Philadelphia Eagles training camp is almost here. Players report to the NovaCare Complex on Wednesday, July 24. As we count down the days together, Bleeding Green Nation will be previewing every position on the Eagles roster. We continue today by taking a look at the running back position. Previously: Quarterback.
A look back at the Eagles’ 2018 rushing stats is ... depressing. Only two NFL teams ranked worse than Philadelphia in terms of rushing yards per play. Undrafted rookie free agent Josh Adams actually finished last year as the Eagles’ leading rusher with 511 yards. And yet he was entrusted with just one carry (for two yards) in two playoff games. Wendell Smallwood, who was phased out of the running back rotation at one point, finished second on the team in rushing. It’s entirely possible neither Adams nor Smallwood are even on the 53-man roster in 2019 and it’ll likely be one of them at most.
The Eagles addressed the running back position during the 2019 offseason by both trading for Jordan Howard and drafting Miles Sanders. On paper, those additions seem like a significant improvement over last year’s backfield. How reliable is that projection? Let’s take a closer look.
The Eagles traded a conditional 2020 sixth-round pick (that could potentially elevate to a fifth-round pick) to the Bears in exchange for Howard. The 24-year-old rusher was available for such a low cost in part because his efficiency has sharply declined over the past three seasons.
2016: 5.2 yards per carry
2017: 4.1 yards per carry
2018: 3.7 yards per carry
Stylistically, Howard isn’t a highly coveted running back by the modern game’s standards. He’s not a dangerous weapon who excels in space. He’s only averaged 1.5 receptions per game over his career.
This doesn’t mean he can’t be useful to the Eagles, though. Howard has proven he can handle a big workload; he’s averaged 16.6 carries per game. His red zone and short-yardage situation numbers are strong, which makes sense for a powerful runner who measures in at 6-1, 225 pounds. And though he’s not going to bring much value as a pass catcher (don’t fool yourself into thinking there’s significant untapped potential in this area), Howard has a good track record when it comes to pass protection.
Howard is set to be a free agent after this season so there’s pressure on him to perform well in order to get a new deal. He could easily be a one-year rental for Philly but they should get some good usage out of him while he’s here. Howard seems primed to fit in the 2017 LeGarrette Blount role.
Howie Roseman couldn’t resist poking fun at media members who’ve questioned how the Eagles value running backs after selecting Sanders in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
“Guess what guys? We got a running back. We draft running backs in Philadelphia!”
Prior to selecting Sanders, the Eagles hadn’t selected a running back as early as Day 2 since LeSean McCoy. So, one has to figure the Eagles must really see something in the Penn State alumnus.
“Miles was a staff favorite, a coaching staff favorite, a personnel staff favorite, all of us, front office favorite. Really that guy, he reminded us of some other players we’ve had around here. He has great lateral quickness. He was behind, obviously, a great back in Saquon [Barkley] and really took the opportunity to take it over when he had it. A five-star recruit out of Pittsburgh. We had some of our guys, some of our Pittsburgh guys, we have a lot of those guys on our staff who followed him in high school. He’s one of those guys that you say, ‘If he comes back and has another year like he had this year, where does he go next year?’ We think he’s a special talent and a perfect fit for our offense.”
The Eagles being so high on Sanders makes one believe he could have a big role in the backfield. The question is: how soon will that day come?
While it’s easy to get excited about Sanders’ potential, the feeling here is that expectations should be tempered. Howard isn’t suddenly chopped liver; the young veteran is still going to have a role.
Not unlike many rookies, Sanders is very much a projection. The 21-year-old has questions to answer in terms of ball security and pass protection. To what extent can he be counted on? It doesn’t help that he missed the entirety of spring practices with a hamstring injury.
Then again, Sanders’ ability to contribute in the passing game and make defenders miss is valuable. If he really excels in those areas, it could be hard to keep him off the field. Even if that means at the expense of Howard’s playing time.
I think Sanders might be a player who starts to come on as the season goes along. I see him starting the season as the Eagles’ 1B to Howard’s 1A in the running back rotation. Sanders can earn more playing time by making the most out of his touches. I could also see the rookie losing carries if he’s struggling and it’s Howard who is excelling.
Sanders will be one of the most fascinating players to watch in training camp and preseason.
Clement’s unexpectedly promising rookie season was followed by a 2018 campaign marred by injury and ineffectiveness. The 24-year-old missed OTAs and minicamp since he’s still on the mend from a nebulous knee issue.
It’d be great for the Eagles if Clement could return to 2017 form and provide value as a rotational player with third-down back skills. It’s just hard to know how much we can count on that happening. Assuming he’s healthy, Clement should be the third running back behind Howard and Sanders.
Smallwood ranked dead last in Pro Football Focus’s “breakaway percentage” stat last year; he had just one run of 15+ yards. That’s hardly a shock considering Smallwood isn’t known for explosiveness or good vision.
If Smallwood is your fourth running back, well, you could do worse. He’s not actually good but he’s “fine.”
I wouldn’t call Smallwood a roster lock but I lean towards thinking he’s going to make the team. The coaching staff likes him to some extent. He actually led the Eagles in playoff carries with 18.
Scott’s an intriguing player to watch in camp. He flashed at times in the spring. Doug Pederson specifically talked about Scott having a Darren Sproles role.
“We have a player Boston Scott, who’s been on our roster since the end of last season or halfway through [last season]. He’s a guy that can kind of fill a Darren Sproles [role]. He’s in that same body type and same quickness. We’re working him in a couple of different situations as a runner, as a punt returner, and just kind of getting a feel for him because he wasn’t a guy we initially brought onto our team early. Of course, there’s other guys, but he’s kind of been the one that, if you say you’re going to try to replace Darren, which you really can’t, he would be the guy that has kind of taken that role over right now.”
Scott could make his way on to the 53-man roster with a strong summer. He seems like the current favorite as the team’s kick/punt returner.
Of course, Scott’s job could be in jeopardy if the Eagles actually bring Sproles back. Not impossible.
Barring injury, I just don’t see Adams’ path to making the roster. Sure, he had a nice season last year as an undrafted rookie free agent. But what’s he contributing to this team in 2019? He’s not a dangerous or dynamic player in space. He struggled in short yardage situations (zero first downs and negative 8 yards). He’s not some special teams maven and he doesn’t offer return ability. Adams also missed the entirety of spring practices for the second year in a row as he recovers from a shoulder injury. I think Adams is playing to make some other team’s 53-man roster this summer. Maybe the Eagles can keep him on their practice squad.
This summer is probably Pump’s last chance to stick in the NFL. The 2017 fourth-round pick was showing a little promise last offseason before suffering yet another hamstring injury that prevented him from practicing/playing much. Maybe Pump will surprise us all and win a roster spot. The odds are against him.
How will it play out?
Let’s do some math.
The Eagles have averaged about 27 rush attempts per game in the Pederson era. If we assume Howard’s workload will resemble Blount’s from 2017, we could peg him for about 12 attempts per game. That leaves about 15 attempts for two or three other backs to split. Sanders might be around 10 per game, which would leave five for Clement. That seems about right considering the Eagles tend to heavily rotate their backs.
The rotation has the potential to evolve and change. The Eagles could stick with hot hand if one emerges. To start, though, I think it’ll be Howard as the 1A in Philly’s running back rotation. He could lose that spot if he struggles and/or Sanders comes on strong. Clement seems bound to be a role player/complementary piece in the rotation.
Smallwood, Scott, Adams, and Pump are battling it out for a fourth running back spot. And maybe the Eagles even keep five backs? It wouldn’t be unprecedented; they originally kept that many back in 2017. Smallwood and Scott are the favorites from their group.
Who could be a surprise cut?
It’d be at least a little surprising to see Smallwood get cut because it feels like he’s going to somehow stick in Philly forever even though he’s not that great.
Adams would be more of a “noteworthy cut” than a “surprise cut.” Again, he friggin led the team in rushing last year.
Scott getting cut wouldn’t be a shocker. But if he’s not around, who the heck is returning kicks and punts?
On a scale of 1-5, what’s your confidence level in the Eagles’ running back position? (5 being the most.)
This poll is closed