Three years into the Doug Pederson era and Eagles are no closer to running back stability

When Doug Pederson was first hired by the Philadelphia Eagles back in 2016, nobody really knew what to expect. But if you were to go off recent history and how he coordinated the offense in Kansas City, the conclusion would be that a committee effort in relief of an injured Jamaal Charles arguably served him best. The question became very simple. ‘What on earth is the backfield going to look like?’ We’re now heading into the fourth offseason of the Doug Pederson era and that question remains worryingly prevalent.

Bizarrely, every season has kind of followed the same narrative. To begin with, the run-game is virtually nonexistent before one blistering breakout balances the offense. Just as things begin to really pick up, injuries destroy any hopes of sustenance and depth is sorely tested. Whether it’s Ryan Mathews or Jay Ajayi, it’s not as if the Eagles have lacked productive backs, it’s been keeping them on the field that’s the problem.

There may be no finer example of that than Wendell Smallwood. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, he would go on to record 312 yards and a touchdown on 77 carries, before suffering an injury that would cut his rookie season short. With Ryan Mathews now out of the picture, a starting role was his for the taking upon his return during the offseason. A promising training camp saw Smallwood fueled by the competition brought to the table by Corey Clement, adding a sense of 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…and then the injury bug returned.

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.

In 2019, were things going to be any different? They didn’t start off that way. During the offseason, Smallwood was at times the lone healthy back on the roster but was unable to make the most of those opportunities during the preseason. As injuries ravaged the backfield once more, Smallwood was asked to step up to the plate for the third season in a row and this time, was able to make it count. His 364 regular season yards were a new career-high, as were his three touchdown rushes. In fact, Smallwood accounted for five scores this year, but what does the future really hold?

And just like that, we’re back to square one. Jay Ajayi was an absolute monster during the Super Bowl run, averaging 4.4 yards per carry in the playoffs and kicking off 2018 in a similar fashion, averaging 4.1 per carry prior to his heartbreaking injury. Ajayi had formerly signed with notable NFL Agent, Drew Rosenhaus, ahead of a season that was all but destined to grant him a huge paycheck. Instead, Ajayi has lost a lot of leverage, is a pending free agent and faces an uncertain future as the injury label is harder to remove than ever.

There are questions everywhere. Would the Eagles be right to re-sign Jay Ajayi? Is Darren Sproles going to retire? Can you hang your hat on Josh Adams? Will Wendell Smallwood develop further? What about Corey Clement?

Unknown, after unknown, after unknown. We’ve seen this all before and the issue is, it’s not as if drafting talent has done much damage. Donnel Pumphrey by this point can safely be considered a squandered pick, Wendell Smallwood has been sporadic at best, despite his improvements since 2016 and the undrafted free agents acquired in this window have arguably had a greater impact.

So, do the Eagles go out and sign a top-tier free agent? Is this finally the season they draft a top-tier running back? They haven’t done so since the acquisition of LeSean McCoy…but it shows. Every year, there seems to be a back within grasp for the Eagles in round 2-4 that simply passes them by, with a draft pick instead of being spent elsewhere.

It all comes down to how Pederson views the position. The Eagles are yet to pay a running back significant money during this window and I don’t think that will change anytime soon. However, building a reliable committee requires the developing of potential and more importantly, finding that initial talent, to begin with. At some point, the Eagles are going to have to take a shot. They’re running out of time to find that bell-cow back who can lead a committee of complementary backs.

LeGarrette Blount was so supposed to be the bridge until the Birds found the answer to this ongoing enigma, but the decision not to replace him with another brutish bowling ball has only enhanced its mystery.

The truth is, we are still no closer to finding out exactly what kind of backfield attack Pederson wants to deploy. In some weeks, there is no running game at all and in others, it looks like a top 10 ground-and-pound offense. I understand ‘That’s Football’, but this is different.

The Eagles haven’t drafted a back they can hang their hat on. Free agents have been signed to ‘prove-it’ incentivized deals while the younger talent marinates…at least, that was the aim. Instead, injuries and inconsistencies have ripped their way through the position and that window of leniency is soon closing. This has to be the offseason that the Birds address the backfield…because if they don’t, it’s only going to be another year of the same old storylines.

 

Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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