An heir to the throne? Frank Reich sees Eagles RB Wendell Smallwood as a three-down back

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It’s been a rollercoaster camp for Wendell Smallwood. One week, the hype seems to be surrounding Corey Clement, the next it’s all about the tenacious new mentality of the sophomore rusher. One week the hype moves to Smallwood’s slashing ability, and the next it completely dies down as injuries keep him sidelined. Even though he’s missed both preseason games so far however, Frank Reich was extremely complimentary of Smallwood’s development.

“I think Wendell is a true, three-down back.” Reich told the media after the first joint practice with Miami. “When we first drafted him, I kind of looked at him as more like a first- and second- down back. I thought he would be okay on third down, but really he’s turned out to be better on third down than I thought. So really I think he is a very versatile back who knows protections very well, who runs good routes, who catches the ball well. And then I think he’s a slashing runner on first- and second- down, so we like that combination. He’s done very well. He works very hard at it. Love him mentally, and really glad he’s in the mix.”

The West Virginia product was drafted in the fifth round of last year’s NFL Draft and would go on to record 312 yards and a touchdown on 77 carries, before suffering an injury that would cut his rookie season short. From a situational back, to a change-of-pace rusher, and even the leader of the pack at times, Smallwood experienced it all in 2016. Many wondered just how Smallwood was viewed by the Eagles coaching staff, especially after the drafting of Donell Pumphrey and signing of LeGarrette Blount.

Blount led the league in rushing touchdowns with 18 in 2016 in what was a career year, with the 30-year old proving he still has plenty of rubber left to burn. A durable back who can drive the chains on third down and punch it up the gut willingly against opposing Defenses, Blount rushed for a career high 1,161 yards last year. But after missing some time during Training Camp and looking a little slow off the mark in terms of production and the eye-test in preseason situations, question marks have began to rise over the head of the veteran and whether or not the Eagles should turn to Smallwood to be that workhorse.

“He’s fast, he’s crisp, sharp cuts.” Reich explained. “Again, those guys are all a good change of pace from each other. They all kind of do their things, and it’s good we get them in there and the by-committee thing a little bit, it’s a good change of pace. And Wendell really brings some juice to that position.”

Committee clearly appears to be the word that matters most when it comes to the Eagles running backs, but after a year in which the backfield lacked a clear direction, the Birds have to make sure that there is a clear system in place…and for Smallwood to really assert himself in that rotation behind Blount, potentially replacing the role Ryan Mathews took on during the latter stages of last season, he had a lot of progress to make after his rookie year….and progress, he has made.

When asked what Smallwood needed to show in the passing game, Reich again sounded excited about the second-year slasher.

“Really three things. Number one, that he can handle protections, because that can be tough on third down, but he handles that really well. Number two, you need to be able to run the routes from the backfield that you need to be able to run. And then, of course, you need to be able to have the hands to make those plays. And he’s checked all three of those boxes as far as we’re all concerned.”

Smallwood is likely going to see a lot of action when the Eagles face Miami on Thursday Night, especially considering that he’s missed out on both games so far. Will he see a three-down role, or even outperform Blount in the same amount of snaps he has taken on in recent weeks? If the answer is yes to either of these questions, the ceiling for “Small World” may be out of this World.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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