Wendell Smallwood’s short time in Philadelphia has seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. From his breakout 79-yard game against the Steelers in week 3 of his rookie season, to being buried on the depth chart and inundated with injuries, Smallwood’s presence in the Eagles offense has slowly began to fade. With no real ‘long-term’ option at running back asides from Corey Clement, this could be a ‘make or break’ season for the West Virginia running back.
Smallwood was drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 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.
Ultimately, Smallwood had to encounter injury demons once again. Missing the last week of training camp and two preseason games due to a hamstring injury, it all but gifted an opportunity to Corey Clement who wasn’t going to let it slide. When the regular season rolled around, Smallwood simply struggled. He was given carries in the opening two fixtures but averaged under 2 yards per carry in each contest. His heaviest workloads of the season came in the following games against the Giants and Chargers and he would go on to amass 105 yards and a touchdown between those two contests. The problem was that as the backfield diversified and LeGarrette Blount’s role increased, the slices of cake previously left for Smallwood became simply scraps.
Clement’s end-of-game ball-carrying flashed enough potential to earn him more of a prominent role as the year progressed and when Jay Ajayi was poached from the Dolphins and a knee injury further hampered Smallwood, his fate was all but sealed.
In 2018, his third year with the Eagles, Smallwood has to be hungrier than ever.
“It will be an exciting year for him. He’s going to be in the mix.” Doug Pederson said. “I really like Wendell, what he’s done the first couple of years. He’s got to make sure he keeps himself healthy and on the football field. But he’s done some really nice things this spring. He’s third year now in our system. He understands the coaching, the techniques, protections, all of that. He’s done a really nice job there, and it will be a nice little competition that we want again in July and August.”
While Clement and Ajayi both have key strengths, Smallwood simply does a little bit of everything, without the fancy finish. It remains to be seen whether or not there’s a place in Pederson’s backfield for the 5’10 back who amassed just 174 yards and a touchdown in his sophomore campaign. There is hope however.
As aforementioned, Smallwood stole the show this time last year. His re-wired mindset that prompted him to charge through tacklers as opposed to evading them saw the second-year back do much more than turn heads. There’s no reason why he cannot continue that growth and it’s not like the Eagles will need him to become a feature back right away. Kenjon Barner is now with the Carolina Panthers and LeGarrette Blount is in Detroit. Sure, Darren Sproles and a certain San Diego State running back will be competing for roles in Pederson’s ever-changing backfield, but the KR/PR role remains wide open and Sproles won’t be around forever.
In his rookie year, Smallwood returned 9 kickoffs for 261 yards and a touchdown. One year later, he returned another 4 for 93. The potential for the carving of a niche role and one even beyond that is certainly present, but for that to happen, Smallwood has to be.
The biggest knock on Smallwood has been his durability and his unfortunate battle with the injury bug. If he is to have any hope of making an offensive impact in 2018, before anything else he has to prove that those issues are behind him and he can handle an NFL workload on a regular basis. It’s clear that #28 has the talent to shine and the potential to be molded by coaches…what isn’t clear is if he will be on the field to show that.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports