As Fletcher Cox walked off the practice field last week on the first day of Eagles training camp, he saw his cousin and new teammate Kenny Gainwell. So he asked the rookie how his first NFL training camp practice went.
“It was fast,” Gainwell answered.
“Well, if you think this is fast ….,” Cox said, bringing up how fast it will be in the opener.
But that was a week ago. And as fast as that first practice was for Gainwell, he’s been getting used to it pretty quickly too.
“I’m adjusting to it smoothly,” Gainwell said this week. “I’m working hard.”
After a slow first round of practices for the rookie fifth-round pick out of Memphis, he’s beginning to look more natural as a professional. In recent practices, Gainwell is looking comfortable and is starting to make some plays, especially as a receiver out of the backfield.
It should come as no surprise, of course, that’s what he likes about this scheme.
“I love this offense,” Gainwell said. “The opportunity I can get being split out, being a pass catcher as a running back. A guy that can just go out and run routes out of the backfield.”
Ever since the Eagles drafted Gainwell the most common comparison has been to Indianapolis running back Nyheim Hines for obvious reasons. They’re both undersized, fast running backs who excel as receivers. It’s a comparison that even head coach Nick Sirianni agreed with shortly after the draft.
It’s a crowded running back room with Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Kerryon Johnson, Jordan Howard and Jason Huntley, but Gainwell has a chance to separate himself as a weapon in the pass game. We’re already seeing him show of some of that potential in Sirianni’s offense.
“Kenny’s been great,” quarterback Nick Mullens said. “You’re exactly right (about his receiving ability). I was just getting to know him, talk to him about his college career. He was talking about the insane amount of catches he had, I want to say 60, in his senior year or something close to that. Anytime you can do that as a running back, you can be very valuable in this league. He’s done a great job and he’ll keep getting the ball.”
The year Mullens was talking about came in 2019, which was Gainwell’s only season as a starter at the collegiate level. He had to wait his turn in 2018 and he opted out in 2020.
But in 2019, he was dynamic. He had 1,459 rushing yards (6.3) with 13 touchdowns and caught 51 passes for 610 yards (12.0) and 3 touchdowns. He had over 2,000 scrimmage yards in 14 games.
Even if he doesn’t start taking carries away from Sanders as a rookie, Gainwell will still likely get some opportunity this year as a receiver out of the backfield. He thinks that’s his ticket on the field early. “Yeah, for sure,” he said. And he might even see some action in 21 personnel as the second running back on the field.
It seemed like the players day off on Sunday might have really helped Gainwell. In the first four days of practice, he wasn’t making many plays. In the few days since, he’s shown some much more impressive flashes.
In 7-on-7 drills the other day, Gainwell caught a pass and juked quickly, leaving a defender grasping the air. A small glimpse of what might be to come.
“He’s really shifty,” fellow rookie Zech McPhearson said. “He’s definitely good with the ball in his hands. You can’t just go up to him and be lackadaisical to tackle him. You’ve really got to put your eyes on him and close that space. If you give him too much space, he’s going to use it to his advantage.”
Yes, the NFL game is fast. But Gainwell is catching up.
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