Wendell Smallwood

Duce Staley expects 'bumps along the way' with Eagles' RB rotation

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Duce Staley expects 'bumps along the way' with Eagles' RB rotation

Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley will flat out admit there might be an occasion when one of his guys isn't satisfied with his workload after a game. Staley doesn't seem to think that's a problem or a bad thing, either.

How the Eagles juggle their suddenly crowded backfield will be one of the biggest storylines to follow in the second half of the season. Both Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi and alleged starter LeGarrette Blount are known to have displayed their displeasure over a perceived lack of carries in the past. Now they're on a roster together, along with three other ball carriers.

Blount had seized the lead-back role before the trade for Ajayi. Yet, in their first game together, Ajayi was on the field for one more snap than Blount — though Blount finished with one more carry. Corey Clement wound up with more touches and snaps than both!

There were no signs of any problems after the contest, in part because the Eagles beat the Broncos 51-23. Perhaps management was able to smooth things over beforehand, too.

"It's all about communication," Staley said last week. "You have to be able to communicate with them on every level. If you communicate with them and be honest with them on every level, everything else will pretty much fall in line."

The question is whether the peace and harmony in the running backs room can last for the next seven weeks, plus playoffs — because even Staley wouldn't promise that.

"Now, not saying there won't be any bumps along the way," Staley said. "Who knows? That's just a part of the game, and that's a part of them being competitive."

"I want a guy that wants the ball 100 times. You want that guy."

Wait.

Bumps? What about the bumps? What kind of bumps?

Part of the reason Ajayi was available for trade in the first place is that the Dolphins reportedly grew tired of his complaining about carries — even after wins. Blount was famously released by the Steelers in 2014 after leaving the sideline before a game ended, upset he had not received a single carry. And these are just the most glaring examples.

But these are the Eagles. The team is 8-1, and the locker room is filled with leaders, unlike what Ajayi was probably used to in Miami.

And the year is 2017. When Blount didn't record a carry in a Week 2 loss to the Chiefs, he showed maturity and took the situation in stride.

"I don't have any problems in my room, and I don't think we're going to have any problems in my room," Staley said. "Those guys are highly competitive, which I love, and moving forward, I just think they'll all be able to help the Eagles chase the ultimate goal."

It may help that Staley has firsthand experience with this type of situation.

A veteran of 10 NFL seasons, Staley was the Eagles' primary back for roughly half of those. Then, in 2003, Brian Westbrook's role in the offense began to expand, and Correll Buckhalter was healthy and had a big piece of the pie as well.

Staley scoffed at the idea he was unhappy at the time, though some reporters seemed to remember differently. The one aspect that was definitely true is the Eagles made it to the conference title game that year.

"I have a little history with it," Staley said. "It worked when we were here. All three of us had a chance to play. We were productive, we won a lot of games that way.

"There's no reason why this can't work, and it will."

The "how" is still a little fuzzy, and the Eagles are no doubt still figuring that out themselves. It may be something that has a way of solving itself as the season moves along.

At least, that's sort of how Staley sees it, suggesting the Eagles could take the "hot hand" approach and stick with whichever back is having the most success. However the rotation winds up working, Staley is up to the challenge.

"I love the task myself," Staley said. "It's like a big puzzle you're trying to put together, and once you get it together, you're happy about it."

It should be noted that Staley no longer has autonomy over the running-back rotation, as previous head coach Chip Kelly always liked to fall back on. Those decisions are now made collectively, with current coach Doug Pederson making the final call, according to Staley.

So should the Eagles hit any of those so-called bumps along the way, Staley may have to carry those complaints back up the chain of command. If that's the case, it will be interesting to see whether the type of communication he's preaching will work both ways.

Eagles Inactives: Zach Ertz out vs. Broncos; Jay Ajayi to play

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Eagles Inactives: Zach Ertz out vs. Broncos; Jay Ajayi to play

The Eagles are without Zach Ertz on Sunday. He's inactive. 

Ertz popped up on the injury report Thursday with hamstring tightness. He was limited in practice Thursday and Friday. Head coach Doug Pederson said Ertz would play but his pregame warmup didn't go well. 

During pregame warmups, Ertz was shaking his head and didn't look like himself. At one point, he ran a sprint and then crouched in pain. He spoke briefly with Pederson and tight ends coach Justin Peelle and presumably told them the bad news. 

Expect Trey Burton to have an expanded role Sunday, but Brent Celek will start in Ertz's spot. 

The Birds will have running back Jay Ajayi, who was traded to Philadelphia from Miami before Tuesday's trade deadline. The Eagles haven't thrown the whole playbook at Ajayi just yet but Pederson wanted to get him comfortable with 10-15 plays. Expect Ajayi to play sparingly on run plays. The Eagles have all five running backs active. 

Ronald Darby (ankle) is still inactive. He has been listed as questionable for the last three weeks but with the bye week coming up, the Eagles elected to give him some more time to get ready. Darby hasn't played since Week 1 when he dislocated his right ankle. 

Here are the rest of the Eagles' inactives: Nate Sudfeld, Shelton Gibson, Steven Means, Elijah Qualls, Taylor Hart. 

Sudfeld is inactive after being signed to the 53-man roster last week. He's the third quarterback on the roster, so he'll be the weekly inactive going forward.

For the Broncos, Emmanuel Sanders (ankle) is active. Here are the Broncos' inactives: QB Paxton Lynch, RB De'Angelo Henderson, ILB Todd Davis, DE DeMarcus Walker, OT Donald Stephenson, WR Jordan Taylor. 

Wendell Smallwood appears to be odd man out in Eagles' RB rotation

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Wendell Smallwood appears to be odd man out in Eagles' RB rotation

Despite the acquisition of Jay Ajayi, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson insisted on Wednesday he will continue to employ a rotation at running back.

"I think it's kind of the way it's been going," Pederson said. "There's certain things that (LeGarrette Blount) does, and there's certain things that Jay can do, and there's certain things that (Corey Clement) can do.

“We continue to embrace that and design our run game around their strengths.”

But there was one name that was conspicuous by its omission when Pederson went over the rotation — Wendell Smallwood.

Maybe that doesn't mean anything. Maybe Pederson was simply rattling off a few examples and left it at that.

Or maybe it's a sign of things to come. Maybe the Ajayi trade will finally butt Smallwood out of consideration for regular playing time, at least for the time being.

“Nothing changes with Wendell," Pederson said. "We just keep him coming and keep feeding him when we can.”

Smallwood has 38 carries and 10 receptions so far this season. But in the Eagles' last game, the second-year back only touched the ball twice, and it was the third time he finished with fewer than five.

If nothing changes, as Pederson claimed, we can assume Smallwood's role will remain limited, at best. And when pressed further on the issue, the head coach admitted he really wasn't sure how everything would play out.

“I can't tell you until I get to gameday, honestly," Pederson said. "I don't know. I'm not going to speculate until (Ajayi) knows our system how we're going to necessarily use him.”

Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich also tried to make the case that the club “loves” Smallwood.

“We are happy with all the guys that we’ve got in the building,” Reich said. “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.

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

A fifth-round draft pick in 2016, Smallwood did have an opportunity to earn a job as one of the Eagles’ primary backs in training camp. However, a hamstring injury sidelined the second-year player for a portion of the summer.

Smallwood also missed two games this season with a knee injury, and was sidelined multiple times during his rookie season as well.

The 23-year-old’s health has been one issue. Another, the Eagles seem hesitant to rely on him in pass protection, which can often conspire to sideline young backs. Nor has Smallwood seized a bigger role with his performance on the field, averaging a modest 4.0 yards per carry during his brief NFL career.

The bottom line is the Eagles clearly felt Ajayi upgraded the roster, and no matter how they spin it, at least somewhat at Smallwood’s expense.

"The message has never changed," Pederson said. "We're going to constantly look at bringing in competition at every spot.

“Competition makes us better. Competition makes each individual better. This is no different. Whether it's OTAs or Week 9, Week 8, whatever it is in the regular season, it doesn't change."

The Eagles are trying to make the claim nobody’s role has to change after the addition of Ajayi. Both Pederson and Reich also said the meager 13 snaps Smallwood played against the 49ers was simply the way the rotation worked out.

But between the Eagles signing Blount in May, trading for Ajayi on Monday, and Clement’s emergence as a viable option this season, Smallwood continues to lose ground in that competition.