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Eagles need to find an answer at running back this offseason

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Running the ball still helps win games.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I’d like to imagine when Henri Matisse said, “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter - a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue,” he was talking about modern-day NFL offenses.

Probably not, but you never know. Maybe Matisse understood that NFL teams are at their best when passing and running equally well. The Eagles should heed Matisse’s probably-football-related musing: after two straight years with subpar performances from their running backs, the team needs to get back to offensive balance if they want to take a step towards relevance.

Since 2000, the Eagles have finished in the Top 10 in rushing yards per attempt 11 times. The team’s collective winning percentage in those years was .619, including a five-year stretch from 2000 to 2004 in which the Eagles went 59-21.

There were anomalies, which happens. In 2011, the Eagles finished third in rushing yards per attempt but won just eight games. The next year they finished eighth in rushing yards per attempt but won just four games. Still, on the whole, running the ball well every time led to more wins.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a revolutionary discovery. Being good at running the ball is good for team-wide success. Duh.

But the Eagles haven’t ranked in the top 10 since the first year of the Chip Kelly era, largely because he jettisoned uber-productive LeSean McCoy after 2014 and the team has failed to find a suitable replacement ever since.

The NFL is shifting evermore towards being a pass-first-and-second-and-third league, but a good running game remains key. Both Super Bowl teams this season had a top 10 running back.

Take this year’s Falcons team as a prime example. With league MVP Matt Ryan playing the best season of his career, Atlanta ranked third in passing yards, second in passing touchdowns, and first in net passing yards per attempt.

But they ranked 26th in the league in passing attempts! I was amazed by how low that number was. Twenty-five teams threw more passes than the Falcons, the best passing team in the league this year? Talk about efficiency.

It helped that the Falcons were rolling out a devastating one-two punch with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the backfield. They ranked 12th in rushing attempts, third in touchdowns, and fifth in the aforementioned rushing yards per attempt.

Freeman was decidedly the team’s bell cow, finishing with 227 attempts and over 1,000 yards. It’s always nice to have a lead back. It was also nice to have Coleman, who gave Freeman time to breathe during long drives: the Falcons averaged the fourth-longest drives in the league, which happens when you can run the ball. Coleman ran 118 times and averaged 4.4 yards per carry.

Now, let’s look at the Eagles’ running back situation.

Ryan Mathews is injury prone, turns 30 next season, and can save the team $4 million by finding a new home in 2017.

Darren Sproles turns 34 this summer, is more valuable catching passes than running the ball, and has said publicly he will be retiring after this upcoming season.

Could Wendell Smallwood be the Eagles’ Tevin Coleman? He looked solid in his rookie season, and can certainly keep growing, but he doesn’t seem ticketed to become a 1,000-yard-type lead running back.

Kenjon Barner doesn’t offer very much, and is only getting older. Byron Marshall deserves another offseason of looks, but probably isn’t an answer to the questions the Eagles should be asking about their running backs.

The Eagles need a real, long-term answer to the running back question. They’re probably best-served going after one in the draft, but to try and be all-encompassing, let’s first look at free agent running backs the Eagles could pursue.

There are 11 running backs slated to become free agents in early March who are younger than 27 years old. Of those 11, only three ran for at least 500 yards last season: Le’Veon Bell, Latavius Murray, and Christine Michael. Outside of that trio (and even inside that trio), there’s not much to look at.

Bell isn’t going anywhere, and even if he did, the Eagles would never have the money to afford him. Murray wants to stay in Oakland. If he ends up hitting the open market, the Eagles should investigate, but if his price is even the slightest bit too high, look elsewhere. And Michael… well, he had a good start to the season in Seattle, but couldn’t even hold that job done for an entire year. Hard pass.

So, yep, the Draft it is. Is a top-15 first-round draft pick too much to invest in a running back, a position with seriously depreciated value in the last few years, when solid options can probably be found in later rounds? Names like Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette will be tempting, but what about taking someone like Semaje Perine in the second round instead?

There’s a good case to be made for waiting to pull the trigger on a running back in the Draft. Just look at the leading rushers in the NFL this season. Only one of the 10 most prolific rushers this year was a first-round pick: Ezekiel Elliott. There were two second-round picks, two third-round picks, two fourth-round picks, two fifth-round picks, and an undrafted free agent rounding out the top 10.

If the Eagles truly think a player like Cook or Fournette has the potential to be a 1,000-yard rusher for the next five or so years, they should make the pick. As Elliott showed last year, sometimes a special player is worth investing big resources.

But it might be prudent to wait until the second, or even third, round to take a runner in a Draft loaded with running back talent, and use that first-round pick on another of their roster’s abundant holes.

In any case, it’s clear the Eagles should be looking seriously at finding a solution to their repeated inconsistency at running back. Stud running backs don’t hold the same weight in the NFL as they used to, as the league continues to embrace the pass. But a good, efficient running game will take pressure off Carson Wentz, balance the team’s offense, and keep the ball in the Eagles’ hands while opponents sit, helpless, and wait.