Jordan Matthews spent three years as a popular player in the Eagles locker room, friendly with teammates from different position groups and backgrounds. But Matthews, who was well-regarded for his humility, couldn't offer much empathy. He was a second-round pick who started much of his rookie season. He became the Eagles' top receiver and one of the high-profile players on one of the NFL's high-profile teams.
Matthews never experienced the other side of the NFL.
The Eagles traded Matthews to Buffalo last August. After an unproductive, injury-plagued year with the Bills, Matthews couldn't find a big payday in free agency. He signed with New England in April, but the Patriots released him after a hamstring injury in training camp. The NFL season started without Matthews, and at age 26, a wide receiver with 225 catches in his first three NFL seasons was unemployed and available on the scrapheap.
In need of wide receivers, the Eagles signed him on Wednesday. It's a low-risk, non-guaranteed contract. Matthews might contribute on Sunday, but his employment is tenuous. It's a different existence for Matthews, a popular player who has learned a new side of the NFL.
"I've definitely been humbled through this whole experience," Matthews said. "People always kind of gave me the pass that 'Jordan's really humble,' that he's nice, but there were still aspects of the person who I was, I still took some stuff for granted. I didn't understand the type of mind-set that a guy like [Chris] Maragos, a guy who had to be undrafted, grinded, got to where he's at. I took some of that stuff for granted. So just the humility aspect of it, taking every single day and being thankful for it. And then for the guy at the very bottom of the roster to the guy at the top, understand, I can be either one. I can be that guy one day, I can be that guy one day. Just honestly, working with that attitude every day. It's been a real blessing for me."
Matthews realized that by a player's fifth year, their career can go different ways. The rookie contract has expired, and he hits free agency. So he can either sign a secure second contract, or he's seeking his NFL footing. Entering the 2017 season, Matthews seemed like the player who would never have a hard time finding work – whether in Philadelphia or elsewhere.
At 26, Matthews could still be that player. He tells his wife he wants to play 10 more seasons. With the Eagles, he's not even assured 10 days. So Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts is a big opportunity for the former top receiver.
"It's play-to-play," Matthews said. "I'm not going to be that naïve. I'm play to play. I've got to make a play. I've got to gain trust."
The Eagles' success and Matthews' struggles in the 13 months since last year's trade have not helped Matthews' on-field reputation, but that shouldn't cloud how productive Matthews was in an Eagles uniform. In two seasons in Chip Kelly's offense and one season in Doug Pederson's offense, Matthews averaged 75 catches for 891 yards and six touchdowns.
The production puts him among elite company. Matthews is one of only 11 players in NFL history with at least 225 receptions in his first three seasons. The other 10 are Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, A.J. Green, Anquan Boldin, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall, and Randy Moss. Two of those players are already in the Hall of Fame, and others will one day join them.
Matthews' career trajectory won't take him to Canton, Ohio, but it's hard to find a player with his credentials – and his understanding of the offense – who can step in with little practice time. And that's what the Eagles seem to be thinking for Matthews, who joins Nelson Agholor, Kamar Aiken, and Shelton Gibson as the only healthy receivers. Matthews, who is Carson Wentz's close friend and was a groomsman in his wedding, was with the team as recently as the 2017 training camp. He didn't need to learn a new playbook.
"Obviously the first thing you notice is the familiarity with some of the terminology," Pederson said. "Things have changed since he's been here, but really, he was here just a year ago in camp … so he's very familiar with the terminology, the players, obviously the quarterback. … And then secondly, just his leadership on the field, the way he carries himself, the way he can run routes. Just a smart guy, and those are things that he's brought to us, and it gives him an opportunity to possibly play."
Matthews' addition shouldn't be overstated, because the same factors that led to the trade remain present. He's viewed mostly as a slot-only receiver, and his presence likely forces Nelson Agholor to slide to the outside and limits the flexibility of the Eagles' personnel. Matthews was a volume receiver; he wasn't much of a downfield threat, with a career average of 11.8 yards per catch. But he's a reliable receiver and route-runner; those numbers didn't happen by accident.
Matthews said he's healthy again, and that will be the big question. He had a knee injury that slowed him in 2016, and he had a few ailments last season. (Matthews thought that there was a mistake in his health diagnosis while with the Eagles that led to a December surgery.) When he suffered a hamstring injury early in training camp this year, he expected that the Patriots might release him because they needed the roster spot. He's had the past eight weeks to improve his health and the Eagles offered a rare opportunity. It's hard to find meaningful playing time this time of year for a street free agent, but the Eagles badly need help.
Matthews didn't allow any potential resentment from the trade to affect his desire to return. Nick Foles admitted that he needed to reconcile the fact that the Eagles traded him before signing in Philadelphia. Foles said this week that when a player returns, he goes "through a lot more emotions than you think you would." Matthews said there will be a time to reflect, but it's not this week.
"For me to give you something that deep right now, it's too hard," Matthews said. "I have a whole playbook, a game plan, my body getting in route shape. That's where my mind is."
Maragos received a phone call from Matthews during the offseason. Maragos, who joined the NFL in 2010 as an undrafted free agent and has made a career as a special-teams standout, talks to his friend about many topics. The subject of this call was different. Matthews had just joined the Patriots, and he wanted to pick Maragos' brain about special teams techniques.
"We talk life, we talk football. I've never talked to him about special teams before," Maragos said. "To see where his [mind] shifted because he wanted to get better at this because he needed to get better at it, I was like, 'Dude, this is a different J-Matt!' I wouldn't say it's humility. I would say it's a different perspective."
Matthews' growing perspective isn't just about football. He came to Philadelphia in 2014 from Vanderbilt celebrated for his maturity, but that has only heightened during the past year. He got married in Philadelphia's Botanical Gardens in June 2017, before he was traded to Buffalo. His wife got pregnant while he played for the Bills – he joked he has a "Buffalo baby" because there wasn't much else to do in Buffalo – and he welcomed his son into the world a few weeks ago. He smiles talking about his son, remarking that he has his mother's eyes. Matthews had a first-hand look at life beyond extra reps at the slot fade pattern.
"So whatever I think was hard, there's people who go through way worse than a free-agent football player," Matthews said. "It's been a huge blessing. It's helped me grow as a person."
Matthews is a self-admitted football junkie. He said all he thinks about is football, which was an endearing quality as a rookie who finished every catch at practice sprinting to the end zone. But he's now at a career crossroads, with 32 NFL teams unwilling to offer a big contract to a player who once showed such promise in Philadelphia. He believes he still has "a ton left" to offer. He has even more left to prove. He'll have a chance on Sunday.