LeSean McCoy. Brian Westbrook. Duce Staley. Ricky Watters. Herschel Walker. Wilbert Montgomery. Timmy Brown. Steve Van Buren. There's no question the Philadelphia Eagles have a rich history of talented running backs. But for what feels like the first time in a long time, the Birds are set to enter a season without a reliable lead back.
That seems like a problem for an offense that's believed to heavily feature the running game. While Doug Pederson served as offensive coordinator in Kansas City, the Chiefs ran the sixth highest percent of run plays in 2015, the ninth highest in 2014, and the 13th highest in 2013.
The Eagles are currently carrying six rushers on their 90-man offseason roster: Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, Kenjon Barner, Byron Marshall, and Cedric O'Neal. Mathews is talented but consistently struggles to stay healthy. Sproles still looks fast despite turning 33 later this month. He's just not a full-time player, though. The Eagles are high on Smallwood but expectations need to be tempered for a fifth round pick. Barner is hardly a proven player. Marshall hasn't been able to participate in offseason practices due to NCAA rule. Undrafted free agent rookie O'Neal wasn't even ranked on CBS Sports' list of the top 1,000 draft prospects.
Though having a workhorse back would be ideal, it just doesn't seem realistic with this group. Doug Pederson even suggested as much on Wednesday.
"Well, you go in thinking that one guy can handle the load," he said. "If that's Ryan, he can handle all the stuff and the pounding. But with the guys we have, with the depth we have at that position, Darren is obviously a big part of that and now with Wendell coming on, I think it could be a little bit of a running back by committee.
"But at the same time, that's how things unfold in this league. It's not necessarily your plan going in. But a lot of times that's how things can unfold."
It'll be interesting to see how the Eagles split carries. Mathews, Sproles, and Smallwood are all likely locks to make the roster. It remains to be seen if a fourth rusher is kept.
Read below for a transcript of Pederson's press conference.
Q. Yesterday you sort of indicated that RB Darren Sproles and DT Fletcher Cox would be at a similar level of activity, but they weren't. Cox didn't do any of the team stuff. Is that because of his contract situation?
COACH PEDERSON: Not at all. Not at all. I had a conversation with [defensive coordinator] Jim Schwartz, and again, it's all part of Fletcher getting in here and learning our system, and being a part of the walk-throughs in the morning and the classroom and the individual and warmup periods in practice. And you know, just wanted to make sure that he's in the right frame of mind and the right situation before you stick him out there. So again, as I mentioned yesterday, now is not the time to try to push things and possibly risk an injury.
Darren's a little different animal, and he had an opportunity to get a couple reps yesterday. He's also a special teams guy, so you saw him catch some punts yesterday and you'll see him again out there in a similar role.
Q. How far behind is Cox because he's missed the voluntary camp?
COACH PEDERSON: Well, he's missed all the installation. So however far back that is, it goes back to April 4. But listen, I'm not concerned with Fletcher Cox. He can play the game of football. It's not going to take -- he's a sharp guy and it's not going to take much or long for him to get caught up.
Q. Sproles seemed to take at least some, and maybe even the majority of the first-team reps yesterday. What was the decision behind that and moving him immediately ahead of RB Ryan Mathews?
COACH PEDERSON: It wasn't necessarily moving him ahead of Ryan; it was the fact that I made the decision because I just wanted to see him. I spoke with [running backs coach] Duce Staley and I said, "Duce, if we can find a spot to give him an opportunity where he's not necessarily in traffic, let's see what he can do." And so it was my decision to put him in those situations. But it was not a depth chart issue or anything like that.
Q. In the three absences we've seen from players this offseason -- Cox, QB Sam Bradford and Sproles -- when they have come back, you haven't felt it necessary to talk about why they weren't here and you've supported them here very adamantly. Do you worry about being viewed from the locker room as being too soft on your players in these circumstances?
COACH PEDERSON: No. Because what we do on the practice field and how I handle the guys on the practice field, I think, will speak volumes to them. Again, I just keep going back to the fact that the entire offseason, outside of these four days this week, is a voluntary system. That's just the rules that are in place and I have to abide by the rules. But once they step out on that practice field, they are mine and I can push them as hard as I need to push them. So I don't view it that way and I know the players don't see it that way, as well.
Q. QB Carson Wentz’s passes seem to have a little bit of a wobble to them from what I’ve seen. First off, would you agree with that? Secondly, is that just a matter of having a different football in the pros or just tinkering with his mechanics?
COACH PEDERSON: I would agree, there is a little bit of a wobble, but again, not a concern. A lot of those situations, a lot of those throws from a young quarterback, come from learning your system. Meaning, you're a little late here, you're a little late there, you're trying to anticipate that throw, you're a little off here. And so you're processing all the information so fast, that the last thing that goes is the throw, the actual physical nature of the throw.
Not a concern, because obviously we saw the tape in college and he can definitely spin the football. And the more comfortable he gets -- the other thing, too, when his feet are right, and it’s for any quarterback, Sam, Chase [QB Chase Daniel] included, when their feet are right, the ball comes out of their hand nicely and we've seen that from Carson, as well.
Q. Since you’ve had Wentz here, where has he made the biggest strides and what areas does he need to improve the most?
COACH PEDERSON: Well, obviously the biggest is his understanding of what we are doing offensively: the terminology and the scheme. [I think] where he needs to improve, is a little bit in his fundamentals: his lower body and footwork. He gets a little long in his stride. And then just understanding why certain plays are called, which he probably understood in his offense in college at North Dakota State and now he needs to figure out and learn why Frank [offensive coordinator Frank Reich] or I are calling certain plays in practice and put all those pieces together. And that's part of the maturity and the growth for young quarterbacks in any offense.
Q. Have you gone back and looked at any other franchises that have drafted guys with the understanding that they were not going to start them right away? If so, did you view how they used them during this time and in training camp? I know Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was drafted a year after you left Green Bay --
COACH PEDERSON: I haven't gone back and studied exactly how they handled those situations. Obviously, you can see it from afar, the Aaron Rodgers-Brett Favre deal, and even as far back as [former 49ers QBs Joe] Montana and Steve Young in that situation. But I haven't gone as far as studying how they practiced, the number of reps or things of that nature. I haven't looked that far into it.
Q. Does it come more from your feel of what you think about how much you should give them once training camp starts?
COACH PEDERSON: Yeah, it will ultimately be myself and Frank having those conversations and saying, ‘Hey, you've got to get Sam and Chase enough reps as you go. And then Carson needs to also.’ -- And it's not just Carson, it's also some of the younger players [such as] Wendell Smallwood and [CB] Jalen Mills and Count [S Blake Countess] and those guys on defense, too. They need the number of reps [for us] to be able to evaluate them properly throughout camp.
Q. As players get together to train in these next six weeks, what are your thoughts on them training together away from the facility, and is that something you did as a player at all?
COACH PEDERSON: I did it as a player. It's good to get away from the building, get away from us as coaches and us coaches to get away from them for these next five or six weeks until camp starts. Get their minds fresh and get their bodies right, because when we come back, it's here. I mean, football is here. I encourage guys, if they live close to each other, to get together and throw or work out and I think that builds team unity and camaraderie with the guys. I never had anybody close enough to me [geographically], so I was always on my own, but I encourage that, as well, in these next couple of weeks.
Q. How would you assess the tight ends and how creative do you think you can be with them in the offense?
COACH PEDERSON: Wow, I think that [the] tight end group is one of our strong suits on offense right now. [TE Brent] Celek is the leader of that group, obviously, with his expertise. He kind of fits in that [T] Jason Peters mold a little bit: he's a guy you want to definitely get to game day and be smart with him physically and all that.
[TE] Zach Ertz is a guy that -- what a talent. He's learning how to block on the line of scrimmage. He's getting stronger there. He's understanding his role, how to run routes, detail routes and things of that nature.
Trey [TE Trey Burton] is a tremendous athlete and I think is a guy that we can move around a little bit offensively and create some matchups there.
And then Chris [TE Chris Pantale] is there. Chris is there and he's a guy that is learning really a duel role. He's a little bit of fullback, he's a little bit of tight end, but he's been a pleasant surprise this offseason and I really look forward to camp and putting the pads on with all of those guys to really see where they are at physically.
Q. Pantale seems a little tall to be a fullback, doesn’t he? He’s about 6-4. Is that a little tall for a fullback?
COACH PEDERSON: Well, yeah if you stereotype a fullback, they are usually those short-neck guys that slam up in there and block linebackers. But you know, I have to look at it from, how much are we going to use that position? [What’s] the value of that position, and if you've got four tight ends active on game day, that's pretty good, because one of them can be a fullback, play special teams [and] all of that comes into play. But I'm not concerned with the size of him. Again, it goes back to once we get the pads on, I just want to see the physical nature of where he's at.
Q. Is Burton working at fullback also?
COACH PEDERSON: A little bit. A little bit. He's another one I want to see back there and just kind of see if he can handle the contact back there.
Q. Your offense requires a little bit more communication between the center and quarterback than former Eagles and current 49ers head coach Chip Kelly's offense did, because of the tempo. How is that process going between C Jason Kelce and Bradford?
COACH PEDERSON: It's great. It's great. This is part of the reason why Chase is here: to teach that verbal communication with Sam and for them to dialogue and bounce these situations and the terminology back and forth.
There is a lot of -- I put more on the quarterback in this system, and it's kind of what I've been accustomed to, even when I was a player with Coach Reid [former Eagles head coach Andy Reid], he put everything on the quarterback and we had to learn it that way.
I think, too, we've got some sharp centers, as you know, with Kelce, and he's a guy that can see the field tremendously. So the quarterback-center communication level has to be at an extreme high. Quarterback has the ultimate say, but between those two, it's been really good this spring.
Q. I know you're regulated by the collective bargaining agreement, but what is your philosophy on hitting once you get into camp?
COACH PEDERSON: How often and how [ever] many times [we can] hit. I fully believe that you've got to practice in pads quite a bit, and I feel like it's important from a timing aspect in your run game.
It's just so important, not only offensively, but defensively, as well, for linebackers and safeties and guys that need to be around the line of scrimmage and make plays. [It’s important for] run lanes and blitzes and all of that needs to be done in pads.
I'm a big believer in putting the pads on and banging a little bit. And the way training camp is structured, we'll test them for about three or four days, kind of go hard, and then we'll back off a little bit, take the pads off, let them recover, put them back on, let them recover again and just kind of ramp up to the regular season that way.
Q. Will you actually tackle?
COACH PEDERSON: I'll have a couple of periods the entire training camp that will be live periods. Everything else will be ‘thud.’ Everything will be point of contact, tap off, let him go. But just being able to be in pads for run fits and all of that, yeah, we'll definitely do that.
Q. What has been keeping CB Eric Rowe from playing with the first team?
COACH PEDERSON: Well, I think he's been learning a new system. He's a tremendous talent, he's a long corner [and he is] learning some techniques that Jim [Schwartz] is bringing and Coach Undlin [defensive backs coach Cory Undlin] is teaching. It's just a growth process. It's a learning process. Even though he played some games last year, you come in and you think you have an opportunity to play, and then with the talent that we've brought in around him, it challenges guys that way and it's all part of the competition factor at those positions. He's doing a nice job. He's doing a nice job. He's got some learning to do, but fully confident that he can handle it and get the job done.
Q. How did Sproles look to you yesterday?
COACH PEDERSON: He looked fast. He looked quick. He looked like he was ready to go. I didn't think he really missed a beat from a workout standpoint. Kept himself in great shape and everything. And it's the first time, really, that I've had a chance to see him in person. From what everybody has told me, it holds true, he's the hardest worker on the football team, works hard in the offseason and gets himself ready to go. He’s a 13-year guy that knows how to get himself prepared. So I liked what I saw yesterday.
Q. You said that you want the players to get away in the coming weeks. What do you and your staff do?
COACH PEDERSON: Get away. Shut it down. Shut it down. I encourage my guys and my coaches, that this is their time to spend time with their families. This is the time to recharge their batteries because when we come back on July 24, we are in it and the grind is on. Get away from it, prepare themselves for the long haul and enjoy the time off.
Q. Does Wentz go deep more than the other two quarterbacks in these sessions because that’s his personality or are those the reads he is most comfortable with at this point?
COACH PEDERSON: Most of it's the reads. There are a couple decisions that he's made that we've corrected based on some of the throws he's made deep. You probably saw one yesterday: the interception was not a great decision. But again, it's part of learning the system. But he has a natural ability to throw the ball down the field and that's what you like. You love the aggression. You want to be able to push it down the field. And some of it is by play design and some of it is just by sheer mistake. But man, I love seeing the ball go over the top at times.