Despite all of the work done in the early waves of free agency and the subsequent NFL Draft, every team still enters the summer with potential gaps on their roster. For Philadelphia, that gap is evidently a veteran running back, as they’ve been tied to the remaining names on the free agent market as early as late April.
That report came shortly after the Eagles re-signed Corey Clement to a 1-year deal. Clement hero of the 2017 rookie season for his playoff performance, but failed to improve in his second season and lost most of the 2019 campaign to injury. Clement slides into the RB3 spot on the depth chart that is highly contested, with Elijah Holyfield and Michael Warren hot on his heels. Before Clement is Boston Scott, the latest on a carousel of Eagles RB3s to burst onto the scene with a few competitive games. Scott joined starter and potential bellcow Miles Sanders to comprise the most dangerous dual-threat duo of all NFL backfields in the final stretch of 2019, with both excelling as elusive space athletes.
The Eagles’ desire to add a vet to this mix is understandable. Clement has been unreliable over the last two years, but it will be tough for a UDFA to beat him out in an offseason likely to come with limitations. Scott was admirable to close out 2019, but three quality games does not a career make. Even Sanders, who was the Eagles’ most electric playmaker last year, is unlikely to see the same receiving volume in 2020 as he did to end last year (he had at least five targets in the last seven games of 2019, including the playoffs), and is still improving as a consistent runner between the tackles. Across the three players on the projected depth chart, there’s only 60 career games off 6 career seasons.
The Eagles’ running back room is extremely promising, but far from a sure bet. A veteran rental protects you from risk without breaking the bank and taking a significant number of touches from your more electric options.
The two projected vets that remain on the roster, and have been tied to Philadelphia for weeks now, are ex-Falcon Devonta Freeman and Eagles great LeSean McCoy, who most recently played in Kansas City. The most recent report comes from Jeff McLane of The Inquirer, who shared that the Eagles have offered Freeman after missing out on Carlos Hyde to the Seahawks, and have expressed interest in returning McCoy — but no offer is on the table yet.
Why is Freeman of a greater interest to the Eagles at this time? When you pop on Freeman’s 2019 film, it’s important to distinguish between his pre- and post-injury film. Freeman lost two weeks in the middle of the season with a foot sprain, and when he came back, he lacked the juice.
The concern here is that Freeman’s wear and tear has caused a permanent drop-off in his acceleration and quickness, which were drained in these clips. Freeman has lost 16 games in the last two seasons to leg injuries, and wasn’t the most spry or speedy back to begin with. A low-rider with great contact balance, Freeman was always at his best making quality decisions, fighting through glancing blows from first-level defenders, manipulating space with his vision and balance, and finishing runs with physicality in open space. A Freeman with depreciating athleticism may be completely incapable of getting much more than that which was blocked for him.
The same is not true of McCoy, who certainly isn’t the loose Shady McCoy of Eagles lore, but remains a better athlete despite being a few years older than Freeman. McCoy generated an explosive (10+ yard) run on 11.9% of his carries last season, largely because of his superior athletic ability to Freeman (8.2% of his runs) at this stage of his career.
Of course, McCoy also had the benefit of a better offensive line, and more space in his scheme as well. The reality of the running back room in Kansas City was that many backs could create explosive plays against light boxes and on RPOs, and younger players like Darwin Thompson and Damien Williams warranted more touches accordingly. McCoy was indeed a healthy scratch for the playoffs, but when he played, produced as he was asked to.
Of course, the long-standing concern with McCoy remains, and is only made more dire by McCoy having to fill a reserve role: he still dances in the backfield, is late to his decisions, and hunts big plays. On the above plays, you can watch McCoy use his eyes, pacing, and body positioning to manipulate defenders around blocks and create more space for himself — that remains a strength of his. But it’s a double-edged sword, as McCoy will have games in which he does as much harm as he does good.
If the idea behind adding a veteran running back is consistency and risk security, perhaps McCoy isn’t the best option, as he isn’t exactly a steady hand at the position at this stage in his career. Freeman may not be as exciting, but he will be a better short-yardage option for a running back room that, if it loses Clement, doesn’t have a true short-yardage back (though Scott was good here last year). Freeman also has the familiarity with new offensive coaching hire Rich Scangarello and the Shanahan offense from the 2015 Falcons offense, while McCoy has the Pederson connection from when Dougie was the QBs coach back in 2011-2012, and played in a closely-related offense last year in Kansas City.
As it stands, talking myself into Freeman requires a bit more mental elbow grease than it should, especially if Freeman’s price tag is higher than McCoy’s. Freeman may be preferable as a 6-8 touch/game player and bring the goal line value that McCoy lacks, but McCoy is the more preferable option in the event of an injury forcing your vet into a 12-14 touch/game role. He’s more dangerous in space, has played in schemes more analogous to Pederson’s current running offense, and has the history in Philadelphia as well. Freeman’s value as a pass protector really doesn’t move the needle too much for me, either — if you’re signing a back to ask him to pass protect, just get a fullback and call it a day.
If we’re talking about a deal that maxes out at Hyde’s deal, which hits $4M, then it’s really not much to worry about between Freeman and McCoy. If there is a disparity on the price tag, however, McCoy for cheap is the better deal, especially if you have doubts regarding Freeman’s long-term health.