Despite an offseason of change, questions still remain over shape of Eagles backfield

Ryan Mathews, Kurt Coleman
Philadelphia Eagles’ Ryan Mathews (24) runs past Carolina Panthers’ Kurt Coleman (20) for a touchdown in the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

The Eagles backfield may not appear to be drastically different compared to this time 12 months ago, but it is. With Doug Pederson’s hybrid West-Coast Offense implemented and DeMarco Murray removed from the picture, the Eagles asserted that this year would year of a committee backfield by passing on Ezekiel Elliott in the Draft, but that in itself raises a handful of questions that will be answered in the coming months.

One of those questions is who’s going to take the majority of snaps and emerge as the lead rusher for the Eagles?  If we’re to use the Chiefs 2015 rushing offense without Jamaal Charles as a base, there was still a prominent three down back despite being a very dynamic committee backfield. Charcandrick West had 76 more carries than Spencer Ware in the regular season and 9 more in the postseason.

Surprisingly, West that wasn’t  the most effective back. Ware averaged 5.6 yards per carry compared to West’s 4.0..a huge difference. This is also coincidentally very close to what we saw the Eagles attempt (unsuccessfully) in 2015. By using a lead rusher to wear down the Defense, the more elusive back (Mathews & Ware) are able to catch Defenses off guard with a different style to pick up extra yards.

Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles will likely be supported by fifth round pick Wendell Smallwood and the extremely versatile Byron Marshall. The problem is however that with two very similar styles in Smallwood and Mathews, they have to decide which back is going to lead the charge.

Mathews has injury concerns and out of the 13 games he played in 2015 only had more than 10 attempts 4 times. In those games, Mathews averaged 4.7 yards per carry which is where the conundrum lies. It’s obvious that Mathews is an effective lead rusher, but does he have the durability to last an entire season of attaining 10 or more snaps a game?

Durability aside, Mathews has always struggled with ball security. If the Eagles are going to focus on running the ball up the middle for instance, there’s going to be a lot of heavy hits. His 3 fumbles in 2015 may not sound like much but 18 total fumbles in 6 years certainly does. Mathews carries the ball very loosely which leads to a lot of security problems and could also partly explain why Chip Kelly was so insistent on relying on an underperforming DeMarco Murray to turn his season around as opposed to handing snaps to Mathews.

Many are quick to downplay the effect Darren Sproles on the other hand when infact last season  he had 26 more rushing attempts and 15 more receiving attempts than he did in 2014. Sproles may be getting any younger, but if anything his role increased in 2015 which shows he can still take on a major role in the backfield. What that role will be under Pederson is anyone’s guess.

Former Oregon Duck Byron Marshall could well be perceived as the “Carson Wentz of the backfield”. He may not be as small, but he’s just as elusive and dangerous as the veteran running back. Marshall was dominant both as a running back and as a receiver which makes him extremely valuable to an Offense that prides itself on versatility. Marshall could develop into a lead rusher one day but he’s going to be much more efficient learning under Sproles and eventually taking over from the 32 year old in a role that utilizes all of his skills as opposed to marginalizing him.

Then of course there’s fifth round pick Wendell Smallwood. As I mentioned earlier, Smallwood runs in a very similar style to Ryan Mathews and has many of the same strengths. His ability to read the field and cut through holes is just as explosive and his burst through the trenches rivals the former San Diego Charger. With two backs so similar in style and effectiveness, it will be interesting to see how the backfield reps are shared during OTA’s, training camp and of course Pre-Season.

Away from the lead rusher debate, there’s the fullback issue. Having signed and waived a Fullback during the course of the offseason, many are still speculating that Trey Burton will be competing out of the backfield..however I believe he would be of much more use competing on the outside. (Full article on that here)

The Eagles didn’t really Draft anyone that could effectively play as a fullback and whilst some of the bigger undrafted rookies and tryouts could make the transition, whether or not they could effectively block and run the ball up the gut is another debate entirely.

Kenjon Barner has been reportedly working on his leg strength over the course of the offseason and may well be forced into playing fullback in order to retain a spot on the roster..but could he block successfully enough to full transition into a fullback?

Then there’s the shape itself. The Eagles are projected to rely on the use of their tight ends heavily both in the receiving and blocking games which should really open the backfield. The Eagles struggled to run the ball up the middle in 2015 however and despite a largely improved line, it remains debatable if they can find a way to revitalize a rushing game that has been in decline over the course of the last two seasons. Will Pederson’s Offense focus on sweep’s, draw’s and outside runs? Or will he instead aim to rush the ball up the middle and rely on the Offensive Line to move the pocket efficiently..opening the lanes for the running backs. If that is indeed the case, can they rely on Mathews enough both in durability and ball security to efficiently lead the backfield in moving the chains for an entire season?

Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner are in their final year of contract and it would hardly be surprising to see the Eagles building for the future in yet another position. By developing Smallwood and Marshall under Mathews and Sproles, the two rookies could be able to assume starting roles by this time next year with Mathews entering his final contracted year in 2017. If they don’t, the birds will likely be in a position where they can look for a franchise running back or at least a dominant lead rusher.

Without a dominant lead rusher, there are plenty of questions over how the Eagles backfield is going to look in 2016. It’s fully plausible that the snaps could be split evenly between the four running backs but at the same time the rookies could see very little of the ball in 2016. There hasn’t been much clarity in terms of the backfield in comparison to the Quarterback or Wide Receiver positions which leaves fans and analysts in the like in the dark.

The committee effort under Pederson should be everything Chip Kelly tried and failed to implement. The Eagles have versatility, depth and efficiency on their side along with a tonne of mystery. The question is, can they succeed where Chip failed and finally give Sam Bradford some help on the ground..and if they can, how is the backfield going to look both now and one year from now?

 

Photo Credit: AP

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