Eagles Training Camp primer: It’s ‘all or nothing’ for Philly’s running backs

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The second edition of our Eagles Training Camp primer takes a look at a very intriguing backfield situation. Pederson’s offense finally found a balance in 2017, but without LeGarrette Blount and with a long-term future uncertain, what does this season have in store? We may find most of our answers when Training Camp opens next week. Here’s everything you need to know about the Eagles running backs.

THE PLAYERS

Jay Ajayi:
Now entering his first full season in Philadelphia, it’s crunch time for the Eagles lead back. After averaging 5.8 yards per carry during his time with the Eagles last year and blossoming during such a short time, Ajayi looks primed for an even bigger season.

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The Brit’s contract is entering its final year which means it’s all or nothing for a back who’s looking to carry the load and play his way to a long-term contract this upcoming offseason. Whether that’s in Philadelphia or somewhere else however is another debate entirely.

We can expect Ajayi to be taking the majority of reps with the starters during camp without a tremendous amount of pressure. Pederson has made it clear that the Englishman will be the team’s #1 back heading into 2018, so this should be a period of really expanding what was likely a rushed process in learning the playbook one year ago and preparing for what will be the biggest year of his career.

 

Corey Clement:
The undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin stole the hearts of Philadelphia fans during his first season. After a dominant Training Camp, Clement began running down the clock in the regular season and turning heads. By the years end, he recorded the 10th most touchdowns of any rookie and totaled 444 all-purpose yards, acting as a versatile threat who had the tenacity to punish any team as both a runner and a receiver. That was never more apparent than in Super Bowl 52, where Clement dazzled a global audience with a stunning touchdown reception.

This season, his role will likely increase and again that all starts in Camp. There is plenty of cake to go around when the green flag drops at the NovaCare Complex and Clement will have to fend off some hungry dogs beneath him on the depth chart, but his skillset should lend itself very well to the expanding West-Coast scheme.

Versatility is the name of the game and Clement will have a key role to play as the Birds brace for life without Blount and still balancing carries per game at around 16. His versatility and explosive running style will feature heavily in Training Camp and through preseason.

 

Darren Sproles:
It’s an interesting year for the ‘little engine that could’. Having just announced that 2018 would be his final year as an NFL athlete, Sproles is facing one last chance at earning that elusive Super Bowl ring. Sure, the Eagles win was great, but having to watch from the sideline during that incredible run will only add weight to the chip on his shoulder. Conversely, weight should be lifted from his shoulders in terms of a running back workload. Sproles won’t need to be the workhorse as he was in 2016 thanks to the rebuilt running back position and can instead be used as an explosive returner and situational player, stinging defenses as both a receiver and a back.

In terms of what to expect in Training Camp, Sproles could see a fairly quiet Summer. Everybody knows his value and what he brings to the table. There is no real need to run the veteran through anything more than what is absolutely necessary, keeping the remaining rubber on the tires ready to burn.

 

Donnel Pumphrey:
The back who many regarded as the future replacement for Darren Sproles also comes into this season with a tall Mountain to climb. His rookie season was short-lived after a disappointing Summer and an injury on the dusk of the opening game. Pumphrey now has to prove himself at the next level and show that he can handle the rigors of the NFL, in terms of both game-speed and durability.

The 23-year old should have a very busy Training Camp. With veteran and featured backs likely being preserved, it’s a chance for Pumphrey to assume Sproles’ role and show that he can bring that same ridiculous skillset that led him to historic honors as one of the most dominant dual-threat backs in College Football history.

 

Wendell Smallwood:
‘Small world’ as Jordan Matthews once called him, enters this season with a bigger chip on his shoulder than ever. Injuries have held him down, but so has a real lack of ability to stand out. What really broke hearts was that Smallwood blistered into 2017 with a new mentality and a ferocious new running style, one that was overshadowed by the versatile skillset of Corey Clement and as our video showed below, failed to really cement his place in the rotation when given the opportunity.

This Training Camp is another ‘all or nothing’ scenario for Smallwood. With a cloud of long-term uncertainty over its future, it may be the West Virginia product’s last chance to build on his time in the league so far, edging closer to making games like that stunning week 3 outing against Pittsburgh in 2016, a regular occurrence. If he fails to really ‘wow’ this time around, it could well be his last offseason in an Eagles uniform.

 

Matt Jones:
The team’s lone free agent running back signing will be in need of a strong camp if he is to stick onto the Eagles roster. At 6’2, 239 lbs, he was released by the Colts after a 2017 season that saw him amass just five carries for fourteen yards, having spent a huge chunk of time on their practice squad. The drafting of two running backs by the Colts seemingly forced the once heralded prospect out of the equation.

Jones does have his niche however. Without LeGarrette Blount, the Eagles don’t have that barreling bruiser who can wear down a defense between the tackles. Ajayi is the lead rusher, but he has durability issues of his own. This is a real opportunity for Jones to shine and remind the Eagles that it wasn’t so long ago he put up 135 yards and a touchdown on them as a Washington Redskin.

Watch for Jones to attract a lot of attention over the next month or so as he seeks to resurrect a falling NFL career. He has the potential and the skillset needed to be a valuable asset in this offense, but can he show it during camp against one of the league’s top run defenses? Only time will tell, but expect nothing but physicality.

 

Josh Adams:
A Pennsylvania native, Adams was a day 3 back on the draft boards of many. A long injury history is what drove him off of those boards and into the pool of undrafted free agents.

At 6’2, 213 lbs, he is easily the biggest running back on the team and packs quite a punch as a result. With 3,201 total rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns (41 receptions, 336 yards) during his time with Notre Dame, Adams tore through the trenches with his thick base and unique sense of power.

Adams is a one-cut back who is fairly one dimensional. A willing pass protector, Adamsruns with power but his danger relies on building momentum, which will be a lot harder to do at the NFL level.

Missing the OTA period due to injury hasn’t exactly helped Adams’ chances of making the cut. With so much competition in a backfield of uncertainty, including the likes of Wendell Smallwood who faces durability concerns of his own, it’s going to take a ‘Clement’ like Training Camp performance if he’s going to force his way into the rotation.

What Adams does have going for him is that the Eagles are still missing that they lost in LeGarrette Blount. His style fits that mold perfectly, but the road ahead will be a long one.

 

Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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