It may be time to start rethinking everything we thought about the Eagles’ running back hierarchy.
Because with Miles Sanders held out Thursday night, the starter wasn’t Boston Scott or Kenny Gainwell or Kerryon Johnson.
It was Jordan Howard, the veteran who was released in November by the Dolphins, couldn’t find a spot on anybody's 53-man roster, resurfaced on the Eagles' practice squad, averaged 18 inches per carry for the season, rejoined the Eagles in April after fearing his career was over and was widely believed to be a roster longshot coming into training camp.
That Jordan Howard.
With Sanders, Scott and Jason Huntley all back, Johnson coming over on waivers from the Lions and Gainwell a 4th-round draft pick, we all pretty much assumed the Eagles just signed Howard as a courtesy to showcase himself and for camp legs. Howard had a good first half in 2019 before he got hurt and Sanders took over, but he doesn’t even seem like a good fit in Nick Sirianni’s offense, since he’s never been much of a receiving back.
Yet here we are.
Howard started Thursday night against the Steelers but only played the first series. Five snaps and then out of there along with Brandon Brooks. When the first offense came back out for a second series, Boston Scott was the running back.
After Scott, Gainwell got four series, finishing out the first half with Joe Flacco. His 19 snaps were most of any Eagles running back. Huntley got 10, Johnson eight and Scott and Howard five apiece.
Sanders and Scott have gotten virtually all the 1st-team reps at practice so far, and Howard and Gainwell have gotten a smattering. All of which makes Howard’s start even more curious.
Whatever the depth chart says, at least for one day they lined up like this: Sanders, Howard, Scott and Gainwell, then Johnson and Huntley.
The Eagles will keep four or five running backs, and Sanders, Scott and Gainwell are locks. So it comes down to Howard, Johnson and Huntley for either one or two roster spots.
Here’s one theory about Howard. He’s a workhorse. Here’s a guy who had 778 carries for 3,370 yards in his first three seasons. Sanders has an injury history, and as much as the Eagles like Scott as a change-of-pace receiving back and Gainwell as a situational playmaker, if Sanders misses games Howard might make the most sense as the starter.
Howard’s had a good training camp, and with only 35 carries since Nov. 3, 2019, he’s certainly got fresh legs. And since he came here on a minimum-wage contract - $990,000 for one year – he’s an inexpensive option.
And Howard offers a different skill set than the other backs on the roster. He’s not going to hit the corner and run away from anybody or pick up 30 yards on a wheel route. But he’s a tough, hard-nosed inside runner who averaged 4.4 yards per carry as an Eagle two years ago.
Here are the stats for all the running backs from Thursday night:
Sanders: Did not play
Howard: 1-for-3 rushing [3.0]
Scott: 1-for-4 rushing [4.0]
Gainwell: 2-for-14 rushing [7.0], 2-for-16 receiving
Huntley: 4-for-15 rushing [3.8], 1-for-4 receiving
Johnson: 2-for-16 rushing [8.0]
Not a lot to go on for any of them. And maybe the rotation will be completely different at practice Saturday or when the Eagles face the Patriots Thursday night at the Linc in the second preseason game.
But it does look like Howard has at least elbowed his way into the conversation when it comes to which running backs are going to make the roster. And that's more than any of us anticipated a couple weeks ago.