Even with Jay Ajayi, Eagles still 'counting on' LeGarrette Blount

Even with Jay Ajayi, Eagles still 'counting on' LeGarrette Blount

Frank Reich's message to LeGarrette Blount was a simple one.

"'Keep doing what you're doing,'" Reich said. "'You're a big reason we're 7-1. You're a big reason we've made the strides we've made in the running game.

"'Your tenaciousness running the football, the attitude that you've brought, the toughness that you've brought, the unselfishness that you've brought, is a big part of our identity.'"

Blount, the Eagles' leading rusher the first half of the season, suddenly found his role up in the air Tuesday when the Eagles made a trade-deadline deal to acquire Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins in exchange for a fourth-round pick in 2018 (see story).

Other than the Chiefs game, when he mysteriously had no carries, Blount has gotten between 12 and 16 carries in every game this year. Blount and Ajayi rank 10th and 12th in the NFL in rushing yards, although Blount's 4.7 average is much higher than Ajayi's 3.4.

But Ajayi ran for nearly 1,300 yards in his 2016 Pro Bowl season, and the Eagles didn't bring him here to ride the bench.

So what happens to Blount?

And what happens with promising rookie Corey Clement, second-year pro Wendell Smallwood and veteran Kenjon Barner? Not to mention injured rookie fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey?

There are a lot of backs and only one football.

"LeGarrette continues to be our starter and [we're] just really excited to have that group and add a good player," Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said.

"We like our running back group. This was an opportunity that came to us. We thought [he] was a good player who could add to our team. He’s a young player who's under contract for the next couple years (through 2018).

"At the same time, everyone has seen the way LeGarrette has run. Wendell has had really good games for us. Corey. We brought Kenjon back, as well. It just adds to the group, and all that stuff with playing time is sorted out by the coaches.”

Roseman said he spoke to Blount as soon as the deal was finalized to reassure him that he wasn’t being replaced.

“LeGarrette's awesome,” Roseman said. “He wants to win. He's won. He's all about winning. He's been in situations before where there have been productive backs on the team. He's been a tremendous team guy since he's walked in the building and a leader for this football team. Nothing changed today.”

The Eagles, who own the NFL's best record at 7-1, have the fourth-ranked running attack in the NFL, although they've been held to 3.8 yards or lower in each of the last four games.

Smallwood has 143 yards and a 3.8 average, Clement 131 yards and a 3.6 average and Barner 34 yards and a 2.8 average (see story).

"LeGarrette has been productive when he's gotten the ball," Roseman said. "He's a warrior. He's a two-time Super Bowl champion and we're really glad to have him.

"So, you know, I really shouldn't get into starter roles. That's really up to the coaches, but we are counting on LeGarrette going forward here.

"This [trade] is no reflection of any of those running backs. This was a good opportunity for the Philadelphia Eagles, and our job is to add good players who fit what we do and we believe Jay Ajayi does that."

Blount, who turns 31 in a few weeks, wasn't available for comment on Tuesday. The Eagles return to practice on Wednesday.

But Reich said he isn't concerned at all about Blount.

"The guy is a pro, man," Reich said. "He's a big part of why we are where we are right now, the leadership, his attitude.

"I really give him a lot of credit. Because you understand, personally — you can say all you want about team, but we all know [running backs want the football]. We all know. So a lot of credit to LeGarrette."

So what does the rotation look like moving forward? Reich wouldn’t speculate but insisted the Eagles are happy with all the backs on the roster (there are seven, including injured Pumphrey and Darren Sproles).

"We’ll have to see how it all plays out," Reich said. "I think that’s the only fair way to say it. We are happy with all the guys that we’ve got in the building.

"This business is a very competitive business. To get a spot in this building is not easy, and when you get a spot in this building, it means we love you and you're ours. You're our family and you get treated like that, with the respect that you've earned your way here.

"So every person, whether it's the top guy or the quote-unquote bottom guy on the roster, every spot is valuable."

And how do you keep five running backs happy?

"Keep winning," Reich said. "Winning has a way of keeping everybody happy."

Eagles Stay or Go — The Joneses

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Eagles Stay or Go — The Joneses

Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro continue our series examining the future of the world champion Eagles.

Donnie Jones
Roob: Jones turns 38 before camp starts and goes into his 15th NFL season out of LSU next year. Jones, who hasn't missed a game since 2004, is as reliable as ever. Including the postseason, he had 26 punts inside the 20-yard line and just six touchbacks. In five years here, he's established himself as the greatest punter in Eagles history. His 45.3 average and 40.6 this past year were very good. They'll drag a guy in to compete, but Jones is still terrific.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Jones is 37 now but he's a punter and he doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Before the 2016 season, Jones said he wasn't interested in retiring any time soon and there doesn't seem to be much of a reason to stop yet. He had another good season in 2017. Of course, the Eagles proved that no one is immune from the business of the NFL when they decided to go with Rick Lovato over Jon Dorenbos in 2017, but Jones is still a really good punter. During Super Bowl week, Jones got a kick out of hearing he was the only Eagles player who was able to have a legal drink when Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl. Jones joked that's probably what he was doing. 

Verdict: STAYS

Sidney Jones
It'll be fun to see what Jones can do with a full healthy offseason and training camp. Along with Jalen Mills, Rasul Douglas and Ronald Darby, he's a big part of the most talented young stable of cornerbacks the Eagles have ever had. Where does everybody fit in next year? We'll see. But I expect Jones to be here and playing at a high level for years to come.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: It was probably a pretty good thing for the young corner to get some experience toward the end of his rookie season. Fans should be excited about Jones if he really is back to being the player he was before his injury. Because before he tore his Achilles at the Washington pro day, Jones might have been the very best cornerback in a deep cornerback draft. The Eagles have a little logjam at the cornerback position; what a great problem to have. 

Verdict: STAYS

Eagles Stay or Go —2 big contracts and a fringe player

USA Today/AP Images

Eagles Stay or Go —2 big contracts and a fringe player

Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro continue our series examining the future of the world champion Eagles.

Tim Jernigan
 Jernigan had a very good first half, an OK second half of the season and really didn't do a lot in the postseason, and there's no doubt the Eagles would like to see him maintain his level of consistency throughout the season. But he's certainly not going anywhere, not with $11 million in dead money vs. a $5 million cap hit. Jernigan's talent is undeniable. He just needs to find a way to keep it going through the year.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: I was a little surprised about how little Jernigan played in 2017. He played just 48 percent of the Eagles' snaps and in the playoffs, he played about as much as Beau Allen. Now, I know Jernigan dealt with an ankle injury throughout most of the year, so maybe that played a role. But for a guy who signed a four-year extension worth $48 million during the year, I really didn't see enough. He started off the season really strong, but then seemed to level off some. Maybe the ankle had something to do with that. In any case, he's now signed through 2021. The Eagles need more out of him. 

Verdict: STAYS

Lane Johnson 
 We finally saw what Lane Johnson could do with a full season, and it was impressive. Johnson was named first-team All-Pro and made his first Pro Bowl team, and he deserved all of it. Johnson, suspended two of the last three seasons for testing positive for banned substances, was a beast at right tackle. He's not going anywhere for a long time.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: That was the season we've all been waiting for from Johnson. He was a dominant right tackle in 2017 and finally made it to his first Pro Bowl roster. He deserved it. For a long time, there's been a stigma about playing right tackle and that makes sense on its face. Protecting the quarterback's blindside has historically been more important, but defenses have adjusted. That's why guys like Von Miller, DeMarcus Lawrence, Justin Houston and Joey Bosa generally rush against right tackles. Johnson shut down those guys and more last season. It's a big reason why the Eagles didn't move him to left tackle when Jason Peters went down. That was the right call. 

Verdict: STAYS

Marcus Johnson
Roob: Johnson stuck on the active roster all year and got into 10 games, catching five passes for 45 yards. But wide receiver depth is certainly one area the Eagles will try to upgrade this offseason. Johnson will get a long look with the other young receivers in camp, but he faces an uphill battle. He's got good speed, size and athleticism, but can he put it all together and catch the ball consistently enough to stick around another year? We'll see.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: The young wide receiver had a great spring and summer a year ago to earn his spot on the roster. He really worked his tail off to get better and the Eagles rewarded him with a roster spot. From there, he carved out a role on offense. He was the Eagles' receiver in their 13 personnel (three tight ends) package for much of the early season. But then in late November, Johnson lost his active spot to Shelton Gibson, who didn't play as big a role on offense but was a better special teamer. That was a shock to Johnson at the time. He'll have a shot to make the roster this year, but losing his job on Sundays in 2017 isn't a good sign. 

Verdict: GOES