Philadelphia Eagles training camp 2016 is almost here. Coaches and players report as soon as Monday, July 25. The Eagles' training camp schedule, including information on practices open to the public, can be found by clicking here. As we count down the days together, Bleeding Green Nation will be previewing every position on the Eagles roster. We continue today by taking a look at the running back position.
Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, Kenjon Barner, Byron Marshall, Cedric O'Neal
"Running-back-by-comittee" is a phrase that gets used when a team lacks one true lead back. As Doug Pederson indicated earlier this offseason, that's the position the Eagles are in. Running back is arguably one of the biggest concerns on Philadelphia's roster. On an offense that already lacks talent, running back might be the most sketchy position.
It appears Ryan Mathews will start out the season as the team's lead back. There's little question Mathews is a talented player. Prior to suffering a groin injury, Mathews rushed for 409 yards and four touchdowns on his first 67 attempts of the season. That was good for a very strong 6.1 yards per attempt. As everyone knows, though, the problem is that Mathews can virtually never stay healthy. He's played all 16 games just once in his six-year NFL career. His physical running style is fun to watch but it clearly takes a toll on himself. Mathews also struggles with fumbles. He lost three balls last year.
Backing up Mathews is 33-year-old Darren Sproles. The veteran skipped all of the team's voluntary workouts before rejoining Philadelphia during minicamp. There's no question Sproles is still one of the best punt returners in the NFL. He lead the league in punt return yards and had the second highest average. There is question, however, about how effective Sproles can be in an offensive role. He's quietly coming off one of his worst seasons in terms of yards per carry and yards per reception. He's not the kind of player the Eagles can count on as a lead back. Despite this, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson says the team expects to use Sproles in an "extensive" role. Perhaps Sproles will spend more time lined up at receiver than he has in the past.
Wendell Smallwood is an intriguing rookie. Expectations are relatively low for the fifth round draft pick. He's not an incredibly tough or elusive runner and his pass protection needs work, so he might not be ready for a lead role just yet. It does seem like the team is very high on him, though. NFL analyst Greg Cosell says the Eagles believe Smallwood can eventually be a feature back. Cosell also compared Smallwood to a lesser Jamaal Charles. Smallwood looked good catching the ball out of the backfield during spring practices. He might not be a full time starter yet but he should be expected to contribute as a rookie.
Kenjon Barner is still around two years after Philadelphia traded for him in 2014. Barner has flashed at times in the preseason as a punt returner but hasn't shown anything special as a runner. He gained 124 yards on 28 attempts last season. Barner might have a chance to make the Eagles this year if the team keeps four running backs. He'll need a strong summer showing in order to make the final cut.
Byron Marshall and Cedric O'Neal are the undrafted rookie free agents in this group. Marshall is an interesting player. He showed big play capability while playing for Oregon. He also has the versatility to contribute at wide receiver. Marshall missed all of OTAs and minicamp due to NCAA rule, so he has a lot of ground to make up this summer. He might be practice squad material. O'Neal is a long shot.
How will it play out?
Mathews will be the lead back until he inevitably gets hurt. Even if Mathews healthy, he'll only be playing on a rotational basis. The Eagles will also look to get Sproles and Smallwood involved. If/when Mathews goes down, it'll be interesting to see how the snaps get split up. Sproles and Smallwood aren't ideal full time players. The Eagles will need to either get Barner more involved, if he makes the team, or call one of the rookies up from the practice squad.
It wouldn't be a shock to see the Eagles try to pick up a running back after final cuts. Even if they don't add one to the 53-man roster, they could look to stash one on the practice squad.
Who could be a surprise cut?
Barner is hardly a proven commodity in the NFL, so it wouldn't be a total surprise to see him cut. He has earned some praise from the coaching staff, though, and I do think the Eagles should keep four running backs (or at least three and one on the practice squad). I wouldn't call Barner getting the axe a surprising cut as much as a notable one.