It's only been pointed out a thousand times that the Eagles don't have a great running back situation heading into the 2016 season. Philadelphia's projected starter Ryan Mathews suffered an injury before training camp even began. Darren Sproles turns 34 after this season. Fifth round pick Wendell Smallwood desperately needs to improve in pass protection. Undrafted rookie Byron Marshall missed all of the Eagles' spring practices. Fellow UDFA running back Cedric O'Neal wasn't even listed on the top 1000 NFL draft prospects as ranked by CBS Sports.
The one wildcard in the Eagles' backfield, if you want to call him that, could be Kenjon Barner. On one hand, the 27-year-old hasn't done much to impress during the 19 NFL games he's played in. He's rushed for 131 yards on 34 career attempts, which is a mere 3.9 average. As a receiver, he's caught 11 receptions for 29 yards. Barner has more fumbles to his name (2) than touchdowns scored (0).
Despite his lack of production, the Eagles' coaching staff has given Barner a lot of praise this offseason. Look at what Doug Pederson had to say back in June.
Doing really well. Kenjon is having a good spring. Really been excited about him [...]
OK, so that's mild, and Pederson was specifically asked about him. But here's a response from Pederson when being asked about the running back position (other than Sproles) in general. He mentioned Barner's name first.
I mean, right now the running back [position], we've got a lot of talent right there. We've got some young talent. Kenjon Barner is a kid that has shown some good strides this offseason picking up the offense [...]
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich had the strongest praise we've heard for Barner so far.
Kenjon [Barner], I think is a really good, all-around back. He can make you miss in the open field. I like his vision. He's doing great in protections. I've been very impressed with him the whole offseason. Of course, when we got here everyone was in my ear about how good this guy is going to be a player, and that's what we're seeing.
With all due respect, who exactly was in Reich's ear about Barner? It's one thing to say a player is having a nice camp. It's another thing to go out of the way to tell a little story like that.
Now, a lot of people reading this are probably going to think 'Did you expect the coaches to publicly say something bad about a player?' And no, of course not. For the most part, they're always going to praise their players. But the Barner praise has extended beyond just post-practice press conferences. Reich also reportedly praised the former Oregon running back during a question and answer event he did a few months ago.
"Kenjon Barner has caught the coaches' eyes and we are excited about him. I had Ryan (Mathews) with the Chargers for a bit so I know some of what he is bringing, and then Sproles just makes us dynamic. Smallwood is a talent that will compete, we have got a good backfield."
Going further, Eagles insider Dave Spadaro is known for dropping some hints in his columns. He wrote about Barner earlier this offseason.
This is not a great draft for running backs, but there are some prospects in the late rounds. Are any of them better than Kenjon Barner, who has worked so hard on his body in this offseason. I chatted with him briefly on Tuesday morning and he said he’s reduced his body fat and has added muscle. His arms are huge now and he’s bulked up his legs, too. Barner had a terrific preseason in 2015 and could be a player who has a more prominent role in the offense in 2016.
Spadaro's most recent column makes it sound like Barner is already a lock to make the team.
[Ryan] Mathews is going to rotate at running back as the Eagles work in Darren Sproles, Kenjon Barner and rookie Wendell Smallwood. This is shaping up to be a running back-by-committee approach in the backfield.
Pederson did say earlier this offseason that he expects the Eagles to use a committee at running back. Barner likely won't be used in a feature back role any time soon, if ever, but it does seem like he's in the mix for some touches this season. Adjust your 53-man roster predictions and fantasy football expectations accordingly.