Eagles can finally stop pretending Ryan Mathews will be on this year's team

Former Eagles running back Ryan Mathews.

On the day that Ryan Mathews’ green No. 24 jersey hung in his locker stall for the first time this year, Mathews was released by the Eagles.

So go the NFL’s byzantine salary cap-related procedures. Mathews, 29, who underwent spinal fusion surgery on his neck right after the 2016 season ended, couldn’t be released until he was deemed healthy. Well, he could be released, but it would have cost the Eagles an extra $1 million-plus in cap room over the cost of releasing him after he recovered.

So the Eagles’ 2016 rushing leader stayed on the roster, though the team never intended for him to play here this season. The Eagles drafted Donnel Pumphrey. They signed LeGarrette Blount. Every now and then, Mathews would get a checkup with his surgeon, who did not feel he had fully healed. Oh, and Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson, when questioned, would act as if Mathews would be right back out there when the doctors gave the OK.

This week, amid a jersey-number shuffle, the team gave Mathews’ No. 24 to safety Terrence Brooks. But technically, Mathews was still an Eagle. (And in the preseason, you can have a defensive player and an offensive player with the same number; they just can’t play in a game at the same time.)

Finally, on Monday, Mathews came to town to meet with his surgeon, his first trip in since the spring. This meant the equipment staff went to all the trouble of hanging up his jersey, because, hey, he was in town and on the roster.

Except, Mathews met with his surgeon during Tuesday’s practice, was declared healthy, then was given a physical by an Eagles physician, without ever needing to don the jersey. Then management informed him he was being released, saving the Eagles $4 million in precious cap space that can be used to extend the contract of a 2018 pending free agent (say, Alshon Jeffery, once he puts some healthy games behind him?) or carried over to make next year’s cap fit a little less snugly.

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The team issued a statement that wasn’t attributed to anyone. (Feel free to imagine the entire front office speaking in unison): “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.”

Mathews signed with the Eagles as a free agent in 2015, with a reputation as a hard-charging, productive runner who was frequently injured and prone to fumbling. That was exactly what he turned out to be. Mathews, drafted 12th overall in 2010 by San Diego, averaged 5.1 yards per carry in 2015, 4.3 yards per carry in 2016, but he missed three games each year. His fumble as the Eagles were trying to run out the clock in Detroit last season led to the Lions scoring the game-winning touchdown.

Mathews probably is talented enough to continue his career, but given his injury history, it isn’t clear he will pursue opportunities.

Darby’s debut

Cornerback Ronald Darby, traded from the Bills to the Eagles last Friday, will see at least a little action against his former team Thursday night, Doug Pederson said.

This only intensifies a pretty strange experience for Darby, one of five Eagles defenders who have spent time with the Bills – the others being linebacker Nigel Bradham, corner Ron Brooks, safety Jaylen Watkins and safety Corey Graham. So this already felt a bit like the Bills’ locker room. Now he’s going to play with these guys, against the Bills.

“I just left a few days ago,” Darby said, when asked about catching up with his former teammates.

He seemed a bit apprehensive about playing so soon in Jim Schwartz’s defense, though if there is an offense Darby should be comfortable facing, it would be Buffalo’s.

“I’ve picked up a good amount. There’s still a lot I have to learn,” he said.

Birdseed

The Eagles used Ryan Mathews’ roster spot to bring back Mitchell White, the former Canadian Football League corner they’d released earlier this week … Doug Pederson said ball security would be a focus against the Bills, after the Eagles and Packers fumbled five times apiece last week.