With one preseason game remaining, it looks increasingly as if Donnel Pumphrey will not play a significant role in the Eagles' offense in 2017 – assuming the rookie running back makes the team at all. That’s quite a departure from a few months ago, when Pumphrey was chosen in the fourth round of the draft and shared the practice field with Darren Sproles in dual-back sets.
Everybody came away from training camp and the preseason under the same impression: Pumphrey isn’t likely to help the club much this year. The all-time leading rusher in NCAA FBS history hasn’t been able to find the same daylight in the NFL, nor has he been sure-handed, whether toting the rock or fielding punts. The Eagles simply can’t count on him to contribute or hold on to the football right now.
So, the Eagles should probably just release Pumphrey, right?
As hasty as that might sound, there is a clamoring for the Eagles to cut Pumphrey as the regular season nears, fueled in large part by the emergence of Corey Clement. An undrafted rookie, Clement is enjoying a far more productive summer thus far, appearing capable as a ball carrier, receiver out of the backfield and pass protector.
If the decision were based on merit and performance alone, Clement probably does deserve a roster spot over Pumphrey.
Then again, decisions such as this aren’t always cut and dry.
Giving up on Pumphrey based on a bad preseason is rash. If the Eagles release him, maybe he’ll clear waivers and make it to the practice squad – where he’ll still be exposed for any team to add at any given time. Seeing as we’re talking about a relatively high draft pick, there’s a reasonable possibility somebody is going to be willing to roll the dice on such a talented prospect.
That is especially true given the preseason hasn’t exactly provided much of an opportunity for Pumphrey to showcase his abilities in the first place. We’re talking about a weapon the Eagles envisioned in the mold of a Sproles, stuck in an unimaginative offense that’s using a generic playbook not specifically tailored to those strengths. Furthermore, Pumphrey didn’t even return punts in college, so that aspect of the game is essentially brand new to him.
Sproles isn’t Sproles, either, when he lines up and is treated as if he is the same as any other running back. And even Sproles wasn’t Sproles right out of college, way back in 2005, when he recorded 13 total offensive touches for the Chargers, along with 6.0 yards per punt return and 24.3 yards per kick return. He did not find the end zone once that year, and fumbled three times.
What if the Chargers simply released Sproles before the season began because they didn’t foresee him having a big role as a rookie?
Pumphrey is not Sproles, so perhaps the comparison is unfair. The reality is we don’t know what the Eagles have in Pumphrey based on three exhibition games.
Would Clement be more useful to the Eagles in 2017? The numbers suggest he might. Clement has carried 24 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns, to go with six receptions for 48 yards. Pumphrey has rushed 19 times for 39 yards and caught 12 passes for 69 yards. The difference is clear.
They’re also completely different players with completely different skill sets. Comparing the two isn’t any fairer than putting Pumphrey and Sproles side by side.
Clement is the more likely of the two to reach the practice squad if waived on cut-down day. Every team in the league has an undrafted or late-round running back or two on their roster that is pushing for a spot right now – a prospect who has the advantage of already knowing that system. Think Clement has been enough of a game-changer this summer to alter those depth charts? It’s not impossible, but put like that, it’s doubtful.
You could say the same for Pumphrey, but teams that liked him in the middle of the draft undoubtedly still like him now, because preseason football isn’t the be-all end-all. Exposing this kid to waivers is a gamble.
Keeping Pumphrey as a seldom-used reserve for a year may not be popular. It’s also the right thing to do. Giving him time to learn the intricacies of the offense, get a feel for the speed of the game, become comfortable as a return man, and benefit from an NFL strength and conditioning program could have startling effects. And if there’s little to no change, all it cost the Eagles was Clement, who isn’t necessarily going anywhere regardless.
Who knows, Pumphrey may have a role to play in ’17, too. Once the Eagles begin scheming for opponents, the dual-back set with Sproles could return. What does Clement bring to the table that LeGarrette Blount or Wendell Smallwood don’t already?
As long as the Eagles are carrying four backs, it makes more sense to hang on to Pumphrey and see what he can do. Since when are fourth-round picks expected to be impact players from Day 1 in the first place?