Mendenhall retires at 26

Rashard Mendenhall had 217 carries for 687 yards and eight touchdowns last season with the Cardinals.

Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall, who was set to become a free agent on Tuesday, is retiring after six years in the league.

The 26-year-old Mendenhall leaves the game with 4,236 career rushing yards and 39 total touchdowns. He had hinted at retirement in a recent column for the Huffington Post, and after ESPN reported Saturday that teams had been told Mendenhall would retire, he confirmed it with a follow-up column Sunday.

Mendenhall was the nominal starter in 15 games for the Cardinals last year, finishing with 217 carries for 687 yards and eight touchdowns while struggling with turf toe for much of the season. He signed as a free agent with Arizona last offseason after playing five years in Pittsburgh. He had his best season with the Steelers in 2010, when he ran for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The Cardinals were not expected to make Mendenhall’s priority a return, as rookies Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor took on greater roles throughout 2013. Coach Bruce Arians recently said of Ellington, who had 118 carries for 652 rushing yards as well as 39 receptions, "We want to build our offense around him." Taylor had 36 carries for 115 yards.

Arizona also has former second-round pick Ryan Williams under contract.

Mendenhall’s column for offer some candid insights into his decision, saying he preferred the idea of "fading to black" rather than holding a press conference full of cliche answers.

He noted that he’s always loved the game and took exception to those who questioned his passion and professionalism simply because of his low-key demeanor and varied interests outside of football.

"I’ve always been a professional. But I am not an entertainer," he wrote. "I never have been. Playing that role was never easy for me. The box deemed for professional athletes is a very small box. My wings spread a lot further than the acceptable athletic stereotypes and conformity was never a strong point of mine."

The constant threat of injury also weighed on his decision to leave the game.

"So when they ask me why I want to leave the NFL at the age of 26, I tell them that I’ve greatly enjoyed my time, but I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment. I think about the rest of my life and I want to live it with much quality. And physically, I am grateful that I can walk away feeling as good as I did when I stepped into it."