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Position review: running back

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Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Continuing our positional seasonal reviews, we move on to running backs. The Eagles got about the best they could out of what they had, but what they had wasn’t enough.

Ryan Mathews

Mathews had a typical season for his career: when he was healthy he was an effective and tough runner. He set a career high with 8 touchdowns, and his 50% conversion rate on third down was in line with his career average. Though he’s never been much of a receiver, his 8.8 yards per catch was the second best rate of his career.

But for the sixth time in his seven seasons, he did not play a 16 game season, missing three games. His fumble against the Lions cost the team a win, and he spent the middle of the season as a role player. In back-to-back one score losses to the Giants and Cowboys he played just 8 snaps in each game. He played less than a third of snaps in six games; the Eagles were 4-3 when he played more than a third of snaps, which says more about how the Eagles offense performed when it had a good run/pass balance than it does about Mathews.

Verdict: Thumbs down. Mathews was hit or miss, and the Eagles save $4 million parting with him and need to move on. The Eagles may have been able to get a late conditional pick for Mathews from a team in desperate need of some running back depth, but his season ending herniated vertebrae killed any trade value he may have had.

Darren Sproles

It’s almost unheard of for 33 year old running backs to set a career high in carries. Since the merger, only Larry Csonka (33) and John Riggins (34) have done it, icons of a completely different era of football. Add Darren Sproles to that list, whose 94 rushing attempts were, by one carry, a career high. With it he was effective with 4.7 yards per carry and 8.2 yards per reception, averages that are below his career norms but significant improvements from his 2015 season. His 24.7% broken tackle rate (per Football Outsiders) was excellent, 6th among running backs with at least 50 rushing attempts. His 17 punt returns were a career low, but his 13.2 yards per return were a career high and the 5th best of players with more than one punt return.

But that improved play may have come at a price. Since snap counts were officially recorded in 2012, he played a career high in 2016 with 509 snaps and 49% of offensive snaps, but had a career low in special teams snaps with 62 for 6.5%. The wear and tear on Sproles was significant, he sat out OTAs to spend time with his family and at the end of the season spoke about possibly retiring this offseason, citing being there for his family as his primary motivation. His concussion in the Redskins game that kept him out for a week could be a deciding factor. Eagles fans shouldn’t be surprised if Sproles retires at some point in the offseason.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Sproles was the most reliable skill position player for the Eagles, and if and when the Eagles add an every down back in the offseason, his workload should be reduced. If he wants to come back.

Wendell Smallwood

In the preseason Doug Pederson spoke of Wendell Smallwood’s potential to be an every down back, and then when injuries and reduced playing time for Ryan Mathews came, Pederson never gave him the opportunity to be one.

Maybe he should have. Smallwood gained a first down on 26% of his carries, the 11th best rate of players with at least 50 rushing attempts, and converted half of his 3rd down attempts. His six receptions (on 13 targets) went for an excellent 9.2 yards per reception. Smallwood is likely not an every down back, but more playing time was warranted for 2016. For a 5th round draft pick, that’s a good return.

He also added value on special teams, he was one of seven players to return a kickoff for a touchdown.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The Eagles need a starting running back, but with Sproles and Smallwood, they’ve got the backup spots covered.

Kenjon Barner

The fourth string running running back and part time special teams player, Barner had career highs in rushing yards (129) and receiving yards (42), and scored the only touchdowns of his career with two. His 30.8 yards per kick return were the second best of any player with more than one return (but wasn’t significantly better than Wendell Smallwood’s 29.0). He was a redundant player who had a couple of nice plays but not much else. He was also a healthy scratch following Doug Pederson’s comments about player effort, but then was back in the lineup the following week.

Verdict: Thumbs down. Barner will be 28 when the 2017 season starts, if the Eagles are going to carry four running backs again, they would be better served with a younger player taking his spot.

Byron Marshall

Marshall spent all but the last three games on the practice squad, and was boom or bust in his 19 carriers, with four runs of 10+ yards, and three runs of at least -4 yards. A prolific receiver during his junior year in college, he caught just three passes in three games this season. In his two games of real playing time he started off slowly but then improved as the game went on.

Verdict: Thumbs up. To the eye, Marshall showed some skill in his very limited playing time. The Eagles might have something with him, they might not, but he’s worth another look at in the preseason.

Terrell Watson

Watson played in just one game, but scored a touchdown against the Cowboys, giving his great story a great moment in the pros.

Verdict: Thumbs up. He’ll always have the Dallas game.