Ryan Mathews was arguably the biggest weapon the Eagles offense had in 2016, at least until Zach Ertz started blowing up in December. It was Mathews' best season since 2013 with the Chargers, rushing 155 times for 661 yards and eight touchdowns to go along with 13 receptions for 115 yards and a score. He was very effective around the goal line especially and at wearing defenses down as games went on.
Mathews' '16 campaign was plagued by two familiar problems though: health and ball security. The seven-year veteran missed three games entirely due to injuries and was limited in several others, while three fumbles — one of which directly led to an Eagles loss to the Lions in Week 5 — also conspired to keep him sidelined.
All of which makes Mathews' contract situation at least somewhat interesting. Obviously, we're talking about a very talented player who's a former first-round draft pick, Pro Bowler and two-time 1,000-yard rusher. On the other hand, he always seems to be hurt, tends to put to the ball on the carpet and is due to earn $4,000,000 in base salary in '16, the final year of his contract. That's a sizeable chunk of change the Eagles could save.
Of course, that money is only truly saved if the Eagles don't dip back into free agency to replace him. We know Darren Sproles isn't an every-down player, particularly at his advanced age. That means either turning the role of primary back over to fifth-round draft choice Wendell Smallwood, or using an early pick on the position this year — which for what it's worth, 2017 is said to be a strong year for running backs.
None of which is to say what the Eagles should do one way or the other. There are pros and cons with Mathews, although the positives probably outweigh the negatives. That being said, if the club is comfortable with some combination of Sproles, Smallwood and a rookie, the opportunity to part ways with Mathews and stash a few million under the mattress is there.
RUNNING BACKS UNDER CONTRACT
Cap Number: $5,000,000
There is another option with regard to Mathews. If the Eagles extended his contract and committed to keeping him beyond this year, that would likely come with a significant reduction of his cap hit in '17, perhaps even a cheaper rate in 2018 as well. Age becomes a factor, but he's showed no signs of decline yet. Once we account for his prorated signing bonus, Mathews' cap hit is currently tied for the 11th-highest among NFL running backs. That's partially a product of the NFL's aversion to veteran ballcarriers, but if that figure can be reduced just a bit, Mathews would be a steal.
Cap Number: $4,000,000
The Eagles signed Sproles to a one-year extension in '16, indicating they still view him as part of their plans, and just recently he revealed he expects his 13th season to be his last, so a restructure is out of the question. That's not to say Sproles won't rethink his decision to retire over the course of the next 12 months, but for now, consider this a fixed cost, even though every penny could be recouped with his release. Considering the two-time Pro Bowler is coming off of his most prolific campaign since 2012 and remains the Eagles' most consistent back, there's no hurry to usher him out the door.
Cap Number: $601,145
It would've been nice to see a little bit more of Smallwood in '16. The glimpses we had were promising, as the Wilmington, Delaware native carried 77 times for 312 yards and a touchdown, caught six passes for 55 yards, and he returned a kickoff for a touchdown. It simply wasn't enough to get comfortable with the idea that Smallwood could become a feature back in just his second NFL season, especially since pass protection is still such a huge question mark. He's an excellent prospect and has the potential to be an every-down back, but it would take a real leap of faith to go for in 2017.
2016 Cap Number: $600,000
Barner's opportunities have been few and far between, but he's done well when given the chance. The dilemma from the Eagles' standpoint will be what to do with him now that he's a restricted free agent. The lowest cash tender an NFL team could offer in '16 was $1.671 million, which is far too much for a fourth-string running back, even one who doubles as a backup return specialist. The club could attempt to sign him to a multi-year deal for less money, but if Barner senses he might be able to earn more playing time somewhere else, such a deal won't be very tempting. Unless he's taking Mathews' place in the Eagles' committee approach, Barner could be allowed to explore his options this offseason.
2016 Cap Number: $450,000
Signed as an undrafted rookie out of Oregon, Marshall bided his time on the practice squad all season long until he was needed in December. Once Barner got injured, the Eagles had no choice but to give the kid a shot, and he struggled with it, looking indecisive on nine carries for 22 yards against the Ravens in Week 15. Marshall performed better two weeks later in the finale, running 10 times for 42 yards, but missed out on a sure touchdown catch when he wasn't ready for Carson Wentz's pass. Obviously, it's not a large enough body of work to evaluate, and Marshall is an exclusive-rights free agent, meaning he can't negotiate with other teams anyway. He'll be back in camp on the cheap next year.
2016 Cap Number: $450,000
Watson was added to the Eagles practice squad in December as injuries began to mount in the backfield. Sure enough, the undrafted ballcarrier out Division II Azusa Pacific was needed in the final game, carrying nine times time for 28 yards and a touchdown. Listed at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Watson really packs a wallop, and while Week 17 was the first time he was active for the first time since breaking into the league in 2015, he's had stints with the Bengals, Browns and Broncos. His size alone makes for an intriguing prospect, and while it was only one game, it should be enough to warrant another look in 2017. Like Marshall, Watson is as an exclusive rights free agent.
* Ages as of 12/31/17