Eagles

Are 2019 Eagles better or worse at running back?

us_sanders.png
USA Today Images

Are 2019 Eagles better or worse at running back?

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. 

BETTER

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More Better or Worse 

Why Eagles need Brandon Graham to have a big year as a pass rusher

Why Eagles need Brandon Graham to have a big year as a pass rusher

Brandon Graham's future with the Eagles was uncertain heading into the offseason, but the 31-year-old defensive end is back with a new, three-year deal.

Graham started all 16 games for the Eagles last season and recorded four sacks and nine tackles for loss. 

He'll be a key part of the defense this season, especially with the team having lost defensive ends Michael Bennett and Chris Long.

"He needs to be a double-digit [sacks] guy in order for this defense to really work the way it's supposed to work," according to NBC Sports Philadelphia's Barrett Brooks.

Brooks and Derrick Gunn discuss why Graham comes in eighth on their list of the 10 most important Eagles in the video above. 

Donovan McNabb reflects on Eagles career, motivation from 'opinionated fans,' more in interview

Donovan McNabb reflects on Eagles career, motivation from 'opinionated fans,' more in interview

While many Eagles fans have mixed emotions about Donovan McNabb and his tenure as a Philadelphia Eagle, that feeling is not mutual. 

In town Thursday to meet kids at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia, McNabb told me that it’s all happy when he reflects on his time with the Eagles.

“I don’t get involved in the banter outside, the negative or people’s opinions," he said. "It was fulfilling a dream of playing football. And I have four kids of my own who were a part of the run we had here in Philadelphia so it was fun — it was a lot of fun.”

As for this year’s Eagles team, McNabb believes this squad can get to the Super Bowl, and he feels that everything begins and ends with Carson Wentz and his health. But it comes as no surprise that the former quarterback picked the guys who protect Wentz as most important to the Eagles' success outside of the signal caller.

“I think that offensive line has to gel like they were a couple years ago and take pressure off of Carson," McNabb said.

And yes, Philly fans, Five will always love you … and laugh with you. 

“I truly love what the fans have done for me and the support that I’ve had through my career," he said. "Sometimes you have your opinionated fans and that motivates and drives me, to this day. I laughed about it now and I laughed about it then.”

Fans will have a chance to chuckle with McNabb this fall when he’s inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame on November 7.

You can watch more of my interview with McNabb above.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Eagles