The Eagles replaced their oft-injured one-two punch in the backfield, but will a brand new running back tandem prove to be better or worse in 2019?
Key additions: Jordan Howard (trade, Bears), Miles Sanders (draft, second round)
Key departures: Jay Ajayi (free agent), Darren Sproles (free agent)
Why they could be better: Health
Josh Adams led the Eagles in rushing with 511 yards as an undrafted rookie in 2018. That should tell you all you need to know about the state of the running backs last year. Ajayi wasn’t healthy when the season started and had to tap out with a torn ACL after four games. Sproles missed Weeks 2 through 11 with a hamstring injury. And Corey Clement was lost to a horrific-looking lower body injury right about the time Sproles was finally returning.
Injuries can conspire to decimate a team or unit at any time, though the Eagles appear to be in a better place now. Ajayi always had a wonky knee, but in Jordan Howard, the offense has a workhorse who’s missed one game in three seasons. And while Miles Sanders just sat out OTAs, he’s 22 and less likely to break down than a 36-year-old Sproles who suited up for just nine games the last two years. Plus, Clement is expected back. Whether a Howard-Sanders tandem is an upgrade is unclear, but at least they should play.
Why they could be worse: No standouts
Worse might be a stretch – after all, the Eagles probably wound up with one of the worst backfields in the league in ’18. But before it devolved to that point, the unit looked pretty good on paper. Ajayi averaged almost 5.3 yards per carry after joining the club in 2017. Sproles averaged 4.9 plus another 8.8 yards per reception over a 14-year career. These were explosive, star-caliber players.
Howard averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a rookie, but in the two seasons since, a very mediocre only 3.9. And Sanders’ NFL.com scouting report says things like, “Lacks explosiveness,” “Average access to burst,” and “No home-run speed,” – not to mention “Doesn’t separate from linebackers on wheel routes,” a Sproles staple. Is their production going to vastly exceed that of an Adams-Wendell Smallwood combination? Maybe, but not exactly a given.
The X-factor: Will Sproles return?
If the season started today, Boston Scott potentially would be in line for snaps, at least as a receiver out of the backfield. Does that say more for Scott, a 2018 sixth-round pick the Eagles scooped off the Saints practice squad in December, or is it a commentary on the other options? Considering he has yet to register a catch or carry in the NFL, maybe the latter.
The Eagles don’t have a true third-down back right now, not somebody with meaningful experience anyway, so one can’t help but wonder if Sproles is still a fit for this team. Yes, the injuries are a concern, yet it looked like there was some gas in the tank when he returned last season with three touchdowns and 280 yards from scrimmage over the final five regular season games. Don’t be shocked if Sproles re-signs at some point in the next two months. That kind of production is the definition of an X-factor.
Are the Eagles’ running backs better or worse?
The bottom line is the Eagles added a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and a second-round talent, and the guys they are replacing are still on the street. Howard and Sanders both come with question marks attached, but Ajayi and Sproles barely played in ’18 – and Sproles isn’t necessarily out of the mix. As long as the new duo can out-rush Adams and Smallwood, they’re fine.
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