Entering the 2019 NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles have two concerning holes in their running back committee. Those weaknesses don’t look so dire if Jordan Howard returns to form and Corey Clement reestablishes himself as a pass catching threat. Is Darren Sproles back? Who knows? Banking on those two or three things to happen are a gamble, one that can be stomached easier by having an insurance plan.
We’ll start with what we know about Howard, who projects as the lead back as part of a committee. He’s at his best on inside zone runs, which the Eagles’ ran at the highest frequency (50%) in the league in 2018.
“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.” - Mark Chichester, Pro Football Focus
Howard has seen his production drop due to an offensive line that ranked in the bottom half for all run blocking categories per Football Outsiders, but he shares the blame too. Per PFF, his forced missed tackles per touch have been cut in half, from 0.16 to 0.08 since his rookie year.
What you have with Howard is a back that can make the right decisions and get up field. What the backfield is lacking is a playmaker in space that can make filling safeties and corners miss consistently.
Zeroing in on the passing game, Howard is a smart and reliable pass protector. His 2 pressures allowed over 83 pass block snaps last year was the lowest for backs with over 30 snaps. The receiving aspect of Howard’s game is the part that will leave you wanting more. Since college, his reception total has yet to eclipse 30 catches. He’s a checkdown option, which is fine, but that helps us define how we can bolster the stable.
Based on all of this we can identify two key areas where we can improve the group.
- Forcing missed tackles in space.
- Dynamic receiving ability.
Using that criteria, I’ve identified four running backs that fit that specific bill. It’s important to note that there are other runners that would make meaningful contributions to the backfield. I’ve set a strict bar for this exercise, understanding there are inherent flaws as you shouldn’t just be drafting for this year, but for the future. Still, working within those parameters, the following is those four complements to Howard.
1. DARRELL HENDERSON - Memphis (5’8 3/8”, 208)
The Eagles have shown interest in Henderson, bringing him in on an official visit. He was uber-productive in 2018, amassing 2,204 yards from scrimmage and 25 total touchdowns. The analytics show that he fills holes in Howard’s game alarmingly well.
How Henderson ranks via Sports Info Solutions:
- 1st - yards per carry (8.9)
- 1st - yards after contact (6.0)
- 8th - broken tackles per 100 touches (24)
- 1st - yards per route run (2.8)
How Henderson ranks via Pro Football Focus:
- 1st - breakaway percentage (70.8%)
- 2nd - elusive rating (158.6)
- t-8th - forced missed tackles per carry (.27)
- 11th - not tackled on first contact (40.2%)
Beyond the numbers, let’s discuss why Henderson is successful in these area. First, his burst to get to the second level is excellent. His bonkers 1.42 10-yard split speaks to that fact. He runs through the smoke in a hurry and often beats players filling the alley while also destroying angles of defenders scraping down the line.
Henderson’s elite burst affords him space between him and approaching defenders. It also creates advantageous angles to exploit. What he does with those cushions and angles is what separates him from other backs in the class. His ability to chain cuts together without scrubbing speed is one of his best assets.
He’s a home run hitter, plain and simple. Nobody in the FBS came close to Henderson’s 12 runs over 40+ yards last season. Play around with the numbers and the types of plays and you still get 19 plays of 30+ yards from scrimmage, the most in college football.
Diving into Henderson’s ability as a receiver, there’s context needed. He has yet to catch over 25 balls in a season, so how does he check that box? As noted in the analytical bullet points (2.8 yards per route run), it’s his efficiency that stands out.
Henderson shared time with fellow Tigers running back Tony Pollard. A wide receiver convert, Pollard spent multiple years split out. Giving him a good deal of passing snaps just makes sense. It’s not a referendum on Henderson, who excelled when he had the chance. In 2018, he caught only 19 balls, but took them for 295 yards with a 15.5 yards per reception average and 3 touchdowns.
He was mainly used on shorter routes, but there are examples on Henderson’s film that showcase him as a downfield threat. Combined with his tackle breaking prowess in space on shorter concepts, Henderson projects very well as a pass catcher.
Overall, I have an early third round grade on Henderson and he checks in as my RB2. He’s a viable option at 53rd and 57th overall in the late second round. The Eagles’ should and do have their eye on the dynamic playmaker.
2. JOSH JACOBS - Alabama (5’10”, 220)
Another official visit for the Eagles, Jacobs is likely not in play in the first round and should be gone before the selections in the fifties. Make no mistake though, if he starts to slide in the second round, the Eagles’ interest will be piqued.
Jacobs is a very different type of back when compared to Henderson, but he still checks the boxes required for this experiment.
How Jacobs ranks via Sports Info Solutions:
- 7th - yards after contact (3.6)
- 2nd - broken tackles per 100 touches (38)
- 2nd - yards per route run (2.4)
How Jacobs ranks via Pro Football Focus:
- 7th - elusive rating (109.8)
- t-8th - forced missed tackles per carry (.27)
- 4th - not tackled on first contact (42.1%)
As a space runner, Jacobs alternates between bullying and evading. Having the ability to do both presents an interesting challenge for defenders. Most don’t want to take him head on, but if they don’t attack, Jacobs will take advantage of their hesitation by bowling them over or setting them up with a subtle nod before taking off.
Examining Jacobs’ receiving ability, he was mostly utilized as a check down option. What makes him so efficient how he churns out extra yards in space after the catch. In 2018, his 20 catches resulted in 247 yards (12.3 average) and 3 touchdowns. Considering his limited snaps in a crowded backfield, it’s safe to assume he would’ve been much more productive in this area if more heavily featured.
3. JAMES WILLIAMS - Washington State (5’9 1/2”, 197)
You won’t find many running backs as productive in the receiving game as Williams has been over the last three years. In that time, he’s accumulated 202 catches for 1,437 yards and 8 touchdowns. He’s also got some highlight reel catches that showcase his reliable hands and body control.
How Williams ranks via Sports Info Solutions:
- 3rd - broken tackles per 100 touches (36)
- 4th - yards per route run (1.8)
How Williams ranks via Pro Football Focus:
- 9th - elusive rating (104.5)
- t-7th - forced missed tackles per carry (.30)
- 2nd - not tackled on first contact (44.3%)
As you can see, Williams broke tackles at an extremely high rate in college. His contact balance and reactive quickness make it all possible. He possesses a great understanding of how to absorb contact and keep it moving. Williams wont hit dingers at the rate of Henderson or Jacobs, but he’s capable of getting more than what’s blocked for him.
4. DARWIN THOMPSON - Utah State (5’8”, 198)
The JUCO transfer is one of my favorite day 3 targets. A Combine snub, if Thompson wasn’t on the NFL radar before, he certainly is after his pro day. There he hit 4.53 in the 40-yard dash, but more impressively bounced 39” on the vertical jump and 10’6” on the broad. He checks both boxes in this experiment, possessing tackle breaking ability and receiving chops.
How Thompson ranks via Pro Football Focus:
- 7th - breakaway percentage (50.5%)
- 1st - elusive rating (176.6)
- t-3rd - forced missed tackles per carry (.32)
- 7th - not tackled on first contact (41.7%)
- 8th - yards per route run (1.91)
For a smaller back, the way Thompson deals with contact was a pleasant surprise. He’s a gym rat that possesses excellent strength throughout his frame, aiding his ability to absorb and reject contact.
In his 23 catches, he went for 351 yards (15.3) and 2 touchdowns, showing the ability to grab chunk yards when dealt the rock in space. There’s room for him to develop in this area, but as a check down and screen option, you could do a lot worse.
There are other enticing prospects in the draft, but if we’re solely looking at two areas that could help us right now, these backs are “it”. Running back committees often exist with the purpose of possessing diverse skill sets and the Eagles’ would do well to make two weaknesses spots a strength.