The Philadelphia Eagles brass vowed early in the offseason to give quarterback Carson Wentz the weapons he would need, in order to take that next big step of developing into the Franchise Quarterback everyone envisions and hopes he will become, while developing a high-powered and potent offense.
To that end, as free agency was only moments old, the Eagles delivered on that promise in the form of wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Jeffery, the former Chicago Bear, is a play-making receiver who has shown he has the height and ability to go up and get the ball at its highest point. As for Smith, the burner, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, has shown an ability to stretch the field with his speed, and will certainly be an upgrade over the wide-outs Wentz had to choose from last year.
While Wentz’s receiving options may have drastically improved, there is still one position that remains void of a true full-time weapon.
As it currently stands, at running back, The Eagles have several question marks. There’s the soon-to-be released and oft-injured Ryan Mathews, the second year back Wendell Smallwood, who played well in limited action during his rookie season. Byron Marshall and Terrell Watson showed some tough running in the Eagles regular season finale, combining for 79 total yards against the Dallas Cowboys but certainly cannot be counted on as main options for the Eagles heading into the season.
Finally, the Eagles have the ageless wonder, Darren Sproles. The miniscule running back will turn 34 before the Eagles next campaign begins yet he is still the definition of a “weapon.” With Sproles set to retire following the 2017 season and the team having no long-term answers at the position, running back must be a high priority heading into the Draft.
The Eagles have been linked to just about every offensive position player eligible for the draft that isn’t a quarterback. None, however, make more sense than Stanford’s star running back and 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey has drawn comparisons to former Eagle great Brian Westbrook. But if you just want to look at styles, then look no further than Sproles.
McCaffrey’s versatility gives him the opportunity to excel out of the backfield as a runner, while he has the versatility to not only catch the ball while coming out of the backfield, but can even split out wide – creating a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. In fact, McCaffrey did a number of wide receiver drills during his Pro Day, showing that he is as fluid a receiver as any running back in the draft. The numbers don’t dispute that, either. McCaffrey finished his collegiate career with 1,206 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches on almost 100 receptions.
McCaffrey – who is the son of former Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey and grandson of an Olympic track star, Dave Sime – also excels at returning punts and kicks making the prodigy a value on special teams as well. He averaged an eye-popping 26.4 yards per kick return and 11.2 yards per punt return, tallying one touchdown in each category. With running back Kenjon Barner being allowed to walk in free agency to the Los Angeles Chargers, the Eagles kick returner position is pretty wide open.
Obviously, McCaffrey’s natural position is running back. In his All-American 2015 season, 2,019 of the running back’s 3,864 all-purpose yards came on the ground. In McCaffrey’s sophomore and junior seasons, he totaled 3,622 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in 25 games. The narrative that McCaffrey struggles running in between the tackles can be debunked by watching just a few minutes of his game tape. He has success taking a direct snap, running up the gut or running off tackle, or getting a pitch out wide.
As previously stated, McCaffrey’s college-game resembles Darren Sproles’ pro-game, with the exception that McCaffrey is a true every-down back with size that cannot be taught. At 6-0 and 208 pounds, NFL Network analyst and former Eagles scout Daniel Jeremiah says that the running back could bulk up to 215 and still be effective but expects his playing weight to fall around 212 at the NFL level. Picture Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy or Los Angeles’ Melvin Gordon; that’s about where McCaffrey’s size should be.
If there is any player in the league who can teach McCaffrey to balance the workload that comes with being a versatile running back it’s Sproles, who had his career reignited when he was traded to the Eagles in 2014 and the team has gotten more out of him than anybody thought the running back had left.
Sproles has made his way from an undersized, fourth-rounder buried on the depth chart to finishing his career potentially as high as fifth on the all-time, all-purpose yard list (he’s 672 yards away now). Nobody is saying McCaffrey is undersized, however, and there is little chance he falls past the 20th pick in the first round of the draft. That being said, he has an additional skill-set similar to, and potentially greater than, Sproles’. If the Eagles can squeeze one more thing out of Sproles, a mentorship to his future replacement should be it. It is not every day that a player like McCaffrey comes along. And, in the Eagles case, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.
There are certainly other needs for the Eagles in this draft. Despite signing two stud wide receivers in free agency, both could be gone after the 2017 season, and the team currently has a cornerback depth chart that isn’t even suitable for a junior college squad.
However, the Eagles have their franchise quarterback in place and are clearly in re-building mode, whether they’ll fully admit it or not. There are options on the second day of the draft that could answer the Eagles’ questions in their defensive backfield and at wide receiver.
What there will not be is a Christian McCaffrey in the later rounds. In fact, it could be years until we see a back this versatile and NFL-ready again. Remember, the shelf- life in the NFL is generally short for running backs. But the Eagles could lock up the position – with a perfect mentor for him already in the fold. So, the bottom line here says the Eagles should take the spotless, born-to-be-an-athlete Stanford Cardinal, Christian McCaffrey with the 14th pick in the first round.
Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports