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Figuring how the Eagles’ running back rotation will play out

Eagles training camp position preview.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles-Minicamp Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles training camp 2017 is almost here. The first practice starts on July 24. The Eagles' entire training camp schedule, including information on practices open to the public, can be found by clicking here. As we count down the days together, Bleeding Green Nation will be previewing every position on the Eagles roster. We continue today by taking a look at the running back group.

The Players

LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles, Donnel Pumphrey, Wendell Smallwood, Byron Marshall, Corey Clement, Ryan Mathews

In last year’s running back preview, I wrote about how the Eagles’ running back situation was very sketchy. Sure enough, my concerns were confirmed during the 2016 season. To no one’s surprise, Mathews couldn’t stay healthy. Sproles became the lead rusher at one point. Smallwood gave you what you’d expect from a fifth-round pick.

Philadelphia’s lacking run game put way too much pressure on Wentz to throw the ball. As a result, Wentz attempted the second most passes of any rookie in NFL history. This situation can’t happen again in 2017. Doug Pederson needs to do a better job of sticking with the run. It’s not all on Pederson, though, he needs rushers he can actually rely on.

That’s where Blount comes in. Prior to the Eagles’ signing of Blount, I feared the team’s running back situation was going to be even worse than last year. But Blount feels like an upgrade over Mathews. For one, Blount is more reliable. He’s appeared in 100 out of 112 possible games (89.3%). Compare that figure to Mathews, who has only been available for 86 out of 112 games (76.8%) and is constantly dealing with nagging injuries.

There are concerns with Blount. He’s coming off a big workload following 299 carries for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns with New England last season. He hasn’t played as well away from the Patriots, so that’s something to think about. Blount is also a complete non-factor as a receiver.

Despite these issues, Blount figures to be a solid one-year stop gap for the Eagles. He gives the team a guy who can handle the bulk of carries each week. The 250-pound Blount also provides value as a big body who can help the team in converting short-yardage and red-zone situations.

ESPN projects Blount will handle 191 carries this season for 785 yards and seven touchdowns. That seems reasonable.

Sproles has never been a full-time player but the Eagles were forced to rely on him as one at times last season. In what’s expected to be his last season in the league, the Eagles probably won’t shy away from using Sproles often. ESPN projects he’ll handle 89 carries for 393 yards and four touchdowns along with 49 receptions for 383 receiving yards and one receiving score. Sproles is still one of the best role players in the NFL despite his age. He’s been a treasure to watch and it’ll be sad to see him go after this season if he indeed retires. Here’s hoping he goes out on a high note.

The Eagles clearly like Pumphrey or else they wouldn’t have traded up ahead of the Cowboys (who also desired him) in the fourth round to select him. Pumphrey was an incredibly productive runner in college. It remains to be seen how the 5-8, 176 pounder’s game translates to the NFL, however. In spring practices, the Eagles often used Pumphrey as a pass catcher. ESPN projects 169 yards and one touchdown for Pumphrey on 41 carries. They also have him catching 27 passes for 210 yards. He could prove to be a nifty role player for the Eagles.

Smallwood showed some positive flashes as a rookie, but it wasn’t enough for the team to place a lot of confidence in him as the full-time starter moving forward. Now he’s part of a heavy rotation along with three other running backs. The 2016 fifth-round pick could really use a strong summer in order to make sure he has a regular role in the team’s rotation. ESPN projects Smallwood to get 53 carries for 216 rushing yards. That figure could really go up if Blount gets hurt or completely struggles because he’s the only other back who makes sense as a lead guy.

Marshall got called up to the 53-man roster last year after spending most of the season on the practice squad. He only averaged 3.4 yards per carry so he still has a lot to prove. He could very well end up on the scout team again this year.

Some thought Clement would be selected in the 2017 NFL Draft but that wasn’t the case. It looked like the Glassboro native had a reasonable shot to stick with the Eagles prior to when the team signed Blount. Now his best realistic outcome is making the practice squad (or hoping another team claims him on waivers).

Mathews is still on the Eagles’ roster as they wait for him to get healthy enough to cut him. If the Eagles cut him when he’s healthy, they save $4 million in cap space that can be rolled over to next year. If the Eagles have to waive Mathews with an injury settlement, they save less money.

If Mathews didn’t get hurt late last year, the Eagles probably could have traded him this offseason. Not for some kind of major haul, of course, but for something at least. Mathews isn’t too expensive and he’s pretty talented. Consider that since 2010, only three NFL running backs have had five seasons with at least six rushing scores: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and Mathews. The problem is he just can never stay healthy.

How will it play out?

I already revealed ESPN’s projections for the running back rotation in the text above. I’ll list them again below to make it more convenient to read.

Blount: 191 carries, 785 yards, 7.3 TD - 9 receptions, 66 yards, 0.3 TD

Sproles: 89 carries, 393 yards, 2.9 TD - 49 receptions, 383 yards, 1.1 TD

Smallwood: 53 carries, 216 yards, 1.6 TD - 4 receptions, 35 yards, 0.1 TD

Pumphrey: 41 carries, 169 yards, 1.0 TD - 27 receptions, 210 yards, 0.6 TD

Blount will be the main guy. Sproles will be Sproles. Pumphrey and Smallwood will be rotational role players with Pumphrey featured more in the passing game and Smallwood taking more of a running role.

Clement and Marshall could be battling for one practice squad spot. The Eagles might want to keep the former because the latter’s skill set is redundant with Sproles and Pumphrey on the roster.

Who could be a surprise cut?

Some might think Smallwood could be cut but I’m not one of them. I wrote about this recently:

This wasn’t a great offseason for Smallwood because he’s fallen behind LeGarrette Blount, Sproles, and Pumphrey on the depth chart. But he’s still an important player at his position. Smallwood could be the team’s kick returner. He also could be handling a bulk of the team’s carries if Blount is ineffective or injured.

Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley really likes Smallwood. That was a big factor when Smallwood was drafted last year. They’re not going to give up on him this soon.

No other surprises here.

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