Tyrann Mathieu wanted to stay with the Cardinals. Why they released him anyway.

It’s been just two short years since the Arizona Cardinals gave Tyrann Mathieu an extension that made him the highest-paid safety in the NFL. On Wednesday, the Cardinals changed their mind about paying Mathieu big money and decided to move on from the defensive back, the team announced.

“I’ve never made a secret that Tyrann has always had a special place in my heart and always will,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said in a statement. “While we all understand this a part of the business, that certainly doesn’t make it any easier. We all wish Tyrann nothing but continued success in his career and beyond.”

The deal Mathieu signed before the 2016 season spanned five years and was worth $62.5 million with $40 million guaranteed. Now he’ll see what he can get on the open market.

The Cardinals will miss Mathieu’s production on the field. But they couldn’t absorb a $14.1 million cap hit for Mathieu this year, either. Here’s why Mathieu’s looking for a new NFL home this offseason.

The following season marked a decline for Mathieu. A shoulder injury plagued him for the last six games of the season, and he landed on injured reserve. He bounced back in 2017, with two picks, seven pass breakups, and a sack. But he’s yet to get back to those pre-extension levels.

The Cardinals were expected to try to negotiate a restructured deal with Mathieu. But he didn’t accept one.

“I think there are different ways you can go about restructuring you contract,” Mathieu said during an appearance on NFL Network. “Some guys like their money up front, some guys put it on the back end. The tough part is when someone asks you to take a pay cut. I don’t think that makes sense for a lot of players.”

Mathieu spent a whole lot of time on the field for the Cardinals last season: 1,261 plays, to be exact. That’s more than any other player in the league. He beat Titans cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who played a little offense, too, by one snap.

Mathieu was second on the team in 2017 with 70 solo tackles. He added eight assists, a sack, a forced fumble, and two picks. That’s production that will be difficult to replace.

But the Cardinals aren’t exactly swimming in cap space. They’re projected to have just under $22.5 million available, and they’ve got a desperate need at quarterback with Carson Palmer retired and no other options on the roster for 2018.

Arizona will still have to eat $9.3 million in dead money. But, despite how important Mathieu has been to the defense, they simply couldn’t afford to let him eat up $14.1 million in cap space for the 2018 season.

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