Against elite run defenses, Eagles RB Wendell Smallwood is making the most of his opportunities

Now that the dust is settling following a dreamy win over the Chicago Bears, all eyes are turning to the grudge match between Philadelphia and New Orleans. Spirits are understandably high, but when it was revealed that moments before Cody Parkey hit the post, Jason Kelce walked over to Nick Foles to tell the QB he was going to miss him if this was the last time they’d share a field, reality hit home. The Eagles are facing a tumultuous offseason and a free agency of uncertainty.

One mane that’s consistently slipped under the radar in these offseason discussions is Wendell Smallwood. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Smallwood’s NFL career to date has been full of ups and downs. From a stunning performance in week three during his rookie campaign against the Steelers to injury troubles that saw him tumble down the depth chart behind an undrafted free agent, Smallwood’s never really been able to find a home as a lead back under Doug Pederson.

In 2018, he was hoping that would change. Injuries to Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles, and even Corey Clement opened up a gaping preseason window for Smallwood to state his claims, but he was able to prove very little in those moments. It would be another undrafted free agent in Josh Adams who would raise the stakes and go on to feature far more prominently…for the most part.

As the season wound down and the pressure began to soar, the Eagles started to sprinkle in more and more 12 personnel looks. The return of Darren Sproles helped provide some much-needed optionality, but just weeks after Adams had exploded onto the scene as a bell-cow back, he started to see his own role diminish.

Receiving double-digit carries in three of his last four games, it’s been Wendell Smallwood who has featured far more heavily, raising some interesting questions. Josh Adams has mysteriously disappeared and out of nowhere, Wendell Smallwood is proving that maybe a third time really is the charm.

Smallwood has tallied 151 yards during his last four games, notching a run of at least 10 yards in three of them. He’s also put up at least 20 receiving yards during his last three.

“Wendell played really well.” Mike Groh said of his running back, who crucially pushed the Eagles out of a near-safety by keeping his legs churning. “Ran strong; was able to make people miss; break some tackles. I thought he showed really good vision in the game. He did a really nice job.

[Eagles assistant head coach/running backs coach] Duce [Staley] really handles the rotation of those guys each and every week and we’ve got a package for all of them so that they know that they have a role in certain things. And then sometimes you feed a guy that looks like he’s got a hot hand that night. It’s his night and he’s playing well and you try to feature him a little bit more and keep him going. It could go either way, but Wendell did a really good job the other night.”

So, what’s the reason behind Smallwood’s sudden rise? The answer is a lot simpler than you may think. The Eagles have faced the Rams, Texans, and Bears within the space of a month. All three of those teams are notably ruthless in run defense and give up very little in the way of leverage. Pounding Josh Adams up the middle 12+ times per game would have a limited success rate against such stout defenses and the Eagles simply had to find something more.

Wendell Smallwood may lack that power possessed by the Notre Dame runner, but his quick burst makes him a much more effective back on stretch plays and those pesky outside rushes where the Eagles pull Jason Kelce and their guards to the second level. It all comes down to a game-by-game scenario and the Saints run defense promises to be no different from the three aforementioned. Expect to see plenty of Smallwood once more as his growth as a receiving option lifts some of the weight from an aging Darren Sproles.

Smallwood is entering his contract year with the Eagles and up to this point, through a combination of injuries and instability to the backfield and a lack of production on his own part, there hasn’t really been much of a case for handing him an extension or avoiding picking up a big-name free agent/ rookie running back to revitalize such an important position in this offense.

If Smallwood can keep producing, however, whether it’s one more week or several, he can at least make an argument for himself. That in the three year’s he’s had under Duce Staley, his running style has evolved massively and with injury setbacks behind him, he has something to give to this team. He’s heating up during the perfect period and for the first time in his career, is really taking advantage of those opportunities.

 

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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