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Wendell Smallwood should be the Eagles’ lead back from now on

Even with Ryan Mathews relatively healthy. It’s time to learn some things.

Philadelphia Eagles v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Ryan Mathews probably won’t be a Philadelphia Eagle next year.

I thought we’d get that out of the way early. It’s pretty important to wrap your head around this idea. Mathews has one year left on the three-year contract he signed with the Eagles in March 2015. He’s owed $4 million in base salary next year, but the Eagles can cut him for a dead cap hit of $1 million, which they will more than likely do.

Mathews’ time with the Eagles has been bumpy and frustrating, to say the least. He spent his first year splitting time with a disgruntled DeMarco Murray, missed three games with injuries, and generally couldn’t find the rhythm which he so richly deserved. It’s a shame, too. He ran well in 2015.

This season has been a different story. Mathews was the team’s de facto starting running back heading into the season, but he hasn’t looked the same runner with any semblance of consistency. He’s been living on the team’s injury report, as he always does. He’s missed two games this season with injuries, and when he’s been “healthy,” his production hasn’t been what the team hoped. He ran 106 times for 539 yards last year. This season, he’s run 102 times for 427 yards.

In short, it’s time for the team to move on from the short-lived Ryan Mathews era. He deserves another shot somewhere else, a fresh start and a chance to make things work. He’s still just 29 years old, running in what should be his last two or three productive years. One last hefty contract for a guy who has toughed it out more than nearly anyone in the league since he was drafted six and a half years ago.

But not here. Which is why Wendell Smallwood should be the team’s lead running back for the last four games of the season, and by a wide margin. He’s had the chance to prove his worth a few times this season, but most of it has been spot work.

Smallwood’s only been handed the ball more than 15 times once this season, when he ran 17 times for 79 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers because Mathews suffered an injury early in the game.

For a rookie who hasn’t seen enough touches to generate much of a rhythm at any point this season, his numbers (74 carries for 309 yards and a touchdown; six catches for 55 yards) aren’t too bad. He deserves a shot to show what he can do with much higher volume against a few solid defenses, including a stout Ravens run defense.

Why? Because he’s the only still-unknown running back commodity on the team’s roster, and with the Eagles all but eliminated from playoff contention, now is the time for long-view evaluation.

Mathews, as we’ve discussed, isn’t here for the long haul. Darren Sproles is an aging, receiving-first runner who obviously isn’t an answer at RB1. Kenjon Barner is a 27-year-old running back who was signed largely because Chip Kelly knew him, and has only managed to pile up 52 carries across two seasons of running back turmoil.

Smallwood, however, is unknown. He’s probably not the long-term answer at RB1, which is okay. That doesn’t mean he’s useless.

He’s young, he’s cost-controlled on his rookie deal, and he clearly has some modicum of NFL-level talent. Even if he’s just the team’s backup running back until his rookie contract expires, it would make the most sense right now for Doug Pederson to gauge Smallwood’s feasibility as a feature back, and also figure out what he does well and where his weak spots are.

Because this is a good offseason for a team to need a running back, so the Eagles need to be prepared.

Free agency probably isn’t the answer; outside of LeVeon Bell, who is staying in Pittsburgh, every pending free agent runner is at least 25 years old. In looking for a RB-of-the-future to pair with Wentz, the Eagles shouldn’t be looking for an elderly rusher.

But (as we’ll talk about very, very frequently in the coming weeks and months), the 2017 draft class is loaded with running back talent. With the Eagles likely picking somewhere around 17 (keep losing, Vikings!) in the first round, and also fairly high in the second round (keep losing, Eagles!), there are going to be a number of very viable, attainable options.

If Doug really wants to use the next four games wisely, then, he’ll start the offseason evaluation process early and see what he has at each position. He’ll give Paul Turner and Bryce Treggs plenty of looks. He’ll run Wendell Smallwood 20 times in one game and see what happens. He’ll continue to throw the ball Trey Burton’s way.

Now is the time to think about the future. This season showed the Eagles they have their man at quarterback. Next, they must fill everything else.