The Eagles once again shattered the NFL with a blockbuster trade earlier today, sending a fourth-round draft selection to Miami in exchange for 24-year old Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi. While Howie Roseman preached that nothing will change in the Eagles backfield, one thing that almost certainly will is the cloud looming large over Wendell Smallwood.
Smallwood 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. A promising offseason and training camp saw Smallwood fueled by the competition brought to the table by Corey Clement, adding a sense or urgency and aggression into his game. He began meeting tackles head on as opposed to trying to dance around them and all of a sudden, Smallwood began to look like the back the Eagles hoped he would become.
Plagued by injuries once again however, the West Virginia product has already missed two games this season. Smallwood hasn’t taken the step forward that many had hoped and he has only seen 10+ touches twice this year. In Sunday’s win over San Francisco, Smallwood was active for just 13 snaps, rushing once and receiving once.
“There are four running backs that are active.” Doug Pederson told reporters after the game. “[RB] Kenjon [Barner] didn’t get as many opportunities either. It’s just kind of the way the game progressed. And Corey and [RB] LeGarrette [Blount] got the majority of the touches and did a nice job for us. Nothing against either one of those two players, just sometimes the way the game goes and getting guys involved.”
The difference between Kenjon Barner and Wendell Smallwood is that Barner was originally cut by the Eagles and re-signed due to a severe lack of depth at the position, while Smallwood was drafted by the Eagles last year and is naturally expected to see more touches when his only competition consists of an undrafted free agent and a veteran.
Smallwood may not have been 100% last week, but while he sat on the sidelines, Corey Clement registered 54 yards and led the team in rushing. As the situation became bleaker, the Eagles then struck what may have been the killer blow to Smallwood’s chances of a redemption year by trading for Jay Ajayi.
Originally a fifth-round draft choice of the Dolphins in 2015 (149th overall), Ajayi has played in 31 games (19 starts) and has carried 447 times for 1,924 yards and 9 TDs.
In 2016, Ajayi earned a Pro Bowl berth after finishing fourth in the NFL with 1,272 rushing yards, marking the third-highest single-season total in Dolphins’ history. Over the course of the season, Ajayi registered three 200-yard rushing games, becoming just the fourth player in NFL history to accomplish the feat. His 200-yard games earned him three AFC Offensive Player of the Week awards and he was named Miami’s 2016 Dan Marino Most Valuable Player.
While the pressure may lift off the shoulders of LeGarrette Blount, it begins to beckon down on Wendell Smallwood. Corey Clement has done nothing but shine in the opportunities presented to him, while Smallwood’s inconsistency and durability concerns have seen him slowly fade into a backfield that has amassed seven consecutive games of 100+ rushing yards or more.
With Blount’s contract expiring at the end of the year and Darren Sproles potentially retiring, Smallwood was seen as the one constant in a year of uncertainty. So far, even Carson Wentz has amassed more rushing yards through the opening eight games. Now Ajayi’s physically intimidating skillset is thrown into the mix, Smallwood’s place in the offense is becoming less and less hinged by the day.
There may not be a shock trade that sends Smallwood elsewhere anytime soon. In fact, he may still have a valuable role to play, especially while Ajayi gets to grips with the schematic side of things. However, the Eagles had a dire need at running back this offseason and opted against trading up for Dalvin Cook or a similar caliber player. They rested their fortunes on Smallwood and had the 23-year old performed as expected, then this trade may have never taken place to begin with.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports