354 snaps, 181 touches, 816 yards, 3 touchdowns and a glass-eating, finishers’ mentality. That’s the contribution that running back LeGarrette Blount left to be replaced after one year with the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Blount is off to play with the Detroit Lions in 2018 and there’s been much speculation around who on the Eagles roster will fill the “Blount Role.” But what is that role exactly and do the Eagles have the pieces to fill the void?
The belief is that Jay Ajayi will profit most from Blount’s departure and Corey Clement will likely see an increased role, so for this exercise it will be mainly those two that I will be using to compare to Blount. The rest is up in the air so those players will be largely excluded. The return of Darren Sproles will mean less to go around for everybody, but he’s more jitterbug than bruiser. The remainder is a mixed bag with no guarantees for snaps and little known about final roster spots as we approach training camp.
The Eagles were one of the most efficient running teams on 1st down in 2017, ranking 2nd for yards per carry with 4.97. This role doesn’t necessarily need replacing as Ajayi already took it over once he joined the group. Through 12 games (playoffs included) since the trade to acquire Ajayi, the Eagles fed him a team leading 43% of the carries on 1st & 10. He rewarded their trust with a 61-283-4.64-2 stat line.
Despite Ajayi’s solid production, Blount was a more frequent spark on 1st down for the Eagles, averaging a robust 5.30 yards per carry and ripping off 16 gains of 10 or more yards compared to Ajayi’s 9 explosive plays. Still, the Eagles can live off a duplicate performance with similar production from Ajayi.
Two things:— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) June 26, 2018
2. "We don't block ****** corners, we block safeties." - Alex Gibbs pic.twitter.com/b93P2xaVYq
While the Eagles should look to pass to their running backs more on early downs than they did in 2017, as Warren Sharp pointed out in his excellent 2018 Football Preview, that’s not a role that needs replacing due to the departure of Blount. Rather, it’s a role that needs enhancing. The Eagles gave their running backs increased targets in playoffs on 1st and 2nd down, where Ajayi and Clement collected an effective 10 of 12 targets for 86 yards combined. The early down pass catching production should continue to trend upwards for both backs and Sproles.
SHORT MONEY DOWNS…
The league has trended towards passing on 3rd and 4th down with 3 or less yards to go, but the Eagles are an outlier that severely bucks this trend. Excluding red zone plays, the league averages 56% pass on short money downs, the Eagles turn this on its head by running a league high 64% of the time, and it’s not even close.
It would make sense given their tendency to pound the rock in these situations that they would use heavier sets. The numbers bear that out as they rank 7th in personnel that feature less than three wide receivers. They use these heavy sets 41% of the time, 9% above league average, and ran the ball on 64% from those looks. Even with three plus wide receiver sets, they still ran the rock 64% of the time, with their only tell being that they much prefer to pound the rock in short yardage situations no matter the personnel use.
Blount toted the rock on 11 of these occasions, converting on 3 of 11 (27%). Conversely, Clement converted on 5 of his 8 (63%) opportunities and Ajayi went 2 for 3 (67%). For his career, Ajayi is uber-efficient and this role looks very easily replaced with a quick glance at his efficiency next to Blount’s over the last three years (77% vs 44%).
THE FINAL FIVE…
In 2017 the deep red zone role was largely Blount’s domain. This is a notable area for potential improvement in 2018. Last season the Eagles were incredibly inefficient utilizing their ground game as the field compressed. They executed 21 run plays inside the 5-yard line with only 5 touchdowns, ranking 29th in touchdown rate (23.5%). Blount ranks 3rd in touchdowns from 5 yards or less to score from 2015-2017, but there’s more to the story. In 2017 he toted the rock on 12 of those runs, scoring only once and actually losing a yard when all was said and done after having 5 of his runs go for negative yardage.
The Eagles red zone struggles continued into the playoffs, with 8 runs resulting in a lone touchdown. Blount again led the backs in those carries with 4, his touchdown coming on a 1-yard run against the Atlanta Falcons on a beautifully executed G-Lead on 4th down.
Ajayi didn’t record a touch inside the 5-yard line for the Eagles or the Miami Dolphins in the 2017 regular season, but the reason this bodes well for Ajayi is his past effectiveness in this situation. From 2015-2016 he totaled 11 carries and 5 touchdowns, with his 45% efficiency ranking above league average. Additionally, Clement found pay-dirt on 2 of 5 runs last year and Smallwood’s single carry in this area resulted in a 3-yard touchdown.
Jay Ajayi is a grown ass man. pic.twitter.com/WDmvgKXecg— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) July 9, 2017
Overall, the Eagles should experience a positive regression to the mean regarding goal-line touches and the job should go to Ajayi early on. If he struggles, the coaching staff may consider a shorter leash than in the past considering their prolonged struggle to produce last year. In that case, Clement’s eyes will turn pale blue with a film over them as he takes the form of a vulture.
While the Eagles slightly favored Blount in the 1st quarter after Ajayi’s arrival, by a tight ratio of 4:3, the gap narrowed even closer as they leaned on defenses in the 4th quarter. Their stats are nearly identical post Week 7; with Ajayi averaging 3.74 yards per carry and Blount posting a 3.73 average. To be fair to Blount, he received the heaviest workload of all the backs when leading by more than one score, which likely led to heavier run stopping looks from defenses.
In the offseason I posted some LaGarrete Blount runs that closed a game. Said that's what we needed in Philly. Well, here it is on 3rd & 1. pic.twitter.com/laD3T671wb— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) October 8, 2017
Clement provided the most bang for buck late in games, ripping off 4 yards a clip and converting 6 first downs on 18 carries in that same time span. All of those averages may seem low, but yards per carry drops league wide in the 4th quarter from 4.28 in the first 3 quarters to 4.07. With how much the Eagles held a lead in the 4th quarter, it should be no surprise that efficiency dropped for them as well.
Regardless, Ajayi is a powerful finisher that can pick up dirty yards and Clement is a quick processor with good decision-making that will help share the load late in games against tired defenses. One thing that needs to be cleaned up is ball security; a 31st worst 8 fumbles in the 4th quarter is far too many to sustain success and win close games. Yes, they got away with it last year, but Russian roulette can turn on you quick.
It’s easy to forget, given Ajayi’s limited role in the Eagles offense to this point, that Ajayi was once a workhorse back for the Dolphins. It’s easy to forget that in 2016 he carried the Dolphins offense, racking up 1,272 yards with 4.9ypc and 8 touchdowns while busting loose with three 200+ yard games. He knows this is an important, contract year and has taken steps towards securing his future financial situation by hiring a new agent.
The question is will the Eagles try to preserve him for the playoffs and potentially for the future by keeping his workload relatively lighter? What’s not in question, is if he’s capable of handling duties that were Blount’s domain last year.
Fresh downs, money downs, deep red zone, and closing roles were all areas in which the Eagles utilized Blount. Looking at the efficiency of mainly Ajayi and Clement in those same situations, it becomes clear that the vacated “Blount Role” doesn’t leave a void; rather it presents more opportunities and room for improvement. That doesn’t account for any surprise contributors beyond those two main backs and rest assured that assistant head coach Duce Staley will be actively searching for the third or even fourth head of the Eagles committee approach.