Training Camp is a little under three weeks away for the Philadelphia Eagles and we’ve officially hit the point of the offseason where content is so scarce, comparing running backs to Pokemon suddenly becomes a viable option. Seriously, listen to my latest podcast if you don’t believe me.
But when focusing on the running backs specifically, there is an odd-man out. There has to be. The Eagles have seven backs on the roster right now and there’s a strong chance 2 of them don’t make the cut. One would assume the back currently on the outside looking in is Wendell Smallwood, but I don’t know if the answer is that simple.
I get it. Every other running back on the roster has a niche. Jordan Howard and Josh Adams are bowling balls, Clement is as versatile as they come, Boston Scott is a baby Darren Sproles, and Miles Sanders has the potential to become LeSean McCoy 2.0. Smallwood, kind of just….doesn’t.
The West Virginia product has improved every year he’s been in the league, but his story is blurred. 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 started to fade.
Drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Smallwood 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 of urgency and aggression into his game. He began meeting lowering his pads before contact, meeting tacklers 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, he 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.
If we fast forward yet another year, it’s the same old story. Smallwood shed the skin of a back who struggled receiving the ball by setting career-highs, more than doubling his receptions and yardage from 2017. He set career-highs in rushing as well and although still inconsistent at times…there were flashes.
Smallwood tallied 151 yards during a crucial four-game stretch, notching a run of at least 10 yards in three of them. He’s also put up at least 20 receiving yards during the last three. What’s even more impressive is that in short-yardage situations, Smallwood somehow found a way to shine. Converting on 71.4% of those situations, Smallwood achieved 5 first downs on 7 carries. An area where Josh Adams, a downhill monster who one would assume to thrive in these situations, fared significantly worse (converting 0/10).
The truth is, while Wendell Smallwood isn’t glamorous or flashy, nasty, or electric, he has a level of development that keeps him in the fold. If we’re looking at the running back depth chart right now, Donnell Pumphrey has a Mountain to climb and with Josh Adams coming off of an injury and having Jordan Howard dropped directly in front of him, one could argue that he too has quite the task ahead of him.
The Eagles coaching staff love Smallwood and whether he’s met expectations missed expectations, or simply struggled to stay on the field, there is value to be had as a change of pace back. He may not have a niche, or an overwhelming strength that no other running back possesses, but when he’s healthy, the Eagles enjoy riding the Smallwood train and seeing those building blocks start to click. He’s been afforded lifeline after lifeline and there’s no real reason to believe that will change this offseason.
Now, after last year where Smallwood somehow failed to make the most of being gifted first-team reps in preseason, he has to show something in 2019 because the stakes are that much higher and there is ultimately pressure building. But it’s not as damning as people suggest, at least not yet.
Miles Sanders missed OTA’s, arguably giving Smallwood a slight luxury of the Eagles wanting to keep him around as an insurance policy, Corey Clement is coming off of a very bizarre season and there are plenty of unknowns surrounding any back not named Jordan Howard.
Is he on the outside looking in? I don’t think so. Is he on the inside constantly looking over his shoulder? Absolutely.