It’s no question the Eagles need a starting running back, not just for 2017 but for beyond. Ryan Mathews was the team’s leading rusher, but spent the middle of the season as a backup, ended it with a serious injury, and there are significant cap savings from releasing him. Darren Sproles is not a starting running back, and 2017 is probably his last season. Wendell Smallwood showed some promise, but got just six touches a game on average when there were plenty of opportunities for more. Byron Marshall and Terrell Watson have a chance to carve out a role as a backup, expectations for them shouldn’t exceed that.
But there is the question of how and where to get a starting running back.
Sign one in free agency? There might be options there, Le’Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy and Latavious Murray are all scheduled to be free agents, one of them may actually hit the market; and Jamaal Charles could be a cap casualty in Kansas City.
Draft one? The depth of talent at running back in the draft this year is very good, it makes a lot of sense to go that route. With Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Donta Foreman, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffery, Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Donnell Pumphrey and others in this draft, it’s pretty well stocked.
Both approaches have their rewards. The quarterbacks in the Super Bowl would know, they have seen all types be successful. In Matt Ryan’s rookie year, the Falcons signed Michael Turner, who had spent four years as a caddie to LaDainian Tomlinson. Turner gave them a workhorse to lighten the load on Ryan, leading the league in carries and finishing second in the league in rushing yards and touchdowns, and the Falcons went 11-5 and made the playoffs. In the Super Bowl, Ryan has Devonta Freeman, a 4th round draft pick in 2014, and Tevin Coleman, a 3rd in 2015 who have combined for one of the league’s best running offenses. Tom Brady has seen everything in his career and running back is no exception. In his first Super Bowl winning season, the Patriots signed Antowain Smith, whose 1157 yards rushing and 12 TDs gave the Patriots a balanced offense. Brady won his third with Corey Dillon finishing third in the league in rushing yards. His fourth ring came with a textbook example of running back by committee: despite the team’s leading rusher having just 412 yards the Patriots finished 18th in rushing yards and four different runners scored multiple touchdowns. In the Super Bowl, he’ll have free agents LeGarrett Blount and Dion Lewis leading the way at a combined cap hit of just over $2 million.
There are different solutions, but there’s no foolproof plan either, as both approaches have their downsides.
Like drafting a wide receiver, giving Carson Wentz a weapon in the backfield to grow with is a natural and logical pairing. Doug Pederson wants to run the ball, and we saw in 2016 that when the Eagles offense is balanced, the team wins. But drafting a running back is a risky proposition. Every year there are hidden gems at the position, such as Jordan Howard’s 1313 yards after being a 5th round pick last year, or Jay Ayaji (4th round 2015) or Latavius Murry (6th round 2014) climbing to the top of the depth chart in their second year. But for each of those success stories, there are many more who aren’t. Terrance West, taken in the 3rd round in 2014, is on his third team in as many years, and fellow 3rd rounders that year Charles Sims, Tre Mason and Jerrick McKinnon have stalled as backups. The 2013 2nd round produced Le’Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy and Giovanni Bernard, which is an impressive haul, but also Montee Ball, who hasn’t played a down since 2014. DeVonta Freeman’s fellow 2014 4th rounders are Andre Williams, who has already changed teams, Lorenzo Taliaferro, who has spent part of every season on IR, and James White, who is the Patriots third string running back. Like every other position, the earlier you take a running back, the better. There’s always early round busts and late round steals, but plugging and playing a rookie RB isn’t so easy. If it was, Wendell Smallwood would have played more than 164 snaps.
And as Eagles fans saw in 2015, signing the top guy in free agency can be a fool’s errand. With wide receiver and cornerback more dire needs in free agency and the draft, an approach closer to running back by committee is an option, though much less attractive. The Eagles carried four running backs on the active game day roster in 2016 and very well may do so again. Bringing in a free agent to replace Ryan Mathews’ tough running role, Wendell Smallwood getting an increase in touches, and taking another late rounder to fill Kenjon Barner’s roster spot would be a patient and potentially very cost effective move for a rebuilding team. Or it could lead to them having another season struggling to consistently run the ball.
There’s arguments for each approach. Over the past couple of weeks we have looked at options at wide receiver and offensive line. This week, we’ll explore all the options at running back, a position that needs to be addressed but has a few routes to choose from.