Are the Eagles heading in a new direction at running back?

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The Eagles backfield was always set to be one of the most interesting areas to watch heading into the 2016 season, but after the arrival of Doug Pederson and his committee backfield mentality that saw Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West combine for over 1,000 yards in 2015, things got even spicier. The idea of the explosive, yet somewhat injury prone Ryan Mathews being supported by Darren Sproles, one of the most effective dual threats in the league and a powerful Kenjon Barner saw Eagles fans rejoice.

But then Training camp rolled around. Darren Sproles missed most of the offseason workouts for personal reasons but everything seemed to be back to normal leading up to the opening day of Training camp..until Ryan Mathews suffered a sprained ankle, keeping him out of action for the opening week. It also may have just proved to be the catalyst in a slight change of direction for the unit as a whole.

The absence of Mathews opened the door for Kenjon Barner and Wendell Smallwood to burst through and make an impact. Smallwood’s impact was dented by some missed time due to a quad injury sustained in Camp..time that bled over into the preseason, prolonging his debut until the team’s 33-23 win over the Colts. The story worsens for the fifth round pick however, who sustained a concussion during the game and will miss the Eagles preseason finale this Thursday.

The thinned our running back corps left the Eagles in a tricky spot. Giving Ryan Mathews a heavy workload could result in an injury, while the 33-year old Darren Sproles is entering his 12th season and as a result, could play just fine without a vigorous preseason.

How they combatted this has potentially driven the entire backfield in a new direction. Former Oregon Duck Kenjon Barner has taken the majority of snaps so far, totaling 21 carries over the opening three preseason games for 115 yards and a touchdown. One would assume that Barner is the perfect backup to Sproles and Mathews, ahead of Smallwood due to his physical style of running and an offseason that saw him bulk up considerably.

But what we saw in the third preseason game painted a slightly different picture. In what is regarded by many as the final dress rehearsal ahead of the regular season, the starters traditionally see a large amount of action. This was true..for the most part. The Eagles first team Offense stayed on the field through the opening minutes of the third quarter..but the running back situation was a little different.

Although Ryan Mathews started out with the unit, it was Kenjon Barner who saw the majority of first team touches and by the end of the game had doubled the carry count of Mathews. Darren Sproles on the other hand had lined up in the backfield numerous times, but only ended up seeing 10% of Offensive snaps and didn’t carry the ball once despite catching a pass or eight yards. To make things more interesting, Mathews played in just 8% of Offensive snaps..a stark contrast to Barner’s 40%.

The question is, why was Barner featured so heavily in a game where the starters usually see the majority of the action? For me at least, the answer is more obvious than it seems. All it takes, is a look to the past.

Doug Pederson was the Offensive Coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs prior to signing with the Eagles and helped orchestrate their astounding committee effort. The Chiefs lead rusher, Charcandrick West (5’10, 205 lbs.) ran a 4.27 in his pro-day’s 40 yard dash. Kenjon Barner, (5’9, 195 lbs.) ran a 4.5 during the 2013 NFL combine, but ran a 4.3 during his pro-day. So both have close to a similar speed skill set.

West took on a heavy workload last year for the Chiefs, while the explosiveness of Spencer Ware allowed him to catch Defenses off-guard and average 1.6 yards per carry more than West and two more rushing touchdowns. The correlation between the Chiefs 2015 scenario and what the Eagles face currently is not surprising.

Kenjon Barner may only have 34 carries and131 rushing yards to his name in the NFL, but so far in preseason, the 27 year old has averaged six yards per carry, showing his toughness and physical style of running. It’s very possible that with no “starters” confirmed at running back, Kenjon Barner becomes the “battering ram” for the Eagles, picking up the tough yards and moving the chains and allowing for the versatility of Sproles and the mismatch that Ryan Mathews brings to the table to keep Defenses on edge and add a level of unpredictability to the team.

While both Mathews and Sproles have the ability to both start and lead this backfield behind an Offensive line that has a newly placed focus on run blocking, their durability could come back to hurt both them and the team. Giving the reins to Kenjon Barner and allowing both Mathews and Sproles to become “plug-n-play” weapons in various facets of the game not only open up a whole new realm of playbook opportunities, but help give Wendell Smallwood time to establish himself in an Offense that he has limited experience with.

 

Mandatory Photo Credit:  Charles LeClaire- USA TODAY Sports

 

 

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