Do the Eagles have an under-the-radar need at running back?


Free agency has been relatively kind to the Eagles. For the same 2020 cost as Byron Jones, Howie Roseman was able to rally an army of free agents to solidify the defense. As all eyes turn toward the NFL Draft, and more prominently, the deepest WR class in years, there’s one position that continues to fly under the radar – Running back.

Maybe it’s because a late breakout from Miles Sanders somewhat eased concerns over Jordan Howard’s injury. The Penn State product exploded in the absence of Howard, coming on leaps and bounds as a runner and continuing to flourish as a receiver. In fact, since 1965, only 2 players have rushed for 800+ yards, received for 500+ yards, and averaged rushing for 4.5+ yards per carry in the same season – Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders.

Sanders’ sensational season left Eagles fans purring and almost nullified any concern about depth at the position…but it shouldn’t have. As things stand, the Eagles have three running backs on the roster. Boston Scott partners Elijah Holyfield behind Sanders in what is now a position light on depth and notable names.

It’s not that the backfield necessarily ‘needs‘ the draw of a big name, but if you look at every re-incarnation of Pederson’s stable of running backs, there are specific roles handed out.

1: The bowling ball: (LeGarrette Blount, Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi)
2: Mr do-it-all: (Darren Sproles, Miles Sanders)
3: Change of pace: (Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement)

* Before you shout, I’m aware most of these running backs have filled numerous roles in the offense, but for the sake of simplicity we’re condensing them down.

Corey Clement is now a free agent, Darren Sproles hung up the cleats, and Jordan Howard is a Miami Dolphin. In theory, the Eagles could easily roll into next season with an abundance of confidence in Boston Scott to fill the shoes of Darren Sproles, but it would be a lot to expect Holyfield to become that north-south runner that wears down defenses.

It’s all well and good thinking ‘Sanders is more than capable of becoming the bell-cow back’, which he absolutely is (after all, that’s why he was drafted), but it’s also naive. Pederson’s offense will likely see Sanders being used everywhere and as often as possible. He averaged 3.9 targets and 11 carries per game last year and that number isn’t going to decline any time soon. He came out of college with plenty of rubber on his tires, but for every snap Sanders is used in the slot or on wheel routes, or as a blocker, they’ll need a plan-b.

Is 2019 UDFA Elijah Holyfield ready to make that jump? Our man Morgan Burkett remains optimistic:

He ran a 4.8, dropped passes and looked sluggish in the position drills. With only 215 college carries under his belt and lacking a comprehensive collection of tape, Holyfield’s combine performance was paramount. Unfortunately for the young man, he wouldn’t hear his name called on draft day.

I remember watching film on Holyfield for my 2019 draft analysis hoping that there was some way he would find his way to the Eagles. He’s got his flaws, sure, but given his talent, I was certain there was a team that would find a place for him in a situational role. Both of those sentiments may come true in 2020.

Speaking of his skill set as a runner, Holyfield is a bit of a conundrum. He too often tries to bounce runs to the outside despite his physical nature and his lack of home run speed. As he was simply more athletic than most of his opponents in college, you forgive him for some of that. After all, with just a little bit of room he can turn a small gain into something much bigger.

If he can keep his lines vertical, there is a lot to like about Holyfield. Especially near the red zone, he’s a lot to handle. Even with a limited amount of carries in college, we saw him do this again . . .

If Miles Sanders is going to be the ‘LeSean McCoy’ of the Doug Pederson era, then he’s going to need a strong supporting cast. Whispers of AJ Dillon’s name are met with a flurry of optimism and concern. Should the Eagles spent a mid-round pick on a running back? Why would they? Why should they?

The truth is that this Eagles backfield has been mired by inconsistency and injury for far too long. Every season follows a near-identical pattern. The backfield starts out hot but it’s confusingly not due to the RB we all expected to be leading the charge. Then there’s a period of ‘RUN THE BALL, DOUG’ Twitter thriving, and it’s promptly followed by it all finally coming together…only for the majority of backs to fall injured. Wonderful.

The Eagles need to protect their investment in Miles Sanders, and that means finding a balance of talent that complements his skillset. The team usually carry 4-5RB’s on the roster come September, so don’t be shocked to see a surprising new face or two. Whether it’s through the Draft, via a trade ala Jordan Howard, or something sneaky like Jay Ajayi’s first spin, Howie’s never quite done when it comes to backfield additions…

Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

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