Eagles

A peek behind curtain shows Eagles needed RB like Ajayi

He's 24 years old, he's got a cap-friendly contract, he had a Pro Bowl season a year ago, and the Eagles are a better football team today than they were yesterday.

You never want to give away draft picks, but this is a football team that's on the brink of some pretty special things, and when you're in the position the Eagles are in — 7-1 with a six-game winning streak and your eye on the No. 1 seed in the NFC — you do everything you can to get better.

When you look at the Eagles' collection of running backs, you have a bunch of guys who've contributed in various ways this year but also a bunch of guys who also carry significant question marks.

LeGarrette Blount has had some big games, but he turns 31 in December and is averaging just 2.6 yards per carry the last two weeks. Wendell Smallwood has generally looked good when he's gotten a chance to play, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. Corey Clement has contributed more than anybody ever dreamed he would, but he's still an undrafted rookie with a 3.6 career rushing average. 

Kenjon Barner has helped ease the absence of Darren Sproles with his punt return ability, but he's essentially a 28-year-old journeyman who wasn't even on a roster a month ago. The Eagles used a fourth-round pick on Donnel Pumphrey, but … who knows what they have there.

The Eagles have been winning, but let's look deeper into their running game.

The first four games of the season, the Eagles averaged 4.7 yards per carry, which was fourth-best in the league. Over the last month, that number dropped to 3.7 yards per carry, 21st in the league.

In these last four wins, they've rushed for 127 or fewer yards in each game with a per-carry average of 3.8 or worse all four weeks, something they hadn't done since 2009. 

And three of their seven-longest runs these last four weeks have been courtesy of Carson Wentz.

They've run it well at times and each back has had his moments. But let's face it: The Eagles haven't had a big-time running back since Chip got rid of Shady. DeMarco Murray never fit in and didn't want to be here. Ryan Mathews ran extremely hard but was injury-prone. Blount is nearing the end of his career and who knows how much he has left. 

In Ajayi, the Eagles get a kid who last year ran for 1,272 yards with a 4.9 average and eight touchdowns and over the last two years has the fifth-most rushing yards in the NFL — 51 fewer than Shady and 78 more than Murray.

The last two weeks, Ajayi's numbers have been ugly — a 2.1 average on 36 carries. But the week before that, he ran for 130 yards in a win over the Falcons in Atlanta. 

He's been out there without a lot of help, toiling in the NFL's 32nd-ranked offense with an awful passing game and a terrible offensive line. And I'd be much more concerned about a statistical dip with a 30-year-old back like Blount than a 24-year-old like Ajayi.

The initial reaction with these sort of moves is … why? Everything is going so well with the Eagles, why would you make such a dramatic change?

But the great teams are the ones that are able to identify their deficiencies, even while they're winning games. Howie Roseman has a track record of bold moves, and you don't make bold moves only when you're losing. 

If you feel that hidden behind that glossy 7-1 record you don't have the running attack to win a Super Bowl, you make this move.

But the beauty of this trade is that while it helps in the short term — it makes the Eagles a better team for the next few months — it really answers a nagging question for next year, too. Blount won't be here, and as promising as Smallwood and Clement have looked at times, neither has proven he can be a lead back. 

Ajayi has.

Now, to be fair, Ajayi is not very good in blitz pickup, which has been a problem for the Eagles' backs this year, and he's never been much of a receiver, which ideally you want in this offense. Dolphins coach Adam Gase has been critical of Ajayi and the other Miami backs lately for trying to hit home runs instead of sticking to the play call and running disciplined.

But the Eagles got better Tuesday. And when you're 7-1 and you get better, that's a really good place to be.