Running back problem: solved.
Well, the Eagles traded a 2020 6th-round selection — which, yes, may become a fifth — for the rights to Jordan Howard, a fourth-year running back previously for the Chicago Bears.
So really, it’s more like running back problem: solved?
The deal is a good one — let’s get that out of the way quick. The list of Day 3 running backs that churn out multiple 1,000 yard rushing seasons over their first three years in the league is light — as a matter of fact, Howard is one of only 10 backs to do it. The list includes Terrell Davis, Devonta Freeman, Alfred Morris, and a bunch of players whose names are too old for me to recognize.
6th-round picks rarely — almost never — become as effective in the NFL as Jordan Howard. So trading a 6th-round pick for Jordan Howard, from a pure talent acquisition perspective, already makes sense. As many have covered, Howard’s impending 2020 free agency will have comp pick ramifications as well.
But for the 2019 Eagles, gearing to make another run at the Super Bowl with Carson Wentz on a rookie contract, the Howard trade is a great deal.
Which begs the question: why trade Jordan Howard for a 6th-round pick? If his return on investment is so rare, why trade him away?
There have been discussions about Howard’s fit with HC Matt Nagy and his spread-style offense. Those concerns are warranted — Nagy’s offense maximizes space players, and Howard is not a space player. If Nagy thinks he can run a committee with Tarik Cohen, Mike Davis, and likely another draft selection with superior quickness to Howard, then all the more power to him — he’ll probably get more out of that player than he got out of Howard.
Howard’s strengths are as a vertical runner, and Nagy’s offense is predicated on horizontal stretches. On most zone flow, you can see that Howard lacks the dynamic skill set to work into backside cut lanes. Howard struggles from tunnel vision at times, not so much so because he doesn’t seen cutback lanes developing, but because he simply doesn’t often have the athleticism to attack them anyway.
Howard was regularly tracked down by backside pursuit on wide zone concepts, which spells a serious issue for his ability to execute the concept that Nagy’s offense is built around.
Now, Doug Pederson’s offense has a healthy amount of zone runs as well, but they don’t rely on outside zone nearly as much as Nagy’s offense does. While both offenses still marry West Coast and spread ideas to maximize space; both teams base their RPO games off of zone flow, running back fit isn’t about coach tree. It’s about concepts.
Much like LeGarrette Blount was for Philadelphia in 2017, Howard will command most of the running concepts that allow him to get vertical quickly — ideas that don’t test his change of direction ability and allow him to arrive with power to the contact point.
Take, for example, trap plays. The Eagles ran traps a fair bit with Blount when he was on the roster in 2017, and found success on those plays. The Eagles utilize them more than the Bears did, given their usage of TE/H-backs and their greater willingness to go under center.
You can begin, even on this set of film, to see one of the biggest issues with Howard’s film — he really lacks elusive traits. Howard is a stick-to-the-script runner who is able and willing to get what’s blocked for him, and his combination of size and speed challenges third-level defender regularly. But he lacks elusive traits, and accordingly fails to create homerun plays for himself.
Howard needs it blocked. when he has just one man to beat, he loses more often than he wins.
Howard’s inability to make the last man miss is damning. When he breaks long runs, they’re often as the product of contact balance against unwilling corners. Physical safeties are more than capable of generating a good angle on Howard, and he’s unwilling or unable to lower his pads and break their tackles. He doesn’t model much of a stiff-arm and he doesn’t finish runs on the sideline.
Howard is a limited player, who can get on some long, rumbling runs, but generally shouldn’t be expected to deliver explosive plays. He must be spelled by more dynamic running options, such as Darren Sproles, who can execute the zone concepts that Philadelphia needs, as well as turn space plays into chunk gains.
At the end of the day, we should reiterate the original point: at the value of the deal and the contract, Howard makes sense and is a totally fine acquisition. But it’s important to have expectations tempered in terms of Howard’s projection. In his final season at Chicago, Howard had just over 15 rushes per game — Eagles fans should not expect him to hit that number. Somewhere in the 10-12 range makes more sense.
Howard will take reps mostly on inside zone, trap, and power-blocking concepts (Chicago ran him on Counter a lot), while Darren Sproles takes the outside zone reps (as well as other power-blocking concepts he runs so well). Further additions to the running back room can fill almost any role, as the Eagles should expect neither Sproles nor Howard to be a part of the team in 2020.
Howard makes the team better, and removes the onus to draft an early RB in 2019 — but he doesn’t massively move the needle on a lacking RB room, and a more dynamic rookie addition is still necessary — if not in 2019, then at least in 2020.
Running back problem: not really solved.