Future of Eagles backfield stands on the edge of a knife as roster cuts loom

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It’s been a big offseason for the Philadelphia Eagles. Make no mistake, the team have done everything possible to fill the holes left after the debut season of Carson Wentz and stack the roster full of playmakers and potential. But one of the biggest needs going into the Draft remains one of the biggest needs on the eve of the 53-man roster cutdown: Running back.

After a year in which efficiency was high but production was low and the direction was anything but clear, the Eagles set their sights on establishing a clear shape. Versatility would be complemented with tough between-the-tackles running and zippy running backs would be lining up behind a workhorse to carry the load.

In theory it sounded too good to be true. Especially when the team signed a two-time Super Bowl winner in LeGarrette Blount to lead the charge after a league leading 18 touchdown season. Blount would join the newly drafted Donnel Pumphrey and UDFA Corey Clement to complete a trio of new arrivals destined to battle it out for the committee roster spots.

Training camp came and went and preseason followed suit. Nothing changed. In fact, there is still an incredible amount of intrigue surrounding the backfield, the problem comes in the sense that it’s for the wrong reasons.

Let’s start at the top. LeGarrette Blount didn’t exactly set the world on fire during preseason, but he wasn’t expected to. The offensive line did him no favors but his numbers didn’t exactly showcase anything spectacular or even mildly encouraging. On 13 attempts Blount amassed 36 yards as well as a lost fumble. But perhaps more concerning than all of the aforementioned is that Blount just looked slow. There was no burst, no sense of urgency (until his last drive of the preseason), or suddenness in his cuts drive to push through tackles.

Blount is coming off of a year in which he carried the ball 299 times. It’s safe to be slightly worries that there may not be as much tread on the tyre as we first imagined. It’s also easy to forget that the veteran rusher had a weight clause in the contract he signed with the Eagles. The question is if not Blount, then who?

Nothing showed how concerning this truly is until Corey Clement put on a show running the exact same play as Blount. This brings an entirely new discussion to the table. The UDFA has simply had a brilliant offseason. Impressing coaches from day one, Clement fought to show he can catch the ball just as efficiently as he can move the chains on the ground. He ended preseason with 105 yards and 2 scores on 28 carries. Whether it was bouncing to the outside or surging up the middle, Clement simply looked dominant whenever he touched the ball. One of the major questions surrounding the backfield is whether or not Clement will make the final 53. To do so, the Eagles will either have to carry an extra back or cut an existing one.

Insert Wendell Smallwood. After Clement stole the spotlight in rookie minicamp, Duce Staley reinvented the wheel for the former WVU product. Smallwood hit training camp with a new found sense of aggression and confidence. Instead of relying on spins and agility to evade tackles, he was now lowering his helmet upon contact to drive through them. Smallwood was turning heads. With size now on his side, Smallwood entered camp with a completely different style and with Clement breathing down his neck, ensured that this was a discussion that would remain as such and evolve into nothing more.

There is no doubting Smallwood’s talent and potential. He may be the most talented back on the roster, but the best kind of ability is availability. Smallwood missed vital preseason snaps and training camp reps and while sat on the sidelines, all he could do was watch on as Clement continued to prove he shouldn’t have fallen through the cracks of the NFL Drafts. If the team want Smallwood to take on the lead role and relegate Blount to a short-yardage/goal-line specialist as they did with Ryan Mathews just one year ago, they have to be confident that he can withstand the rigors of a full NFL season.

Corey Clement shared a backfield one year ago at Wisconsin, but is better suited to a workhorse role due to his bulked out frame and battering-ram style approach. At this stage however, the debate isn’t whether or not the Eagles should cut Smallwood and keep Clement, the discussion comes in the form of Donnel Pumphrey.

The Eagles fourth round pick is one of the most prolific backs in NCAA history. While his size has worked against him, Pumphrey has been able to take on a workhorse role at SDSU and become a threat wherever he lines up. Slot receiver? Catching out of the backfield? Downhill runner? Pumphrey did it all during his time at San Diego State and for the most part during OTA’s and Training Camp. Once preseason rolled around, expectations were naturally high for the back likely partnering up with Darren Sproles in the pony package.

After game one, the excuse of Pumphrey’s performance was the offensive line providing no help at all and a flurry of Matt McGloin misfires leading Pumphrey into a tunnel with no light. But as the remaining three games came and went, nothing changed. Pumphrey may have flashed on kick returns occasionally, or lined up in the slot for a first down before making a big play on the ground just seconds later, but for the most part it was a disappointingly quiet preseason.

Carrying the ball for just two less attempts than Clement, Pumphrey put up just 49 yards of rushing, but did catch 13 passes for 72 yards. The thing is, Pumphrey saw a lot of the ball and didn’t seem to do a lot with it for someone with such an explosive reputation. Forget the excuses for a minute. Forget the line, forget the errant passes, forget everything. If the boot was on the other foot and Clement was selected in the fourth and Pumphrey was an undrafted free agent, would this even be a discussion? Would Pumphrey have a strong shot of making the final 53?

It’s that which has fans and analysts alike most confused. It all starts at the top, but if the team decide to part ways with Corey Clement, there’s a very good chance they won’t see him in midnight green again. A standout from the moment he arrived, teams will have most certainly caught a whiff of the strong scent of dominance airing out of the Linc. So what happens next?

The Eagles realistically COULD cut Donnel Pumphrey. That’s not to say they will, they value his skillset and what he brings to the passing attack a little too much. As much as we joke about phantom injuries, it’s a possibility that Pumphrey could be stashed on IR, but even if he is it leaves Darren Sproles, who has already expressed an intent to retire at the end of this season and has played in NO preseason action whatsoever, as the team’s versatile threat that will be called upon on numerous occasions.

If the Blount plug-n-play experiment fails, the Eagles are left with Wendell Smallwood, a back who has shown he has the makings of a solid NFL starter but has suffered with soft tissue setbacks. If the Donnel Pumphrey drafting fails, the team are left with an aging veteran and no other way of expanding the backfield to make the offense so bitterly unpredictable for Defenses. If the Eagles ride and die with their current group of backs in the hope of re-signing Clement to the practice squad, they had better pray to the Football Gods that nobody has been watching preseason because he won’t make it off the wire.

This is a BIG 24 hours for the Eagles front office. The fate of their backfield rests entirely on the decisions they make between now and Saturday afternoon. This goes far beyond the hopes of an undrafted rookie and the form of a 4th round pick. If the Eagles whiff with the regular season just around the corner, questions will be asked. Howie Roseman’s direction will be called into question. If the Eagles Offense has to again roll into the season with a backfield that will see a committee effort one game and 40+ Carson Wentz attempts the next, it could put a puncture in the tyre of a car that has been so beautifully crafted that it’s almost destined to run to the checkered flag.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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