If you read my articles throughout the season, you probably know that I wasn't a big fan of Wendell Smallwood. However, one of the reasons I like writing about the Eagles young players in the offseason is that I get a chance to watch them in-depth again. I get a much better feel for a players strengths and weaknesses when I go back and watch them and sometimes I even change my opinion on them. I wrote about Jalen Mills last time, you can check that out here if you missed it.
I decided it was a good time to go back and watch Smallwood because I'm currently watching the running backs in this years draft class. I am pretty sure we all agree that Smallwood is not going to be the Eagles feature back next year if Ryan Mathews is gone. But whether or not the Eagles coaching staff see Smallwood as a competent number 2 running back who can split the load with a feature back or someone who really shouldn't be playing at all will be important in determining their plan for the running back position in the offseason. Obviously I can't post clips of every play, so I'll post clips of things I see multiple times. You may have seen a couple of these clips throughout the season but most of them are new and I go into more detail here. I'll start with the good, then look at the bad and then conclude with my overall thoughts on Smallwood.
For someone who is only around 208 pounds and 5'10" you probably wouldn't expect Smallwood to be able to bounce off many tackles. He has a unique ability to do this though, and it often involves him spinning to create extra yardage.
Here you can see this weird spin move that he does quite often when he initiates contact with a defender. You can see that Smallwood has a pretty good initial burst to get going and he uses this acceleration to avoid defensive tackles when they break through line of scrimmage (as they do here against Jason Kelce, shock). I think Smallwood has really good natural balance and it means he can get skinny and get through small gaps like the one above while remaining on his feet. He also runs tough and isn't afraid of contact despite carrying a small frame.
The above play shows off that ability to get skinny through a small gap again and shows his good acceleration too. Smallwood's biggest strength is that when there is a crease available he finds it extremely quickly and darts through it. He always hits the crease with a good pad level and knows where the play is supposed to go. Obviously you would love it if he was able to break that tackle at the end, but I think in the end it's a really good play by the defensive back and Smallwood is nearly able to sidestep him.
Here's the spin move again! This time he actually manages to just about stay on his feet after the spin move and he manages to fall forward for about 5 more yards after being hit. It's a pretty nice skill to have. Once again you can see that he doesn't hesitate behind the line of scrimmage and he hits the hole hard. Although this is good when the play is blocked well, it does mean he struggles to create something out of nothing (more on that later). Even throughout the season when I didn't think much of Smallwood, I was always impressed with his balance. I think his low pad level and low centre of gravity means he is able to stay on his feet after contact like he does here.
This was one of my favorite runs from Smallwood. Once again I like how he is able to stay upright when squeezing through a tight gap. I also like the way he uses a very tiny slight stiff arm to make sure the linebacker isn't able to slow him down. I don't think he's that fast but he can accelerate through these little creases pretty well. What I like about this run too is his little stutter before the safety is able to come over to him in the open field. That very small stutter causes the safety to take a poor angle and then Smallwood turns on the jets and is able to get away from him and create a couple of extra yards.
I think it's obvious after a few clips what Smallwood's strengths are. This play shows some nice vision from Smallwood and once again some good acceleration to jump through the gap. He manages to spin off another tackle and for a smaller back he does run hard and has a little bit of power to him. He's never going to power through defensive lineman or linebackers, but he can create some extra yards after contact against defensive backs, especially when he does this weird spin move.
I didn't really see a great deal of strengths in Smallwood's game, despite watching almost every one of his runs from last year. Sadly, I saw quite a few weaknesses.
You see a lot of runs like this one. As I mentioned earlier, when there is a gap he will shoot through it instantly and get whatever he can. This can be good, but it also means sometimes he misses a big hole or a chance at a big play. Here for example, he decides to try and squeeze through a tiny gap. You can see that he never really stops or shows any patience, he just hits the hole straight away. If he hesitated slightly, he would see there was a huge cutback lane. Yes, there was a linebacker in the cutback lane, but Brandon Brooks is coming across the formation to block him. Smallwood could also fake like he is going to go straight through the first hole, and then cut it back sharply to try and deceive the linebacker. I don't think he has particularly good vision and I also don't think he shows much patience.
Something else he isn't particularly good at - making people miss. You rarely see him break a tackle or completely juke someone. Here I'm probably being slightly critical, but there's absolutely nobody out to his right. He could see the linebacker coming towards him, I would rather he hesitated slightly, juked to the outside and then tried to get to the corner. Maybe the coaching staff is simply telling him to get whatever he can. I feel like there were multiple chances for him to create a couple of big plays but he was never able to do it. He is not a creative runner and seems to only be able to get what is blocked for him.
Now, I've put this in the bad column but I think this is a good play, although it's mainly down to the blocking and not Smallwood. I have put it here though, because once again he fails to make a safety miss in a one on one situation. He seems to only have 1 speed as a runner and it makes it extremely hard for him to juke defensive backs because he's moving very quickly. I could be over critical here, but I would just like to see him make someone miss. He doesn't seem to have a very good jump cut, if he did have one surely he would use it here. It seems far too easy for the safety to make this tackle. Imagine if this was Shady McCoy running at the safety, he's not getting tackled this easy.
None of the 3 plays I have in the bad so far are terrible plays by Smallwood. They just aren't good. I barely ever saw him make anyone miss or create a positive play out of nothing. His vision is definitely poor too, as the next clip shows.
On play 1, his vision is poor. There's no point running into the back of your offensive lineman. If the play isn't blocked that well, then do something, take a risk, cut it to the outside and try to find a lane. He seems desperate to hit the hole straight away and not even consider the idea of cutting it back or showing some patience and seeing what opens up in front of him. Not everyone is Le'Veon Bell, but you have to be a little bit more patient than this. Play 2 isn't a lot better, there's a gap between Peters and Celek and he looks like he's going to run through it but then decides to charge up the middle and get nothing instead. I think he sees the safety coming from deep to close the hole, but you shouldn't be afraid of him. Run straight at him and try and make him miss. Not everyone can be blocked. Both these plays show a lack of creativity from Smallwood and the inability to make something happen when the hole isn't huge.
Smallwood also has other problems, unrelated to rushing the ball.
When Smallwood came out of college, he was seen by many as a good 3rd down back as he could pass block and was very good out the backfield. His tape from this year did not back up those claims. Smallwood was only targeted 12 times all season and he only caught 6 of them. 4 of them came against the Seahawks too and most of them were short checkdowns when the Seahawks were in prevent mode at the end of the game. They weren't proper routes he was just turning around and catching it instantly. On this play he actually runs a pretty decent route but he then drops it, not ideal. The Eagles run a lot of screens and they barely ever used Smallwood on them, maybe that's a sign that the coaching staff weren't too impressed with what they saw.
Smallwood has one other big issue that meant he couldn't be trusted on 3rd down, which led to him catching only 6 balls all season. His pass protection wasn't very good. Here he shows a lack of awareness, for some reason he seems to think number 50 is blitzing despite the fact he clearly isn't. He's way too far forward and this play results in Wentz getting crushed and throwing an interception. So yeah, he's gotta do better than this.
Here again, he totally blows his assignment. In his defense, the stunt the Falcons run here is designed to cause confusion. But Smallwood has to see this coming and realise that Kelce is blocking number 45 so he has to take the other one. I don't think Smallwood is a bad pass protector in normal one on one situations. But he doesn't have very good awareness and gets confused too often which leads to plays like the two above.
I haven't really changed my mind on Wendall Smallwood. He does a few more positive things than I initially thought though. He runs tougher than I realised and has quite a physical style for a smaller back. He has good pad level and often attacks defenders by lowering his shoulder. This allows him to get some yards after contact and he uses his spin move frequently to bounce off defenders and fall forward for a couple more yards. He has a good initial burst and he can get skinny and burst through a small gap quickly. He is also very good balance when running through gaps.
He has a few major weaknesses though. Firstly, he rarely makes defenders miss. Having that physical style is impressive for a smaller back, but he isn't going to run over NFL defensive lineman or linebackers with his size. I watched at least 50 of his 77 carries for this piece and I can't remember seeing him make more than 2 or 3 defenders miss. Byron Marshall made more defenders miss in 1 game against the Baltimore Ravens than I saw from Smallwood all year. He doesn't have the ability to jump cut quickly and despite having a good initial burst, he is a 1 speed runner who really only ever gets what is blocked.
Secondly, his vision can be really poor at times. He doesn't show any patience and will often charge up the middle into his offensive lineman rather than hesitate and try to find a lane. He isn't a very creative runner and he doesn't have the ability to create yards when the play has broken down. Finally, his pass blocking was poor and he wasn't a threat out of the backfield at all.
For a team that desperately needs playmakers on offense, Smallwood doesn't look like one. There's no way he's the feature back next year. He could maybe be an okay change of pace back, but I would rather have a more explosive and dynamic number 2 back who could have game changing plays. It is worth noting that Smallwood was supposed to be very good in pass protection and at receiving out of the backfield coming out of college. If he shows he can do that next year, then he could play the role of a change of pace back better. I still think players like Marshall (and a lot of players in this years draft class) have a lot more upside than Smallwood though. However, I wouldn't write him off just yet because it was only his rookie season, but I didn't see a lot to get excited about.