The Philadelphia Eagles made an addition to their backfield on Thursday evening by trading for Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard. Here are some thoughts on this deal and what it means moving forward.
1 - The Eagles finally did something at running back!
It was about time. Howie Roseman must’ve gotten fed up with everyone asking him all those running back questions.
In fairness, there was reason to be annoyed the Eagles hadn’t done anything at a position where they were only rostering the following players: Wendell Smallwood, Josh Adams, Corey Clement, Boston Scott, and Donnel Pumphrey. Not a great group!
Adding Howard the mix doesn’t necessarily fix everything but he’s an upgrade on what the team already had. The need for a running back is no longer a gaping hole.
2 - There are things to like about this trade
Shortly after the deal went down, I made a list of things I both do and don’t like about this trade. Let’s start with the positive stuff.
- Howard doesn’t turn 25 until November. At worst, this is a player in his prime. At best, this is a player who might still have some upside.
- Howard is a proven volume player. 3,370 total rushing yards over the last three seasons proves he can handle a big workload.
- Howard is durable. He’s only missed one game in three NFL seasons. He also played 32 games in three years of college.
- Howard is physical. Listed at 6-0, 224, Howard seems like he can be the LeGarrette Blount replacement the Eagles missed in 2018. Howard brings value as a situational football player. He’s had success in the red zone (24 touchdowns over three season) and short-yardage situations (74% conversion rate in 2018). The Eagles struggled at times with the latter in 2018 given that Josh Adams had zero first downs and negative 8 yards in short-yardage situations.
- Howard is a good pass protector. Lester A. Wiltfong Jr. from Windy City Gridiron noted that Howard has only allowed 1.5 sacks in three seasons. Eagles running backs (See: Wendell Smallwood) mightily struggled in pass pro last year so it’s nice that the team is getting an upgrade there.
- Howard is affordable. His 2019 base salary is slightly over $2 million. He hardly puts a big dent in the team’s remaining cap space, which is projected to be around $22 million.
- The Eagles didn’t give up much to get Howard. He’s probably better than the player they could get with their 2020 sixth-round selection. And if the conditional pick gets bumped up to a 2020 fifth-round selection, well, it’s probably because Howard had a pretty good year. (We still didn’t know the official conditions for the draft pick, if you were wondering.)
3 - There are things to not like about this trade
To be completely honest, I wasn’t super bullish on adding Howard when the possibility was first floated earlier this offseason. My exact words were: “I’m not crazy about it.” I didn’t want him to be their priority; I wanted the Eagles to pursue other options first.
With that said, I wasn’t expecting Howard to be avialable for a mere 2020 sixth-round pick. The low level of compensation sure makes the deal hard to hate. Some qualms still should be noted.
- Howard’s efficiency is declining. He went from 5.2 yards per carry as a rookie to 4.1 in 2017 to 3.7 in 2018. Yards per carry isn’t a perfect stat and the decline might not be entirely Howard’s fault. Still, it’s not the most encouraging sign. This lack of efficiency makes Howard’s total volume numbers less impressive than those of comparable producers, such as Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley. Howard’s simply not in the class of those elite talents. The next point is a big reason why.
- Howard isn’t much of a factor as a pass catcher. He’s only averaging 1.5 receptions per game to this point in his career. It’s not that Howard has terrible hands; it’s just that he’s not a threat to do much in space once he catches the ball. Not unlike Blount, Howard could see the majority of his snaps come on early downs.
- Howard doesn’t fill the Eagles’ need for speed and big play ability. He’s not a dynamic runner. A big takeaway from watching his “highlights” is that ... he’s kind of boring to watch. That’s not to suggest he’s bad, it’s just not there’s not much flash to be excited about. The numbers back this sentiment up. According to Pro Football Focus, here’s how Howard has ranks in “breakaway percentage” — a stat that shows which runners earn the highest (and lowest) % of their yardage on big plays (any designed runs of 15 yards or more) — over the last three years: 39th in 2018, 22nd in 2017, and 10th in 2016. [You won’t be shocked to see that Smallwood ranked dead last in this category last season.]
4 - There are compensatory pick considerations
This trade is an interesting one to view through the comp pick lens.
Traded players don’t factor into the comp pick formula so now the Eagles don’t have to worry about acquiring a running back at the cost of hurting their formula. Of course, the Eagles had to surrender a 2020 sixth-round pick to get Howard, so that kind of washes out.
But the Eagles can potentially get a 2021 compensatory pick for Howard if he signs a qualifying contract with another team in free agency next year.
Alternatively, the Eagles could re-sign Howard to an extension if they want to keep him around and he’s affordable enough. The team has options.
Another thing to consider in the realm of comp picks is this trade makes it unlikely Jay Ajayi is re-signed. There’s a chance he could sign with another team (the Colts, where he visited?) and count towards Philly’s comp pick formula. That’s significant because the Eagles currently aren’t set to receive a fourth-round pick they’d get from Jordan Hicks signing with the Cardinals. The L.J. Fort and Andrew Sendejo signings are currently cancelling that pick out. Ajayi signing with another team could help the Eagles get a fourth-rounder.
On the topic of draft picks, here’s what the Eagles have left over the next two years:
2019 NFL DRAFT
1st round (25th overall)
2nd round (53rd overall; from Ravens)
2nd round (57th overall)
4th round (127th overall)
4th round (138th overall; compensatory pick)
5th round (163th overall)
6th round (198th overall)
2020 NFL DRAFT
(3rd round - projected compensatory pick)
(4th round - projected compensatory pick)
5th round (from Patriots)
7th round (from Buccaneers)
5 - Maybe Howard can get back on track in Philly?
There’s been some talk that Howard’s decline is related to the Bears not having a great offensive line. It’s not a point without any merit.
Football Outsiders had the Bears ranked as the 28th best running blocking o-line in 2018, the 28th best in 2017, and the 8th best in 2016. The one year the Bears’ o-line was actually good also happened to be Howard’s NFL best season. The Eagles have one of the league’s better lines so maybe Howard can rebound this year.
Or maybe it’s not quite that simple. PFF has a metric called “elusive rating” which “distills the success and impact of a runner with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down.” Howard ranked 59th out of 63 backs in 2018 and 48th out of 68 in 2017. Of course, he ranked 14th out of 63 back in 2016.
Howard’s probably not going to be able to create yardage for himself in the way that elite running backs are capable of doing. History does show that Howard will be able to take advantage of what’s blocked for him so it’s imperative that the Eagles o-line really shows up once again this year.
Another thing to consider with Howard is his fit in Philly’s scheme. Some have wondered how Howard fits in Pederson’s Eagles offense if he didn’t work out in Matt Nagy’s system, given that they’re both Andy Reid disciples.
Warren Sharp offered some insight on the differences between the Eagles and Bears:
On Jordan Howard to PHI pt 2:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) March 29, 2019
• CHI ran behind C in the red zone only 16% past 3 yrs, #31 in NFL
• This despite being the #1 most successful RZ run team behind C (76% success)
• Jordan Howard's 77% success rate is #1 in NFL (>10 att)
►PHI runs behind C in the RZ 35% of time
On Jordan Howard to PHI pt 3:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) March 29, 2019
By personnel grouping last 3 yrs:
• 11: 51% success, 5.0 YPC
• 12: 43% success, 4.2 YPC
• 21: 44% success, 4.0 YPC
• 13: 41% success, 3.3 YPC
• 11 (shotgun): 54% success, 5.3 YPC
► PHI has the #3 most runs in shotgun from 11 the last 3 yrs
More information from Pro Football Focus:
Since 2016, the Philadelphia Eagles have run an inside-zone concept on 464 of their 1412 running plays over that span, and they actually led the league in inside-zone frequency last year (50.0%) with 218 inside-zone attempts from 436 running plays. Over the last three years, the Eagles rank 13th among teams in rushing yards gained before contact from inside-zone runs, while their team inside-zone blocking grade of 79.0 ranks first by a considerable margin. And that makes this a perfect landing spot for the former Chicago running back, as he has thrived on his inside-zone runs throughout his time in the league. Since 2016, no running back has logged more inside-zone rushes than Howard (317), while his three-year inside-zone running grade of 75.0 ranks eighth among the 35 backs with at least 100 inside-zone attempts in that span. His 1324 rushing yards, 822 yards after contact, and his average of 2.59 yards after contact per attempt rank second, second, and 14th, respectively, among the group of players. After badly struggling at the position a season ago, the Eagles have now likely found their early-down man for next season, and if Howard can continue his success within the Eagles’ scheme, he could very well be the next great move for a franchise that is quickly becoming one of the most personnel-savvy outfits in the NFL.
6 - The offense is shaping up nicely
Let’s take a glance at Philly’s starting offense in terms of skill players.
Quarterback — Carson Wentz
Running back — Jordan Howard
Wide receiver — Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor
Tight end — Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert
That’s a pretty good group for either 11 personnel (three receivers) or 12 personnel (two tight ends). There are too many options for this team to be struggling to score points like they were at times last season. Especially with this starting offensive line in place:
Left tackle — Jason Peters
Left guard — Isaac Seumalo
Center — Jason Kelce
Right guard — Brandon Brooks*
Right tackle — Lane Johnson
It remains to be seen when Brooks will actually return to the starting lineup given that he’s recovering from an Achilles injury. He’ll be healthy enough at some point, though.
The bottom line is that Doug Pederson has some nice tools to get this offense back on track.
7 - The Eagles shouldn’t be done at running back
I highly doubt the Eagles are bringing Howard in to be a 20+ carries per game running back. That’s just not how the offense has operated under Pederson. And Howard mostly being a non-factor as a receiver should limit his third down snaps.
The feeling here is that Howard will supplant Blount as a “1A” type in the rotation. For reference, Blount averaged 10.8 attempts in 2017. ESPN’s Mike Clay projects Howard will get around 13.8 carries per game, which sounds about right.
The Eagles have averaged 27.1 rush attempts per game in the Pederson era. If Howard is around 14 carries per game, that leaves about 13 carries for Philly’s other running backs. Clement might be a factor for this team but it’s not like all those remaining touches are always to go to him. Adams, Smallwood, Scott, Pumphrey are really competing to make the roster.
None of those backs are sure bets to give the Eagles the dynamic agility and speed that they could really use in the backfield. With that in mind, the Eagles should still be looking for running back help in the 2019 NFL Draft (especially with Howard only one a one-year deal). That help could come in the form of a Darrell Henderson or a Devin Singletary. If the Eagles strike out in the draft, they could turn to Darren Sproles as a fallback option.
A running back rotation of, say, Howard, Singletary, Clement, and one of Adams/Smallwood/Scott/Pumphrey should be an upgrade of what the Eagles were working with in 2018. Improving the ground game should, in turn, help the overall offense improve.
Getting Howard made the Eagles a better team. But their work at running back isn’t totally done yet.