The second part in our ultimate Eagles offseason preview takes a look at the backfield. The Eagles currently have four running backs under contract for 2017; Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and Byron Marshall. Terrell Watson is another player the Eagles should look at bringing into training camp after a solid performance against the Dallas Cowboys when the Eagles were desperate for a running back.
Of the four under contract, Mathews is the least likely return. He will produce just $1 million in dead cap money if the Eagles decide to release him. The Eagles would be paying him $4 million if they decided to keep him. Mathews simply cannot stay healthy enough to continue as the team’s top back. If he wasn’t constantly bitten by the injury bug, he could be a very, very good running back. Mathews ran for 661 yards while averaging 4.3 yards per carry and accounted for a career-high nine total touchdowns, more than twice as many as any than other Eagle.
Mathews did all of this while playing just a quarter of the Eagles offensive snaps on the season. The best ability for any athlete is availability and Mathews unfortunately does not have it consistently. Pair this with his questionable ball security and the Eagles are looking at a $4 million decision to keep or cut the 29-year-old running back.
When it comes to a decision on a 34-year-old running back, it is usually pretty easy. And the decision on Darren Sproles is no different, only it is the opposite of what most 34-year-old backs fate would be. Sproles should be a no-brainer to be coming back to the squad in 2017.
As the Eagles most versatile player, Sproles played the most offensive snaps of any running back. He accumulated his most yards since 2012 and had his most rushing and receiving yards since becoming an Eagle. Despite not returning any punts for touchdowns, as he has in each of the last two seasons, Sproles had his best punt return average of his career.
The former Saints star is a great veteran to have around from a leadership perspective for young running backs on the roster currently..and those potentially joining in the future. The veteran is one of the hardest working players in the league and it has paid off. Sproles currently sits at eighth in total career yards in NFL history. He could very realistically move to fifth – being just 672 yards away – by the end of 2017. That would put just Jerry Rice, Brian Mitchell, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith ahead of him. Whoa.
The little engine that could is reported as saying that 2017 will likely be his last year in the NFL. His family wanted him to retire after this season but Sproles feels he has more gas left in the tank. The Eagles would be wise to keep the running back on the squad and let him retire in midnight green.
Wendell Smallwood showed promise in his rookie season, before ending his the year on injured reserve. He runs hard – something that has been consistent among the Eagles backs – and finished his rookie year with 312 rushing yards while averaging 4.1 yards per carry. If the Eagles 2017 season started today, Smallwood could very well be the Eagles lead back.
Kenjon Barner is not currently under contract for the Eagles next year. As one of the few Oregon holdovers from the Chip Kelly regime, the Eagles would be wise to make an offer to Barner. The team have offered little explanation to Barner’s limited offensive snaps (he played just 8.7 percent on the year) despite his production when he is on the field. Barner has proven to be dangerous with the ball in his hands, leading the team with 4.8 yards per carry. He also averaged nearly 31 yards per kick return.
The only other running back under contract for the Eagles is another former Oregon Duck: Byron Marshall. Marshall did little on offense during the regular season and may find himself in a roster battle come training camp. The advantage of having a year in the system may give him the edge over a late-round rookie or cheap veteran.
The Eagles are expected to address running back early in the draft. Picking in the middle of round one, the top running back prospect, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, may already be off the board. Cook has scored 20 total touchdowns in each of his last two seasons, averaging 1728 rushing yards per year. For familiar references, when looking at Cook’s running style imagine Ryan Mathews size and ability to break tackles combined with Sproles’ speed. Cook is a special talent and leads the way in a loaded running back draft class.
Other options in the first round include LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. Fournette is another big, physical back who combines size (6’1) and power (230 lbs.) with speed. McCaffrey could translate to the NFL similarly to Reggie Bush. McCaffrey is a few pounds smaller than Bush (6’, 201 lbs.) but has similar attributes and running style.
If the Eagles wait until the second round, where they have the 41st overall pick, a back like D’Onta Foreman could be available. Foreman, a Texas Longhorn, is the biggest running back coming out in the draft at 6’1 and 249 pounds. Foreman averaged 6.3 yards per carry on his way to a 2000-yard, 15-touchdown season in 2016.
With a few young backs already on the roster and the Eagles almost guaranteed to be addressing the position in the draft, there won’t be a need to bring in any free agents. One name to keep an eye on, though, will be Knile Davis. Davis was being shopped by the Kansas City Chiefs around the trade deadline and is a former weapon of Doug Pederson’s when he was the offensive coordinator.
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