters, Herschel Walker was the regular starter for a few years, and the last couple years, we all knew DeMarco Murray and Mathews would be the lead backs.

Now?

As of now, your choices are a 5-foot-8 rookie fourth-round pick, a second-year fifth-round pick and a 33-year-old veteran who has averaged fewer than four carries per game in his career and has already said he plans to retire after the season.

The Eagles could conceivably sign a veteran, but so far they haven't shown any sign of being interested in taking that route. They certainly weren't involved with Jamaal Charles, who head coach Doug Pederson coached in Kansas City.

And knowing the way Roseman thinks, he'd certainly rather go young than haul in a high-priced 30-year-old veteran like LeGarrette Blount.

Can the Eagles go into the season with Smallwood, Pumphrey, Clement and Sproles?

If they do, Smallwood becomes the odds-on favorite to be the lead back.

There's no question the Eagles are high on Smallwood. He averaged a respectable 4.1 yards per carry last year, but in the three games he got double-digit carries — the Steelers, Falcons and Seahawks — he averaged 4.6 yards per carry.

It's certainly not lost on the Eagles' brass that in the team's two biggest wins last year — Atlanta and Pittsburgh — Smallwood ran a combined 30 times for 149 yards.

Smallwood did finish last year injured. He suffered a small tear in his MCL during a late-season game against the Redskins, but he's expected to be 100 percent for the start of the season.

The jury is still out whether Smallwood can handle a regular workload of 12 to 15 carries. He only had one year at West Virginia where he was the lead back, and he averaged over 20 touches per game in 2015, when he ran for 1,519 yards and caught 26 passes.

"Wendell is obviously coming off injury, so that's No. 1," Pederson said. "We've got to make sure he's 100 percent physically and ready to go there.

"I think Wendell has a role on this football team. It's something that we saw glimpses of last season when he had a chance to play."

Pumphrey, despite his size, emerged as a true workhorse at San Diego State. He had more than 200 more touches than any player in FBS over the last four years and averaged close to 22 touches over the last four years.

Last year, Mathews had 155 carries, Sproles 94, Smallwood 77, Kenjon Barner 27, Marshall 19 and Watson nine.

That's 381 carries, or about 24 per game.

How will it break down this year? The Eagles believe Smallwood can handle 12 to 15 carries, and if Pumphrey and Sproles get five or six each, that could be a workable system.

Clement is an interesting wild card, although undrafted running backs have rarely made a significant contribution to the Eagles.

The only undrafted running back to gain more than 20 yards in a season for the Eagles in the last 50 years is Vaughn Hebron in 1993.

"We're really excited to make sure that we got Pumphrey, and then we like the players that are in the building," Roseman said. "We've got some talent at that position, and we're excited to see them."