The Ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview Part 2: Running Back Edition

The second part of our ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview takes a closer look at the recently revamped Eagles backfield. The rushing threat in Pederson’s rookie year as Head Coach was anything but consistent, as the group struggled to find an identity. However, a big name free-agent and a versatile rookie look to be the missing puzzle pieces as the offense aims to find prowess on the ground in year-two.

It goes without saying that Training Camp is a crucial time of year for the Eagles backfield. While it’s expected that LeGarrette Blount will take on lead-back responsibilities, the rest of the genetic makeup could well fall down to who shines and who doesn’t throughout camp and preseason. Before we get into the narratives, predictions, and things to watch…here’s some background on each player.

The ultimate Eagles Training Camp Preview part 1: Quarterback edition

The players:

LeGarrette Blount:
The addition of seven-year veteran, LaGarrette Blount. Many have wondered whether any running back in Pederson’s Offense could receive over 20 carries per game..but there may be no more fitting candidate than the two-time Super Bowl winner. With 470 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in as many career playoff games, Blount is a back who can dominate the game when chewing the clock if needed.

Blount’s presence paints one picture. The Eagles are absolutely intent on giving Carson Wentz as much help as possible. How will that transpose into Training Camp? Only time will tell…

As he enters camp, Blount is clearly the Eagles lead back…but what will be interesting to watch is how he fares against the ruthless Schwartz Defense when the pads are on. Will Blount be able to force the ball up the middle, or will perennial run-stopper Timmy Jernigan force the Offense into making some tweaks ahead of the regular season?

 

Darren Sproles:
Sproles showed that age played no factor last season, as he rushed for 438 yards and received for 427 more. Playing in 45% of snaps last year, it was clear that the veteran was in no immediate need of taking a step back in the offense, but the inclusion of Donnel Pumphrey may lighten the workload a little.

The versatility of Sproles opens up so much in the passing game, just as it did against the Pittsburgh where he received for 128 yards. There’s no doubting that as of right now, he’s still an incredibly elusive option in Pederson’s offense, especially with the new wide receiver signings of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.

The big thing for Sproles this Training Camp will be his spot in the pecking order. Will he be the Eagles go-to option when needing to spread the Offense or inject some explosiveness, or will they allow Donnel Pumphrey to take on that role and give Sproles a slightly emptier plate? The first hints of this will be present at Training Camp, from the moment the different groupings are revealed…but keep an eye on Sproles and his spot in rotation as training camp rolls on.

 

Donnel Pumphrey:
It was widely debated after the Draft whether or not San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey could be the Eagles three-down back. The signing of Blount all but cements that won’t be the case, and Pumphrey will instead begin the process of inheriting the change-of-pace role from Darren Sproles, exercising his versatility and explosiveness when breaking tackles. One of the other key questions surrounding Pumphrey however, has been his use in the passing attack.

There had been murmurs suggesting that Pumphrey could see some action in the slot next season, and the record breaking halfback has already experienced his fair share of reps during OTA’s and Minicamp. The Eagles had no intent of slowly working Pumphrey into a bigger role, instead dropping him into receiving situations instantly…but how he builds from that over the next few weeks will be very exciting to watch.

 

Wendell Smallwood:
One running back lost in all of this, is Wendell Smallwood. Last year, the West Virginia product rushed for 312 yards and a score, before an injury cut his debut season short. Smallwood certainly flashed in that timespan but did he do enough to step up as a three-down back? It’s debatable. While his 4.1 yards per carry is moderately impressive, the Eagles would have far fewer questions to answer if Smallwood could mix his bursts of explosiveness with a touch of consistency and some increased ball security.

Instead, it’s Blount who has the advantage as a bell-cow back, while versatility is something he lacks…while Sproles and Pumphrey have it in bunches. We’ll touch more on Smallwood’s road to the final 53 a little later on, but he could well be one of the big names to shockingly miss the cut if a few dominos fall against him. To put it simply, Smallwood simply HAS to ball out.

 

Ryan Mathews:
It’s a foregone conclusion to many that Ryan Mathews will be cut once fully healthy. The 29-year old started last season brightly against the Browns, rushing for 77 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts..but after that, things started to unravel.

Through a mix of injury battles and lack of direction, Ryan Mathews would find himself rushing for 56 yards against the Vikings one week, before carrying the ball just 4 times against the Cowboys, despite playing in 45% of Offensive snaps, the next. 2016 was a year of instability for the Eagles backfield..and the injury status of Mathews only

contributed to that.

Mathews ended the year with 661 yards and 8 touchdowns, which was more productive than his first year in the City of Brotherly Love. But coming off of a serious neck injury, the “injury-prone” label is more deadly than ever to the former Chargers running back.

If Mathews can somehow convince the Eagles to allow him to take a paycut and compete for a roster spot one last time…make no doubt that the underdog could throw the cat among the pigeons.

If the Birds could find a rotational, goal-line back role for Mathews in Pederson’s offense…it certainly wouldn’t bode well for Smallwood. However the severity of Mathews’ injury may leave the writing on the wall for his short career in Philadelphia.

 

Corey Clement:
One of the UDFA darlings of this year’s class was set to be Wisconsin’s Corey Clement..until the arrival of LeGarrette Blount. The 5’11, 220 lbs, back stole the spotlight in his final season as a Badger, despite sharing the backfield with multiple backs. He managed to rush for 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns, proving his redzone value after a strong campaign in the previous year.

Clement has a huge uphill battle if he is to make the final 53-man roster, but he will be one of the favorites to land on the practice squad if he’s able to set the tone early and turn heads during camp. If Clement can show the dominance he flashed at College, there is a chance he will battle with Wendell Smallwood for the role likely to be left by Ryan Mathews. If that battle is to happen, Clement simply has to shine during Training Camp after OTA’s were simply a little too quiet.

 

Byron Marshall:
It was announced earlier in the offseason by Dave Spadaro, that the Eagles had moved former Oregon Ducks running back, Byron Marshall, to wide receiver. At 5’9, 201 lbs, Marshall’s arguably a little undersized for the position, resembling a frame close to that of Paul Turner. Although his college prowess saw him receive for over 1,000 yards and rush for 3,000, Marshall actually flashed potential of an NFL running back during his Eagles debut.

He may have only rushed the ball 19 times for 64-yards, but the undrafted rookie was able to adapt extremely quickly after a tough start. It’s rare to see someone’s style adapt and evolve in a one-game period..but that’s exactly what we saw from Marshall against the Ravens. He then responded by averaging 4.2 yards per carry against the Cowboys in the final game of the year.

If the Eagles are moving Marshall outside, that would likely put him in direct competition with Donnel Pumphrey and Darren Sproles for the so called “slot” role to create mismatches..or likewise with Paul Turner for a backup WR3 spot on the roster.

It’s unknown to what extent the Eagles wish to use Sproles and Pumphrey when it comes to receiving, but Marshall’s position could well be a knock-on effect of this decision, and a strong showing at Training Camp, allowing Marshall to show the flexibility and production he flashed last year, putting him in good stead to compete with whomever the Eagles put in front of him for a roster spot battle.

Marshall’s OTA period was surprisingly strong, as he flexed both inside and outside. The question now becomes just where in the pecking order does he fit, and can the Eagles justify keeping three similar styled backs on the final roster? A strong camp will go a long way in answering that question.

 

Under the radar:

If this offseason has shown anything, it’s that the Eagles are set on a committee effort for the upcoming season. The question is, just what does that mean for Training Camp reps? In Mandatory Minicamp, the Eagles experimented frequently with split backfields and running backs in the slot. When the pads go on however, how will the reps fall?

If Blount takes reps with the one’s, will the Eagles align Darren Sproles and potentially even Donnel Pumphrey with the same grouping in order to create consistency, chemistry, and continuity? If they do, the roles of Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, and even Byron Marshall could be set to head down a different path.

Donnel Pumphrey was one man who really benefitted from Mandatory Minicamp, with Pederson using him all across the offense. Whether or not he’s earned regular reps with the one’s as a flex running back, or will simply work out with the three’s/four’s to help spread the talent throughout the drills remains to be seen.

If the Eagles are assigning two running backs per grouping (for instance, Blount and Sproles working with the starters), then it could likely see one “workhorse” back, partnered with a more versatile option. It’s an interesting idea and one that may not pan out. But if it did come to pass, it would paint a very clear picture of what the Eagles are looking for at the position long-term.

 

Things to watch:

A change of heart:
Last year, the Eagles adapted a zonal style of rushing attack. With screens and outside looks aplenty, success seemed to vary from game-to-game. From the scintillating highs of a week three win over Pittsburgh, to devastating losses in which the unit would fall invisible, the unit seemed to lack continuity.

The addition of LeGarrette Blount is one that is supposed to help change that, giving the Eagles a much needed workhorse who can simply dominate the trenches and excel between the tackles. How will Blount’s presence change the Offense? That’s another question entirely.

It will be interesting to see if the Eagles decide to punch it up the gut far more often now that Blount is in the backfield, or if they perhaps blend the two styles, as Chip Kelly tried to do upon acquiring DeMarco Murray.

Pederson of course does have experience co-ordinating a bell-cow back, having learned the OC ropes when Jamaal Charles was running riot in Kansas City. With that in mind, Pederson has also co-ordinated a rushing attack without the physical presence of a much more dominant rusher.

The Birds were extremely experimental last year during OTA’s and Training Camp, using pistol formations and moving various pieces around. We can expect much of the same in the coming weeks, but it will be interesting to see how the new rushing attack looks with Blount at the helm.

 

Pump up the jam:
When the Eagles selected Donnel Pumphrey in the heart of this year’s NFL Draft, the excitement around Philadelphia was extremely high. Darren Sproles may be entering his final season and replacing such a generational talent would never be easy…however, the SDSU product has shown shades of the explosiveness Sproles has presented since entering the league.

In Mandatory Minicamp, it certainly felt like the Eagles were willing to mold Pumphrey after one of the greatest dual-threat backs of all time. Pumphrey was used in the slot, in split-backfield looks,, out wide, in the shotgun and on plenty of screens. Pumphrey may be one of the most electrifying the players on the roster when the ball is in his hands and will no doubt catch a lot of attention as Training Camp rolls on and preseason begins.

It will be really interesting to see just how explosive Pumphrey can be, and how high up the pecking order he’s able to work when it comes to reps. Learning from Sproles will be invaluable, but will Pumphrey be able to show enough to force his way into the starting rotation, potentially even replacing Sproles out of the gate in order to replace the veterans workload in his final year?

 

A long road for Smallwood?
Wendell Smallwood’s rookie campaign was a strange one. After a breakout in week 3 where he scored his first career touchdown, his season would stagnate until injuries thrust him into unkind situations…THAT fumble against Dallas being a prime example. However, Smallwood’s a nifty back who can hit holes assertively and drives downhill more than his size would imply. After the end of his rookie year however, it was unclear just what kind of role the former WVU standout would undertake.

The additions of Pumphrey and Blount somewhat marginalized Smallwood, who struggled catching the ball out of the backfield in his first year, and doesn’t have the physicality to be that go-to back on third and short. So what does the future hold for Wendell Smallwood?

Surprisingly, the sophomore rusher might find himself in a battle for his current spot on the depth chart. The Eagles may like the idea of having a bigger backup incase Blount went down with injury, meaning that UDFA Corey Clement may…just may…have some slight leverage if he can really stand out when the green flag drops on Training Camp. Byron Marshall is also in the same boat. The versatile back recently moved outside, but could well be used in the same way as Donnel Pumphrey. These two alone may provide just enough of a threat to force Smallwood to look over his shoulder and ball out in the next few weeks.

Smallwood can get between tackles, break off at the second level, and act as a threat as an outside rusher who hits holes with confidence. But he doesn’t run powerfully…nor does he catch out of the backfield consistently. With these two areas being a poignant focus for the Birds, one has to wonder just how secure Smallwood’s future is and if he really is in the midst of a camp battle.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

 

 

 

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