The offseason has flown by for the Philadelphia Eagles. Three weeks separate the Super Bowl champions from a season opening clash with Atlanta and the tension is beginning to build. As the positional battles across the roster enter their final stages, there’s one that looks completely different to what it did at the start of camp.
When the Eagles opened their doors to another Training Camp, the running back position seemed fairly stable. Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement would lead the committee charge followed by a returning Darren Sproles and a mystery fourth back. Would it be Wendell Smallwood or potentially Donnel Pumphrey? Could Matt Jones turn heads or would it be another undrafted underdog in Josh Adams who makes the cut. As we enter the second preseason game, we remain none the wiser.
The opening game against Pittsburgh didn’t do many favors for the position. Josh Adams was the most impressive of the bunch, but an injury to Pumphrey kept him out of action, as it could do again tonight, and Wendell Smallwood averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, fumbling in the process.
Time is running out for the group who are all vying to make the roster, despite opportunities being at a premium. The best kind of ability is availability and for a player like Donnel Pumphrey, whom the coaching staff were rallying behind to make up for lost time, the reality of that statement is hitting.
“Well, it is tough.” Doug Pederson explained earlier this week. “It’s tough from the standpoint obviously you’re not getting the practice reps you need and obviously the game reps. Being exposed to not only our roster, but 31 other teams who are watching our games.
Each day is a little bit of a missed opportunity. He’s got to get himself healthy and try to get himself back here as soon as he can.”
The fact that 31 other teams are being mentioned as a potential audition doesn’t really bode well for the versatile San Diego State rusher who was previously enjoying a strong camp. But Football is a business and if Pumphrey misses another preseason game, hands will be tied in several senses.
What does become startling is the absence of ‘next man up’ security. Josh Adams, like Pumphrey, has battled injury throughout the offseason and as aforementioned, Smallwood has squandered plenty of opportunities having been handed the Lion’s share of carries due to the shortage on backs. In his third year, it’s almost as if the team were doing anything they can to try and find something in his game worth building on. The West Virginia product made a great leap in his second offseason, but injuries headlined those short months, leading to a Corey Clement breakout.
Talking of Clement brings us very neatly on to the ‘what if’s?’ Jay Ajayi hasn’t exactly proven to be the most durable player in his short, yet very explosive NFL career, while Clement himself has sat out practices for around a week now. Doug Pederson reassured the media in attendance that this wasn’t a major concern…
“Just giving him day to day some rest, much needed. He’s one of those guys — both those guys also play special teams, so right now just want to make sure they’re healthy for Week 1”
…but it does raise a startling question. What if Jay Ajayi went down? What if Corey Clement picked up a knock? Darren Sproles isn’t expected to be the bell-cow back he was in 2016 and the Eagles are at their finest when optionality at its peak. Who would step up in that instance? Could you rely on a running back you drafted in 2016 who has yet to show any sign of becoming a consistent performer at the NFL? Can you hang your hat on two backs where injury concerns are just as prominent?
The next three preseason games are the biggest opportunity that every back not named Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Darren Sproles or to a degree, Wendell Smallwood, has ever had and maybe ever will. If they’re not on the field, somebody else is going to take those reps. The problem is that nobody has really snatched the spotlight that is begging to be stolen. Nobody has stepped up to ‘be the man’. Some because they physically couldn’t and others because of what we see on the field.
If we don’t find an answer to that questioning bearing down on Duce Staley and Doug Pederson soon, the Eagles backfield could be walking a tightrope on 2018.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports