While Carson Wentz was the catalyst of the Eagles offense in 2017; the team still ranked third in the NFL with over 130 rushing yards per game. The Eagles deployed a three headed monster of LeGarrette Blount (766 yards and two touchdowns), Jay Ajayi (408 yards and one touchdown) and Corey Clement (321 Yards and four touchdowns) to add balance to the offense and grind down defenses with the backs’ power.
Heading into the offseason, Jay Ajayi is in position to take over the Eagles lead back role next season. After being traded from Miami, Ajayi saw his touches incrementally increase over his time with Philadelphia until the post season where he actually lead the team in rushing attempts and yardage. With LeGarrette Blount sitting at 31 years old, the team may decide to move on from him and hand the reins to Ajayi in the running game.
The slight predicament for Ajayi comes with next season being a contract year and the fact that there is long term concerns about his health (particularly his knees). It will be interesting to see if the team considers taking a (relative) risk in extending him beyond his rookie contract because of that. But I may be getting ahead of myself. Ajayi is no doubt a talented back and added a nice element to the offense and he will be a big part of the team for at least another year.
As for Corey Clement; the rookie went from undrafted free agent to being a key role-player in the running and passing game. While he did not see a lot of touches, he did make the most out of every one; scoring six offensive touchdowns in the regular season despite only seeing the ball a total of 84 times. Clement was a valuable contributor, especially as a pass catcher out of the backfield. He was very good in the screen game as well as going down the field for passes as he did so many times in the post season. There is no doubt there will be a role for him on next year’s team.
So should the theoretical combination of Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement prevent the Eagles from grabbing a running back in this year’s draft? I would argue no.
First of all; while Ajayi and Clement are definitely good players in this offense, neither gives the team a home run threat element. Ajayi and Clement both are certainly not bad athletes, but their games are definitely not predicated on breaking away from defenses. This is an element the team has lacked for a while and only got in flashes this year with some plays in their passing game. However having that threat in the backfield would add a whole new dynamic to an already dangerous offense that teams would need to game plan for. The prospect of taking this offense from very good (as it was in 2017) to elite is a bit too enticing of a prospect.
Second of all; last year’s draft showed that sometimes adding a running back regardless of current talent on the roster can do a lot for an offense. The Saints brilliantly added Alvin Kamara despite already having Mark Ingram and paying Adrian Peterson. The Chiefs drafted Kareem Hunt when Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware were already established playmakers for them. The Bears had a 1,000 yard rushing rookie in 2016 but added Tarik Cohen to add more juice to their offense. The list goes on.
There are a handful of very good running backs in this class and while the need for running back is not nearly as pressing as it was a year ago; it remains enticing to add a guy to this offense who can house any carry.
With the Eagles picking 32nd (because they won the Super Bowl), Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice are both pipe dreams unless something crazy happens. However, there are a handful of backs the Eagles might consider, possibly, at 32 or on the second day of the draft.
- Ronald Jones, USC: This is going to be a name I saw over and over again for the next few months. Jones is, to me, the third best back in the class. While he is skinnier than the traditional running back at 6’0” and 200 pounds; he is an incredibly gifted runner who is tough, fast as hell and can put the moves on a defender. He would definitely be the type of player who would need to be taken in the first 50 picks.
- Sony Michel, UGA: One half of Georgia’s tremendous tandem of running backs; Sony Michel not only has game breaking elusiveness but he can also be a dangerous pass catcher out of the backfield.
- Rashaad Penny, SDSU: While Rashaad Penny may not be the classic speed type of running back; he still has the athleticism to break away from defenses. The 220 pounder is a do it all back who can contribute on passing downs and as a returner.
- Nick Chubb, UGA: Nick Chubb might not be as game breaking as his teammate, but he is a damn good running back and one hell of an athlete. Chubb would more be in the mold of Jay Ajayi, but faster and honestly what offense would not want that type of player.
- Mark Walton, Miami: Walton might be this year’s Alvin Kamara. That might be a bit rich, but Walton similarly did not see a ton of touches during his career at Miami but will wow people with his athleticism and elusiveness. Walton should hopefully be recovered from an ankle injury by the combine because he will put on a show.
- Royce Freeman, Oregon: Royce Freeman probably is not running away from defenses like a lot of his peers here, but he remains a very good prospect in this class. Freeman has thrived as a power runner who will bully defenders while picking up yardage. At 230 pounds, he moves very well, and teams could like him earlier in the draft than many expect.
- John Kelly, Tennessee: While Alvin Kamara obviously gets a lot of attention, John Kelly has actually been the lead back for the Vols the last two years. While Kelly has only carried the ball 327 times during his whole three year career, he has shown the ability to be a back at the next level. He is quick, hard running and can add something to the passing game.
- Kerryon Johnson, Auburn: Kerryon Johnson decided to enter the NFL draft after one season of productive play. While there are some risks in that; Johnson is a hard running, athletic and young prospect that a lot of teams will be intrigued by.
- Nyheim Hines, NC State: Hines flew under the radar all season while dozens of other backs got hype in a loaded college football landscape. However, the 5’9”, 200 pounder is a dynamic runner with tremendous quickness and pass catching ability. It would not be surprising to see him rise late in the process after the combine.
With Wentz returning from injury and the early quarterback outlook a bit unclear; having a loaded backfield could help take some pressure off the passing game while things slowly return to normal. Long term, it could not hurt to have another young back on the roster who brings a new dynamic to the running game and could potentially take over as the leading rusher if/when Jay Ajayi is on the outs.