SANTA CLARA — Jordan Matthews’ right pinky finger is shaped like a sickle. He can flip it back and forth in a grotesque display of dexterity that, he says, helps with typing. It’s not any deformity, per se, but rather the consequence of catching footballs for the majority of his life. At least, that’s what he told reporters when he was announced as the newest member of the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday.
“I haven’t even had a chance to talk to my wife yet,” he said, addressing reporters in the media work room minutes after inking his one-year deal.
Matthews, a four-year NFL veteran with 270 catches for 3,255 yards under his belt, became the latest free agent signing for the 49ers, who also added cornerback Jason Verrett, inside linebacker Ryan Mayo and inside linebacker Kwon Alexander, while trading for and extending defensive end Dee Ford over the first two days of free agency. A cousin of San Francisco great Jerry Rice, Matthews comes to the Bay looking to return to his early-career productivity after two seasons marred by injury.
“When we heard from the 49ers, that was pretty much, in my mind, this was the place I wanted to be at,” Matthews said. “I grew up a 49ers fan. My wife knew that I had a huge interest in wanting to be at a place like this. It’s got everything that you want, as far as the culture of the team already: Young, vibrant, great quarterback in Jimmy [Garoppolo]. For a receiver, you couldn’t ask for a better situation coming in to play at.”
Matthews comes to the West Coast on a one-year deal after spending four of the first five years of his career in Philadelphia, and one in Buffalo. His 225 catches over his first three seasons rank 10th in NFL history, but ever since the end of the 2016 season, he’s struggled with multiple injuries.
He missed the final two games of the 2016 season with an ankle injury, then was traded to Buffalo. During his lone season with the Bills, he fought through thumb, ankle and knee injuries to catch 25 balls for 283 yards in 10 games. After having his right thumb operated on during the season, he underwent knee and ankle surgeries once it was over.
He then signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots before a hamstring injury prompted his release with an injury settlement just days into training camp, and returned to Philadelphia, where he played in 14 games, catching 20 balls for 300 yards.
“They said, ‘Jordan, we know you know the offense; we’re going to give you opportunities to go make plays,'” Matthews said. “Whenever they gave me opportunities to do what I needed to do, I made it happen. I don’t really look at last year as a quote-unquote down year. Every time I had opportunities to make plays, I did it. I was just injured one year, so that is what it is, but I’m healthy now, and I’m excited to move forward.”
Matthews comes in as a likely replacement for Pierre Garçon, fitting either outside or in the slot. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Matthews is an inviting target in the red zone, and over the course of his career, 16 of his 22 touchdowns have come from inside the 20-yard line. It just so happens that San Francisco was dead last in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency in 2018.
“I feel like I do three things really well: I feel like I get open, I catch the ball and I want to block in the run game,” Matthews said. “I feel like whenever I’ve been put in a position to go make plays, I go out and make them. Last year, going back to Philly, there were opportunities out there that they gave me, and every single time I had an opportunity, I made sure that I capitalized on it.”
A former second-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Matthews was an All-SEC pick and third-team All-American for the Commodores, finishing his junior season with 94 catches for 1,323 yards. A Maxwell Award Watch List selection as a senior, he once again was named All-SEC, and earned All-American nods from USA TODAY, Athlon, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press. He graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in Economic, and 262 catches for 3,759 yards. At the NFL Combine, he ran a 4.46 40-yard dash.
“I feel good,” Matthews said. “I feel as good as I did coming into the league. Even this whole place feels electric right now. Walking through the building, you can tell there’s a lot of excitement around the 49ers. I was telling Miles — I played a little bit with [49ers assistant] Miles Austin in Philly — I was telling him, I feel like I’m 22 again, walking around here. I’m excited to get to work.”