Rewind to the end of the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles season and the weakest position group of the team was a tossup. Wide receiver, running back, cornerback.
In order, the Eagles eliminated wide receiver from that list by signing the prized free agent of the 2017 class, Alshon Jeffery, as well as adding Torrey Smith in free agency, and Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson in the draft.
With Ryan Mathews’ inability to stay healthy, whilst weighing his cap hit in 2017, it was a forgone conclusion that the former first-round pick would be looking for employment elsewhere as the Eagles headed into 2017. The Eagles addressed running back in the fourth round of the draft by selecting Donnel Pumphrey, a diminutive back from San Diego State. Additionally, they added LeGarrette Blount, the bruising reigning touchdown champion, late in free agency.
At cornerback, the starters would have been Jalen Mills and, uhhh…hmmm. Not sure, really. Then the Eagles signed career nickel corner Patrick Robinson in free agency. A little better. The Eagles drafted for the future by selecting Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas with their second- and third-round picks. Mills looked solid throughout the offseason while Robinson and Douglas had their shares of ups and downs. Loads of pressure was taken off of the second-year corner when the Eagles negotiated a trade with the Buffalo Bills for Ronald Darby, Pro Football Focus’s 2015 defensive rookie of the year. Darby immediately took over as the Eagles starting cornerback. He proceeded by dominating in his Eagles debut against his former team by jumping two routes, intercepting one, and allowing just one catch on four targets.
The Eagles added bona-fide studs at their biggest positions of need. They dominated the offseason.
Now, the question arises as to which position group could be considered the weakest of the team? Linebacker? While the Eagles lack a third linebacker they feel confident in starting full-time, they have two studs in Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham. Kicker? Caleb Sturgis has looked shaky in the preseason but I wouldn’t panic just yet. Defensive line? HA! Good one. The Eagles have an elite group there.
Despite their efforts to address the position in the offseason, running back could easily be considered as the Eagles weakest position group.
LeGarrette Blount was the bell cow for the Patriots in 2016 to the tune of 1161 yards and 18 touchdowns. However, with the highest number of carries in his career (by nearly 100), the 30-year-old could fall into the trap of many running backs before him who enter the fourth decade of their lives. Blount remained unsigned in free agency until May, awaiting the first big payday of his career after leading the league in touchdowns. That payday wouldn’t come.
Blount chose to sign with the Eagles on a one-year deal worth $1.25 million with less than one-third of that guaranteed. Blount missed some time in summer workouts and has failed to produce through the first two preseason games. Yeah, I know, preseason means nothing. But it is still worrisome to see your projected starter average less than two yards per carry. Additionally, the Eagles could be disguising their true plans for the regular season and sending Blount on off-tackle runs and using him more effectively on inside runs when September 10th rolls around.
Pumphrey, an understudy to Darren Sproles, has failed to live up to his fourth-round status. On the ground, Pumphrey has carried the ball seven times for….oof, two yards. In his first NFL action, the rookie also fumbled and muffed a punt. At this point, Pumphrey is fighting for an active roster spot.
Another rookie, Corey Clement, who is a local kid the Eagles signed after going undrafted, has impressed in the preseason. Clement has been consistent while running strong and showing explosiveness on a long run against the Bills. He got his fair share of carries in the first two preseason games, which could be cut into with the return of 2016 rookie Wendell Smallwood. Clement has turned some heads and is getting roster consideration as an undrafted rookie free agent. Making the team would be a great story for the Glassboro native.
Beyond the two newcomers, the Eagles have the aforementioned Sproles and Smallwood returning and all but locks to make the roster.
In an article by Matt Lombardo of 97.5 The Fanatic and NJ.com, Lombardo predicted that Blount could be released during roster cuts considering his lack of production, potential misfit to Head Coach Doug Pederson’s offensive scheme and minimal cap hit ($400K) if the Eagles decide to release him. Such a move would open the door for a player like Clement to make the squad or the Eagles to scour the waiver wire for released running backs in the coming weeks who could better fit the system.
The release of Blount is a huge jump to make after just two meaningless preseason games. But the mere fact that it has been met with real wonder, as well as respected national media members claiming that Blount is not a lock to make the roster, means the Eagles could not be in as good a spot at running back as many thought following the signing of the 2016 Super Bowl Champion. Even if the preseason is no indication of what the Eagles will be getting from Blount in the regular season, the worry remains of Pederson using him incorrectly or the clock striking midnight on the 30-year-old.
Sproles is, let’s be honest, old in NFL running back terms. He is, however, the ageless wonder, finding ways to be extremely efficient in the punt return game and in rushing and receiving as the second-oldest player on the team at 34 years of age. Like Blount, Sproles is coming off the most carries of his 11 years in the league. Sproles has already stated that 2017 will be his final season in the league, later regressing, telling the media to “come talk to me again after we make the playoffs.” The former Charger and Saint will find ways to remain productive in 2017, but he is only a situational back. Another year of near full-time duties could force the aging running back into a swift decline.
Wendell Smallwood is among the favorite players of Eagles coaches. He is the most pure and well-rounded runner of the Eagles position group and could be the future starter. However, the 2016 fifth-round pick has had some trouble remaining healthy heading into his second season. As a rookie, Smallwood played in 13 games, starting three of them. For 2017 and beyond, Smallwood has the highest ceiling of all of the running backs on the roster. However, while the sophomore has shown flashes, he has not consistently shown he can be an every-down back.
With second-round pick Sidney Jones likely sidelined for 2017 while rookie running backs dominate the preseason, some may wonder if the Eagles missed their chance of drafting their running back of the future in favor of a redshirted cornerback. The Eagles could have moved up two picks in the second round and taken Dalvin Cook, instead of the Vikings selecting the Florida State product. Additionally, the Eagles were in position to grab Alvin Kamara, James Conner or D’Onta Foreman, all of who have been impressive in the preseason.
The biggest question heading into the 2017 season has changed drastically from the end of the 2016 season to May and now in August. From receiver to corner to running back, the Eagles are now most
uncertain and weak at the position that will help take some of the load off of Carson Wentz’s shoulders. Let’s hope Blount turns a corner and the Eagles are able to balance their top three or four running backs into a suitable rotation that will help the sophomore quarterback. Until the season kicks off, all we really can do is hope.
The Eagles will be suiting up for the regular season dress rehearsal on Thursday night against the Miami Dolphins. By all accounts, the Eagles dominated the first day of joint practices against the Dolphins. Perhaps that will translate to the dress rehearsal and we can see what the Eagles have in store for September and (hopefully) into January.
Follow Brenden on Twitter @brendenp2011.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports