Eagles

2018 Eagles Training Camp Preview: Running Backs

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Just two weeks into the 2017 season, the Philadelphia Eagles’ run-pass ratio was already out of whack.

After throwing the ball 39 times in Week 1 compared to just 24 rushing attempts, Pederson called 56 passes in Week 2 with a measly 13 designed runs. LeGarrette Blount failed to record a single carry in that Week 2 loss to Kansas City.

That’s when Lane Johnson spoke up.

If we could have run the ball better, executed better, we could have won this game. We threw the ball a lot today. And part of that was because we weren’t very effective (running). Obviously, it comes down to execution, and we’re not doing our jobs.

Other players like Zach Ertz followed suit and spoke up too.

Doug Pederson listened.

The Eagles wound up finishing sixth in the NFL in rushing yards, fourth in yards per carry (4.5), third in rushing yards per game (132.2) and 11th in run-pass ratio.

Blount is now departed, but Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement are back. So is a returning Darren Sproles, who tore his ACL in Week 3 against the Giants. After those three, Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey, Matt Jones and undrafted rookie Josh Adams will be fighting it out for the final one or two running back spots on the roster.

Howie Roseman acquired Ajayi from Miami on Oct. 31 for a fourth-round pick. Pederson turned the Dolphins’ trash into the Eagles’ treasure as Ajayi went from averaging just 3.4 yards per carry in South Beach to 5.8 yards per tote in the City of Brotherly Love.

Due to his lingering knee issues, Ajayi never saw 20 carries in a game once last season, but he didn’t have to tote it that much. Especially when you have a nice stable of backs at your disposal. Ajayi is a free agent at the end of the season and he’ll be looking to get paid, I’m just not sure it’ll be by Philly, which is already in the red for next season’s salary cap.

Clement’s role increased as the season went along and his best performance came in the Super Bowl, catching four passes out of the backfield for 100 yards and a touchdown. If he takes a huge leap in year two it’ll make it easier to let Ajayi walk at the end of the year.

When Sproles was out with his injury, Clement saw the field more because of his ability to pass block. More and more touches followed as well. Clement spoke to 6ABC Friday to discuss battling Ajayi for those touches this coming season.

Is a 34-year-old Sproles really needed at this point in his career, maybe not, but where the Eagles could use him is on special teams as a punt returner. Sproles has averaged 9.6 yards per punt return during his career, including a lofty 13.2 yards per boot in 2016. Kenjon Barner, the team’s punt returner for a majority of the 2017 season, averaged just 8.9 yards per punt return. Sproles’ biggest asset is that of a third-down back when he can line up in the slot out out wide as a receiver.

If the Birds decide to keep four backs, I believe that final spot goes to either Jones or Adams. With Blount no longer in the fold, these two are the best power backs on the roster. I’d take the rookie over Jones, who has a fumble history and puts the ball on the ground once out of every 34 touches.

The back that everyone has forgotten about is Donnel Pumphrey. The Eagles traded up in the fourth round to select the FBS’ all-time leading rusher and despite how atrocious he looked last preseason, the team kept five running backs and Pumphrey made the team.

Many speculated that the “phantom IR” situation would come into play and when Pumphrey injured himself, it’s exactly what people assumed. Pederson, however, was adamant that he indeed suffered a tear in his hamstring. Here’s Doug from September.

Pumphrey carried the ball 26 times for only 49 yards during the preseason, a putrid 1.9 yards per carry. He tied fellow fourth-round rookie Mack Hollins for the team’s preseason receptions lead, but Hollins’ 13 catches went for 139 yards as opposed to Pumphrey’s 72. The game looked too fast for Pumphrey, which was unfortunate because Pederson had a lot of plans for him. He had him lining up in the slot, with Sproles in pony packages and in the backfield during OTAs and Training Camp. That’s a lot to digest for a rookie, we’ll see if he takes any strides forward in year two.

Third-year back Wendell Smallwood is also in the mix at running back, but his snaps dwindled in 2017 due to his inability to pass protect. He’ll be a long shot to make the team in my opinion.

Ultimately I believe the Eagles will keep Ajayi, Clement, Sproles and Adams. If Pumphrey takes a huge leap forward this summer, it’ll only complicate things further. There may not be a more heated camp battle for the Birds than the cluster of backs fighting to make the squad.

 


You can follow Adrian Fedkiw on Twitter (@AdrianFedkiw) and e-mail him at amfedkiw@yahoo.com. Subscribe to The Bitter Birds on YouTube here. Follow Philly Influencer on Twitter (@PHL_Influencer), Facebook and Instagram.

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