Eagles backfield structure will be decided by intense training camp battle


NFL training camps are just around the corner and circumstances have put a damper on the compelling storylines we are accustomed to reading at this time of year. Still, there is a lot to talk about and the Eagles’ running back room is no exception. Philadelphia has a ton of up-and-coming talent in their committee of backs and training camp could give a fascinating inside look at how it will all shape out come September. Here are some storylines to pay attention to:

Is Miles Sanders ready for full-time?

Ever since the days of LeSean McCoy, the Eagles backfield has been defined by rotation. That may be changing in 2020. In his rookie season, Miles Sanders was the first Philadelphia back to receive more than 50% of offensive snaps since 2014. However, even with the promising first season, it may be some time before Doug Pederson does away with his running back by committee approach.

Jordan Howard’s departure left 280 snaps (24%) up for grabs and a bulk of that will likely fall on to Sanders’ plate. Nevertheless, it would be within Pederson’s m.o. to rotate the second-year back on and off the field. When he is on the field, he will undoubtedly be the recipient of a heavy workload. It is telling that Sanders was targeted or given a carry on 48.4% of his 53.7% snaps in 2019 (per Playerprofiler). Those numbers may not be sustainable if Miles sees the field for closer to 80% of the time. Instead, the coaching staff may decide to keep the committee churning to maintain fresh legs.

Sanders will more than likely get a bulk of the first-team reps in training camp, but it will be interesting to pay attention to how often guys like Boston Scott and Corey Clement are featured in the rotation. With Miles’ versatility, he may even see snaps at unconventional positions with another back in the backfield. We’ll dive into this a bit later.

Where does everyone fit?

The two backs mentioned alongside Sanders figure to be important pieces to the puzzle as well — however, they won’t be alone. The Birds have an embarrassment of riches in the young, promising running back department. Boston Scott looked like a young Darren Sproles in his inaugural season in Philadelphia and Corey Clement is not willing to be forgotten after some injury troubles the last two seasons. The question will be how to keep all these mouths fed.

Keeping a healthy rotation is one way, but there is a delicate balance between what is best for everyone and what is best for the team. If Miles is on a roll, the coaching staff will know better than to take him off the field. More so than most years, the 2020 rotation is a tad muddied. Philadelphia doesn’t necessarily have the yin-yang, lightning and thunder balance in the backfield they have had over the last few seasons. Now instead of making the obvious choice to put Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi, or LeGarrette Blount in short-yardage and goal-line situations, they will have to make the decision between Miles Sanders, Boston Scott (who was surprisingly good in those situations last season) or insert name here.

Another way to keep the committee fed is by running more two-back sets, which I have discussed in a previous article:

With so many versatile players in the group, in conjunction with Doug Pederson’s fascination with changing formations and winning match-ups, the team featuring more two-back sets is a captivating proposition.

The best of the rest

Boston Scott and Corey Clement figure to have the inside track at the roster, the former more so than the latter, but there are a number of intriguing names in the hunt. Last season’s late addition Elijah Holyfield brings a physical edge and rough-and-tumble play style to a group that needs a bully. UDFA Michael Warren II brings much of the same physicality as well as the one-cut running style that Jordan Howard had success with last season. To cap it all off, the speedy home-run hitter Adrian Killins Jr. — also a UDFA, how do the Eagles do it — may be the most anticipated of the bunch.

Holyfield likely has a step on the other new recruits simply because of his time with the team. His physical attributes are so tantalising that he may have the highest ceiling of the bunch as well. Because of his short time as a starter in college and limited reps in his time with the Panthers, he has some mental kinks to work out of his game. However, simply based on fit, he fills a need for the Eagles’ rotation should they decide to take four backs.

The same could be said for Michael Warren II, who may be the most underrated of the three. Tagged as a potential candidate for starting snaps in the NFL, Warren fell out of the draft only to be scooped up by Philadelphia. Simply put, he lacks the top end speed that the other backs on the roster have and he’s not nearly as physically gifted as Holyfield. However, he has some surprising athleticism and isn’t just a one trick pony. As a play maker, he bring a more complete skill set to the table than Elijah, which may give him the upper hand if the Eagles decide they want more versatility out of their big back.

Adrian Killins Jr. is likely the most exciting back of the group, but brings a lot of the same skills to the table as Miles Sanders, with less polish. He’s lightning in the bottle and we know that the Eagles staff constantly preaches that they cannot have too much speed on the roster. Still, to keep him on as a fourth back seems indulgent. His route to making the final 53 is likely based on his ability to produce as a returner. If the Eagles feel that Boston Scott, Jalen Reagor or another player on the roster isn’t fit for the job, they may reserve a seat for Killins at the table. Philadelphia hasn’t been shy about keeping special teams specialist on the roster before.

With a shortened preseason, it’s likely a lot of the decisions will have to be made in training camp. For Holyfield and Warren, their reps with the second team will hold a ton of weight. For Killins, it will be his flashes with the special teams group. However, if he is often in the mix with the other backs for rotational snaps, that may mean the coaching staff has already deemed his special teams value or athletic upside enough to warrant a look on offense.

Will the Eagles bring in a veteran?

This is a question that has hung like a cloud over the group since April. After gushing about the young talent already on the roster, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Birds stayed put. However, Howie Roseman has always been a sucker for on field production and experience. Without both Jordan Howard and Darren Sproles on the roster, the Eagles are quickly devoid of long term NFLers in the rotation. Is bringing on a veteran back simply for the experience he brings to the table worth it?

Previously understood as a search for a number two guy behind Miles Sanders, it seems that a lot of this decision will likely be made based on how the coaching staff feels about Corey Clement. Boston Scott will likely be allowed to carve out a role as he did last season. However, the Eagles could certainly use a proven first-down-getter in short yardage situations; someone to lower the shoulder and fight for yards. Doug Pederson has shown his aptitude for drawing up third down plays that don’t require that type of player, but ground and pound football will never be completely done away with — especially with the offensive line the Eagles have in house.

Personally I think a player like Devonta Freeman or Lamar Miller makes more sense than a LeSean McCoy reunion, regardless of the nostalgia. However, the Eagles could go an even cheaper route and target a player like Isaiah Crowell or a younger, less proven free agent. In that case, they could fairly easily cut said player before the final 53 if it didn’t pan out.

Who makes the cut?

The ultimate question, and it will probably come down to the decision on whether to take three backs or four. If the Eagles decide to take three, Miles Sanders, Boston Scott and Corey Clement seem like the most likely combination. The Eagles brought Clement back on a very cheap deal and could decide to go a different direction, but he is a Duce Staley favorite and is familiar with the playbook.

If the Eagles go with four backs, then the choice may come down to experience or potential. Do the Birds sign a veteran free agent or will one of the young additions make their mark? Any of the three young bucks has a legitimate shot at coming out on top, but the competition between Holyfield and Warren will be the fiercest to watch. Holyfield may be given more opportunities to start, but if Warren can impress the tides may turn as camp progresses. Regardless, the Eagles will likely keep two backs on the practice squad who will have every opportunity to earn a shot at dressing on Sundays.

Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal, Delaware News Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC