Eagles

'No doubt' Wendell Smallwood will have increased role after Darren Sproles' injury

It would be unfair to expect Wendell Smallwood to become Darren Sproles before Sunday's game in Los Angeles.

It's not going to happen. 

"I'm not sure you can ever replace 43 in that regard," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. "He's just a unique player. But feel good about Wendell stepping up."

While Smallwood won't become Sproles, the Eagles are definitely going to lean on him throughout the rest of the 2017 season. Of the three running backs they were left with after the injury, Smallwood's set of skills most closely resembles that of Sproles, and Smallwood is now the most experienced back in the offense.

Even with the addition of Kenjon Barner (see story), Smallwood is likely going to be the main piece to fill the void Sproles' injury will leave for the Eagles' offense, especially on third downs. 

"There's no doubt Wendell is going to have an increased role," Reich said. "He's the guy ... I think all the guys have some third-down ability, but Wendell has really improved in that area. He's shown natural aptitude for it early, both from a protection standpoint and from a route-running standpoint."

The Eagles already showed a glimpse into their plans after Sproles went down Sunday. After the 13-year veteran left the game early in the second quarter, the Eagles faced 11 third-down situations the rest of the way; Smallwood was on the field for eight of them. LeGarrette Blount got the other three, one of which was a 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line. 

An area in which Smallwood has improved greatly from last season is in his pass protection. Smallwood said pass blocking is something running back coach Duce Staley harps on. When they watched film of the Giants game Tuesday, Staley was impressed and got the impression that the focus on technique is working. Likewise, Reich was impressed with Smallwood's blocking on Sunday, saying Smallwood did a good job against Steve Spagnuolo's complicated blitz schemes. 

Having the ability to block is a big part of a guy's ability to perform on third down. That becomes even more important for Smallwood now that Sproles is out for the rest of the season. 

"Yeah, it's huge," Smallwood said. "I'm just glad that I watched behind Darren and I learned his role in the third downs and the calls. And the things he's been getting, I've been learning it since I got here, behind him. Not saying I'm going to be required to do it as much as he was. But now he's gone, so someone has to step in and do it and I think I'm going to have to take on that role."

But pass protecting is just part of the duty for a running back on the field for third downs. Another important part is being able to catch the ball out of the backfield. It seems like Smallwood has the ability but has just nine catches in 16 career games. 

During his time with the Eagles, Sproles has averaged nine catches about every three games. He has 532 career catches and is one of the best receiving running backs in NFL history. 

While Smallwood won't become Sproles, he admitted he'll take on some of the burden of trying to replace him. After all, he's really close to his 34-year-old teammate. The two actually lived next to each other during Smallwood's rookie season last year and on Tuesday, Smallwood said he's been in near constant communication with Sproles since the injury. 

While Sproles hinted toward a possible comeback, Smallwood said the two hadn't talked about it. 

"He's doing good," Smallwood said. "He's a fighter and a competitor. I'm like, 'You had an ACL and you just walked off the field?' He was like, 'Man, I'm a fighter, I'm a bully.' I'm like, 'Yeah, you right.' And even when he thought he did something he was just like, 'Hey, check my knee out,' or something like that. He's a tough guy and I admire that guy to death."