It’s the final full week before Eagles training camp begins so we’re taking a closer look at five notable camp competitions.
Today: The battle at running back.
Much like the position battle at cornerback, we at least know who is at the top of the pecking order. Miles Sanders is the Eagles’ No. 1 running back and he could be poised for a big season in 2021. In fact, he came in at No. 8 on my list of the most important Eagles for the upcoming season.
But there are two major questions to answer still:
Which other running backs make the roster?
Typically, teams keep four running backs on their initial 53-man rosters. In the five years under Doug Pederson, the Eagles kept four running backs in three of those seasons. They kept five in 2017 initially just to make sure they didn’t lose Donnel Pumphrey. And last season, they kept just three out of the gate. The Colts — for whom Nick Sirianni coached last — kept four running backs in each of the last three years.
So it seems very likely the Eagles will be keeping four running backs on their active roster going into the 2021 season. After Sanders, Boston Scott still seems likely to be on the team. And the Eagles don’t have to keep Kenny Gainwell … but he was a fifth-round draft pick, so he’s probably safe too. So that could mean the rest of the running backs on the roster are fighting for one spot.
How much will those other running backs see the field in 2021?
Even after some of these running backs have done enough to earn roster spots, they’ll still need to earn playing time. While Sanders is clearly the top dog, there will be some scraps to go around. The way new running backs coach Jemal Singleton explained it this offseason definitely made it seem like there will be some sort of rotation yet to be determined.
“I think there are very specific skill sets that you need,” he said. “You need a 1st- and 2nd-down runner with that really elite ability. You need a guy that can pass-protect on 3rd down and be short yardage. You need a back that can run routes, and you can put him out in empty and do those types of things. So it’s really a combination of that.
“I think the days of a true, ‘Hey, he’s an every-down back,’ I think that word is a little skewed these days because of the … contact. It’s a tough position to play when you look at how many hits you can take.”
So let’s take a look at the running back candidates:
Experience: Year 3
Size: 5-6, 203
Just a couple years ago, Scott worked his way up from the practice squad and became a contributor with the Eagles. The former Saints’ sixth-round pick is short but powerful and has seemed to carve out a niche in Philadelphia. And he’s still very cheap heading into the 2021 season, set to make $920,000 in 2021.
Last season, Scott played in all 16 games and made four starts. He had 374 rushing yards (4.7 per attempt) and caught 25 passes for 212 yards. He also had two total touchdowns and was the Eagles’ primary kick returner. He had 28 returns for 590 yards (21.1).
Perhaps it’s possible that Gainwell really impresses in training camp, to the point where the Eagles think he could take over Scott’s role, but that seems unlikely. Because maybe Scott is somewhat limited but he’s at least a known quantity. And the Eagles still play the Giants twice per season.
Size: 5-9, 200
The Eagles drafted Gainwell with the 150th pick (fifth round) this offseason out of Memphis, a school that has produced some pretty good backs in recent seasons. There’s a lot to like about Gainwell, who opted out in 2020 but had a tremendous season in 2019, with over 2,000 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns. He was a true dual threat player at Memphis and figures to fill that role with the Eagles.
The easiest comparison for Gainwell at the NFL level is Nyheim Hines, who has been a very productive player for the Colts over the last few seasons. Of course, Hines played for Nick Sirianni in Indianapolis and when presented that comparison this spring, Sirianni agreed with it. If Gainwell can have the kind of impact Hines has had in Indy, then this will be a home run draft pick.
There are a lot of positions that take time to acclimate to life in the NFL but running back isn’t one of them. If Gainwell has a good training camp, then it would behoove the Eagles to make him a contributor in their offense as a rookie. If that means taking snaps and touches away from Scott, so be it.
Experience: Year 4
Size: 5-11, 206
The Lions took Johnson in the second round out of Auburn in 2018 and his NFL career got off to a nice start. As a rookie in Detroit, Johnson averaged 5.4 yards per carry and had 854 yards from scrimmage in just 10 games. But Johnson has struggled with knee injuries and after just three seasons after getting drafted, his NFL career looks like it might be in jeopardy.
Back in May the Lions cut Johnson and the Eagles claimed him off waivers. They then got Johnson to agree to a contract restructure, which will pay him veteran minimum of $920,000 in 2021. That will help him to make the team.
In the last couple years, Johnson has averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and the Lions decided to move on without him this season. Maybe Johnson has slowed down some but there’s still one area where he’s elite. Johnson was ProFootballFocus’ second-best pass blocking running back in the league last year.
Experience: Year 6
Size: 6-0, 222
Another big-name running back whose career might be coming to an early and unceremonious end. Howard admitted earlier this offseason that other teams simply weren’t calling after his disastrous 2020 season. The crazy thing is that before Howard got hurt in 2019, he was playing pretty well as a complement to Sanders, averaging 4.4 yards per carry with six rushing touchdowns. But Howard got a big contract from the Dolphins and then lasted just five games, averaging 1.2 yards per carry. He then returned to the Eagles’ practice squad. And now, he’s pretty close to being completely out of the league.
If you’re skeptical about Howard’s ability to help the Eagles, that’s understandable. This guy was a Pro Bowler as a rookie back in 2016 but carried a heavy workload in Chicago that might have taken its toll. But it’s still worth it for the Eagles to bring him to camp and find out what’s left.
Experience: Year 2
Size: 5-9, 193
The Lions used a fifth-round pick on Huntley but released him at final cuts and the Eagles claimed him and kept him on their roster all of last season. But Huntley played in a total of just five games and had just five carries for 19 yards. He also returned to kickoffs for a total of 36 yards.
Huntley is the forgotten guy in this competition but if Johnson and Howard don’t appear to have much left in the tank, he has a decent shot to make the roster. He’s an undersized player and he does a lot of the same things the Eagles expect from Gainwell in terms of being a dual threat. But he was also a great kick returner in college, taking five to the house while with New Mexico State.
Adrian Killins Jr.
Experience: Year 1
Size: 5-8, 177
The Eagles signed Killins out of UCF as a priority free agent. The one attribute Killins has is incredible speed. He’s obviously undersized but he can fly and has pass catching ability. In fact, during the spring, Killins was even working with the Eagles’ receivers, which tells you what this new coaching staff thinks about his ability to make plays in that way.
Of course, the Eagles’ receiver room is pretty crowded already too. And several of the running backs who are competing for a job have the ability to catch passes. Last season, Killins played in just one game for the Eagles and it didn’t go well; he had one catch for 2 yards and one play that went down as a carry for -12 yards.
Experience: Year 1
Size: 5-10, 215
The Eagles signed Holyfield to their active roster at the end of the 2019 season, which seemed to mean he’d had an advantage going into the next season. But that didn’t happen. He spent the 2020 season on the Eagles’ practice squad. He was elevated for one game (Browns) but he played just five special teams snaps in that one and didn’t touch the field on offense.
The best case scenario for Holyfield is that the Eagles want an inside, bruising running back on the roster and Howard has nothing left. Of their running backs, Holyfield is the second biggest between-the-tackles guy.
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