FOXBORO, Mass. — Wendell Smallwood had eye-popping stats Thursday night.
Not the good kind.
Four carries, one yard. One catch, five yards. And that came on 30 snaps. Did we mention he also failed to punch in a touchdown from the 1-yard line?
Smallwood, 24, had an excellent opportunity to push for a roster spot on Thursday night but left Gillette Stadium after a forgettable performance.
It just speaks to the quality of the competition that he didn’t lose ground because of it.
Smallwood didn’t lose ground because as bad as he was, Matt Jones was arguably worse (see story). The veteran running back dropped three passes and one led to an interception. Jones failed to flash even late in the game against the Patriots’ deep reserves. Smallwood’s other competition — Donnel Pumphrey and Josh Adams — watched the game because of injuries.
So it’s possible four carries for one yard was actually the best performance from that quartet of running backs Thursday night.
“You want to make plays, but at the same time, the coaches want to see what you can do without the ball,” Smallwood said. “Are you doing your job when you're not (carrying) it? Does it mean anything to you when your buddy’s getting the ball and do you care about it?
“Just being out there and doing that and getting my job done when I’m not getting the ball means more than when I do get the ball. You gotta be a force either way. The reps matter. They count whether you’re getting the ball or not.”
Sure, the Eagles are watching every snap. It’s not just about what the running backs do when they have the ball. But it had to kill Smallwood that he wasn’t able to capitalize on a huge opportunity against the Patriots.
The Eagles have to trim their roster to 53 players by 4 p.m. on Sept. 1. We all know Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles and Corey Clement are on the team. We’re also expecting one of these four — Smallwood, Jones, Pumphrey or Adams — to make the roster as well. It’s possible the Eagles might keep just three, but that seems unlikely after they kept five on their initial roster last season.
In a race it seems like nobody wants to win, Smallwood’s biggest advantage might just be that he’s been here the longest. A fifth-round pick in 2016, Smallwood has the most experience in Doug Pederson’s offense.
“It puts me in a good position,” Smallwood admitted. “But you still gotta go out there and play whether you’ve been here three years or three months. You gotta go out there and make plays and give them reason to trust me.”
Amazingly, the other biggest advantage Smallwood has is that he’s been healthy. That’s amazing because injuries have hampered Smallwood during his first two years in the league, but he’s the only running back of the four who hasn’t suffered an injury all spring and summer.
Some of that is luck. Some of that is Smallwood’s better understanding of how to protect himself and being “in tune” with his body. While the other running backs have to show the Eagles their ability, Smallwood has to show them his ability to stay healthy. So far, so good.
Smallwood has made an effort this year to really try to stay healthy. He agreed that injuries have really hampered his young career, especially whenever it looks like he’s going to get a bigger role. It happened last year after Sproles went down. Smallwood looked like the new third-down back, but a knee injury helped ruined that. So instead of being a major contributor on the Super Bowl team, Smallwood was inactive for the second half of the season and all three playoff games.
Now, Smallwood is fighting and clawing to stay in Philadelphia and make the roster. He’s willing to be a big contributor on special teams, which is important, and maybe he showed something when he didn’t have the ball Thursday night.
It just seemed like he didn’t do a ton to separate himself. The good news for Smallwood is that the fourth-running back race is more of a crawl. All he has to do is keep inching along.