Doug Pederson’s first season as Eagles Head Coach was an interesting one. Through all the highs and lows, there was one constant. The backfield went without an identity. While one game it would be Ryan Mathews decimating defenses and slashing his way to the end zone, the next game he would be relegated to a goal-line role while Darren Sproles stepped up. There was no real shape or direction, just a flurry of backs in rotating roles. That all changed in 2017 after a flurry of acquisitions and an injection of new blood set the Eagles up for a new generation of running back.
Headlined by the free agent signing of veteran bruiser LeGarrette Blount, the Eagles would sign undrafted free agent Corey Clement to entice the offseason competition. All of a sudden, the Eagles had a new rushing identity. It took a few games to implement, but eventually, the tone was set. The injury of Darren Sproles certainly stung an Eagles offense that insisted on pounding the rock, but it wouldn’t stop them from becoming one of the most dynamic teams in the league. No back carried the ball more than sixteen times in a single game, with the Birds constantly rotating through their depth chart to keep defenses guessing and players raring to go.
A ten-game streak of 100+ rushing yards saw the Birds rip through defenses thanks to some stellar blocking from the offensive line and big performances from the likes of Blount and Clement. But midway through the season, the Eagles put the icing on the cake.
They poached Jay Ajayi away from the Miami Dolphins before the game against Denver, where his debut would be topped off by a fifty-burger. Ever since Ajayi’s explosiveness was injected into the backfield, the Eagles only grew in dynamics. Blount’s role was eventually reduced until the Super Bowl where he ran like a man possessed, and an emphasis on versatility was once again the focal point. Corey Clement’s 100-yards of receiving in the Super Bowl show just how versatile the backfield became and Ajayi had at least one reception in eight consecutive games. But now the offseason is upon us and there are some big decisions to be made.
LeGarrette Blount’s contract is up. His one-year tenure in Philadelphia ended in perfect fashion, but will there be another? The Eagles aren’t exactly blessed with cap space and it became clear that Blount was not as quick hitting the hole as he used to be. Sure, he was able to punish defenses with 7 20+ yard runs and even broke one out against his former team in Super Bowl 52, but knowing he could see one last deserving payday, would a move to bring Blount back fit both parties? Especially considering how impressive and bruising Corey Clement proved to be.
Then, there’s Jay Ajayi, whose production only rose as his time in Philadelphia increased. Perhaps not this year, but there will come a time when Ajayi seeks a large payday himself. After concerns of adapting to a selfless mentality were seemingly erased, Ajayi’s grueling style helped replace what was missing when Blount was on the sideline and as things stand, it seems as if he will be the featured back moving forward.
Then there’s Darren Sproles. At 34-years old, Sproles is at the tail end of his career. The question is, after the Eagles went all the way to the Super Bowl and won it all, will the veteran running back want one more crack at a Super Bowl ring? Sproles is a pending free agent, which means the Eagles will likely have to sign him to one last short-term deal if this is to be the case. Sproles suffered a season-ending injury in 2017 and as durability continues to hinder the ‘little engine that could’, the Birds have a tough decision to make.
Clement and Ajayi both seemed to provide the receiving option out of the backfield that Sproles once did and it’s safe to say that bringing everybody back would be cramping the running back locker space to say the least. This is without mentioning Wendell Smallwood, who looked to take some steps forward in 2017 with a new angry-running style, but was unable to make it show on the field due to congestion, being scratched nine times and making just seven appearances.
Did we mention Donnell Pumphrey? The rookie out of San Diego State who was labelled as Sproles’ eventual replacement due to a similar size and ability to be just as lethal in the passing game as he is in the run? Well, he was inactive for most of the season with an injury but was lucky to be able to scrape onto the back end of the final 53.
If the Eagles let Blount and Sproles walk, they do have viable options waiting in the wings to take on those responsibilities. But at what cost? Ajayi has suffered with some durability concerns and while Clement has shown every ounce of promise of becoming a top-10 back in the NFL, the team could use some depth behind them. Donnell Pumphrey and Wendell Smallwood both have huge question marks looming over them and Kenjon Barner may also be facing an early exit as the Eagles return specialist. Do they broach the need through the draft or yet more prove-it contracts?
There are some big backfield decisions to be made that could vastly change the landscape of what we see lining up in the shotgun on any given Sunday and the rollercoaster is only just beginning. The question is, can the Eagles wade through the waters while retaining their rushing identity?
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