The Philadelphia Eagles running back position is still very much up in the air. Not only is there a question on the back end of the roster as to who will make the team between 2017 draft pick Donnel Pumphrey and undrafted Corey Clement, but also how the ball will be distributed among them.
Second-year man Wendell Smallwood is in a position to give the Eagles their answer at running back for 2017 and potentially beyond.
At 30-years old, and 31 before season’s end, free agent signee LeGarrette Blount may not be the answer to carry the load throughout the game. Blount is at his best as the clock ticks away and the defense is tired. That is when the 6-foot, 250-pound back punishes defenders that attempt to tackle him. Over his seven-year career, Blount has average 0.3 yards per carry more in the fourth quarter as well as having 28 more first downs, and nine more touchdowns. As the defense wears down, Blount eats.
Darren Sproles has always been and will continue to be a situational and matchup nightmare. Sproles can take advantage of coverages and can be a complete mismatch against almost anyone he is lined up across from. As a veteran, he has had the luxury of hanging on the sidelines and having the best seat in the house to watch the preseason. Come September 10th, we know Sproles’ role and he will transition right in.
That leaves the position of “starting” or “lead” running back, which Smallwood will likely have the first shot at. In his first preseason action of 2017, Smallwood carried the ball four times for 28 yards, a seven yards-per-carry average. Smallwood hardly looked like a player coming back from injury. Four carries is a very small sample size, but Smallwood looked good in his first action of his sophomore season.
Just like in his rookie year, Smallwood hit the holes hard and found yards when there are none to be found. From reports out of training camp, many coaches believe that Smallwood is the best and most complete back the Eagles have on the roster and could easily see him as a starting running back. The lead back position is likely Smallwood’s to lose.
How Smallwood performs in 2017 could determine the priority the Eagles place on running back following the season. The 2018 draft is expected to be loaded at the running back position, similar to the 2017 class, and the Eagles could look to fill what is currently a big need. If Smallwood takes the lead position and runs with it, though, the Eagles could elect to go elsewhere with the first pick in the 2018 draft.
The Eagles will need someone to step up at running back this season to take pressure off of second-year quarterback Carson Wentz. Smallwood will have the first crack at it while the Eagles will likely be scouring the released players in the coming weeks to determine if any running backs cut loose could be a valuable addition to the team.
This year is a big one for Smallwood. Over the next few weeks, the 23-year-old will be playing not only to get his share of carries on game day but could also determine the direction the his future with the Eagles and the team’s future at the running back position.
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Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports