Eagles backfield destined for short-term success but long-term uncertainty looms

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The Eagles finally got it right in 2017. After a rookie season for coach and quarterback in which the offense struggled to find a balance, Doug Pederson built a three-headed monster that would decimate the NFL through versatility and explosiveness. Three very different running backs would pull together after a ruthlessly competitive offseason and give Carson Wentz the support structure needed to run the west-coast offense successfully. But with a Super Bowl winning season in the books, the Eagles will once again need a full offseason to establish that identity.

‘A run heavy team’. That’s what Philadelphia became labeled as after they amassed a ten-game streak of 100+ rushing yards. In fact, they had the third highest amount of rushing yards in the league last season with 2,115, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. After the rotation finally ironed out and the Eagles made a midseason shockwave by trading for Jay Ajayi, the fun really kicked in. While the barreling Blount would terrorize defenses in short-yardage situations and Ajayi would gradually see a higher workload, it was the undrafted free agent, Corey Clement, who stole hearts with continued catches on screens, wheels and an explosive style. All was finally sunny in Philadelphia.

If we fast forward to the present day, LeGarrette Blount is a Detroit Lion. This, for a while, left Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement as the two featured backs, opening up the door for Donnell Pumphrey and Wendell Smallwood to once again duke it out for a depth role. Sure, Howie Roseman could’ve drafted a running back, but with two pieces of the puzzle already in place, it’s safe to say that the unit already had the potential to pick up where it left off. Again, there was no reason at all to hit the panic button just yet.

But then the Eagles did something mildly unexpected. They brought back veteran and fan favorite, Darren Sproles. Sproles may be 34 years of age, but he’s shown next to no signs of slowing down, injuries aside. In 2016, he had a career high in carries and averaged 4.7 yards on them, becoming an instrumental weapon for Carson Wentz in his rookie season. After watching his team win a Super Bowl from the sideline, it’s easy to see why he wanted one last shot at winning it all. It’s not like his role is set to decrease any time soon either.

“He was a big part of putting this thing together for me, obviously my first year, last year.” Doug Pederson told reporters after the re-signing was announced. “It was unfortunate, the injury. What he’s done so far and putting himself back in a position to come back and help his football team in many ways, from a leadership standpoint and a running back standpoint and a punt return standpoint, I’m excited to get him back, and I know he is too. Just looking forward to getting him back in the building and seeing that smiling face here.”

The addition of Sproles completely changes the complexion of the backfield. In 2016, a year in which Pederson was still figuring out how to best deploy the committee effort, Sproles set a career high in carries (94) and totaled 865 yards worth of total offense. For comparative purposes, Clement and Ajayi recorded 70 and 74 carries each in 2017, while Blount led the way with 173 attempts. The magic number seemed to be 16 for the Eagles, with no back ever surpassing that number of carries other than Blount, who matched it twice. This plays favorably into the hands of Sproles, who will see a reduced workload, keeping the tires fresher and his impact greater.

The conundrum comes in the way of what this means for the other backs. Clement, to a degree, filled in for Darren Sproles during 2017, at times lining up as a receiver and growing as a do-it-all back who does much more than just a pack a punch between the tackles. It will be very interesting to see whether or not Clement has more or less than his 70 rookie season carries.

Elsewhere, the potential rise of Donnell Pumphrey has had a Knife plunged into its chances. The second-year back who missed his rookie season due to injury, struggled to show any signs of promise in preseason and training camp, ultimately losing out to Clement and Smallwood. The SDSU star who is built in the same vein as Sproles, had a huge window of opportunity to showcase his growth over the last year…that was until Sproles resigned.

Wendell Smallwood faces a similar problem. The West Virginia product changes his running style heading into last season and became a back who wanted to run through defenders as opposed to evading them, but that wasn’t enough to stop Clement from soaring above him on the depth chart.

With fewer slices of Pie to go around, the Eagles running backs will be chomping at the bit to prove their worth…and that’s where the fun begins. Jay Ajayi is entering his contract year and Darren Sproles was only brought back on a one-year deal. If the two do depart after this season, the Eagles will be forced to invest in the running back position, with Clement being their lone returning rusher of value. Would this entice the Eagles to share the rock around and give opportunities to someone like Pumphrey, who still has time and financial value on his side and can learn from one of the best to ever do it in Sproles? Would it even push them to see what UDFA Josh Adams is made of and see if he could cling on to a roster spot?

The Eagles could absolutely invest in a running back next draft, but it’s not something they do in the early rounds. On average, Joe Douglas drafts a halfback in round 4.6 and the highest drafted back for the Eagles in recent memory was LeSean McCoy…a second rounder. Instead, the team find value with ‘prove-it’ contracts and mid-round selections.

If you were to look at the current backfield as it is right now, the Eagles have it all figured out. An unpredictable rotation that’s filled with explosiveness and versatility. However from a longevity standpoint, if neither Pumphrey nor Smallwood pan out as they’d hoped, and the cannot afford to bring back Ajayi and then lose Darren Sproles, that three headed beast becomes something far less intimidating.

The following season will be one of intrigue for the Eagles, but don’t be surprised if there are a few more twists and turns before the regular season unfolds.

 

 

Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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