Eagles

'No doubt' Wendell Smallwood will have increased role after Darren Sproles' injury

'No doubt' Wendell Smallwood will have increased role after Darren Sproles' injury

It would be unfair to expect Wendell Smallwood to become Darren Sproles before Sunday's game in Los Angeles.

It's not going to happen. 

"I'm not sure you can ever replace 43 in that regard," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. "He's just a unique player. But feel good about Wendell stepping up."

While Smallwood won't become Sproles, the Eagles are definitely going to lean on him throughout the rest of the 2017 season. Of the three running backs they were left with after the injury, Smallwood's set of skills most closely resembles that of Sproles, and Smallwood is now the most experienced back in the offense.

Even with the addition of Kenjon Barner (see story), Smallwood is likely going to be the main piece to fill the void Sproles' injury will leave for the Eagles' offense, especially on third downs. 

"There's no doubt Wendell is going to have an increased role," Reich said. "He's the guy ... I think all the guys have some third-down ability, but Wendell has really improved in that area. He's shown natural aptitude for it early, both from a protection standpoint and from a route-running standpoint."

The Eagles already showed a glimpse into their plans after Sproles went down Sunday. After the 13-year veteran left the game early in the second quarter, the Eagles faced 11 third-down situations the rest of the way; Smallwood was on the field for eight of them. LeGarrette Blount got the other three, one of which was a 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line. 

An area in which Smallwood has improved greatly from last season is in his pass protection. Smallwood said pass blocking is something running back coach Duce Staley harps on. When they watched film of the Giants game Tuesday, Staley was impressed and got the impression that the focus on technique is working. Likewise, Reich was impressed with Smallwood's blocking on Sunday, saying Smallwood did a good job against Steve Spagnuolo's complicated blitz schemes. 

Having the ability to block is a big part of a guy's ability to perform on third down. That becomes even more important for Smallwood now that Sproles is out for the rest of the season. 

"Yeah, it's huge," Smallwood said. "I'm just glad that I watched behind Darren and I learned his role in the third downs and the calls. And the things he's been getting, I've been learning it since I got here, behind him. Not saying I'm going to be required to do it as much as he was. But now he's gone, so someone has to step in and do it and I think I'm going to have to take on that role."

But pass protecting is just part of the duty for a running back on the field for third downs. Another important part is being able to catch the ball out of the backfield. It seems like Smallwood has the ability but has just nine catches in 16 career games. 

During his time with the Eagles, Sproles has averaged nine catches about every three games. He has 532 career catches and is one of the best receiving running backs in NFL history. 

While Smallwood won't become Sproles, he admitted he'll take on some of the burden of trying to replace him. After all, he's really close to his 34-year-old teammate. The two actually lived next to each other during Smallwood's rookie season last year and on Tuesday, Smallwood said he's been in near constant communication with Sproles since the injury. 

While Sproles hinted toward a possible comeback, Smallwood said the two hadn't talked about it. 

"He's doing good," Smallwood said. "He's a fighter and a competitor. I'm like, 'You had an ACL and you just walked off the field?' He was like, 'Man, I'm a fighter, I'm a bully.' I'm like, 'Yeah, you right.' And even when he thought he did something he was just like, 'Hey, check my knee out,' or something like that. He's a tough guy and I admire that guy to death."

Eagles hoping no-risk, high-reward veteran signings can rekindle past success

Eagles hoping no-risk, high-reward veteran signings can rekindle past success

When you’re in salary cap hell, you have to be creative when building a roster.

And one tactic Howie Roseman used when putting together the Eagles team that begins training camp Thursday is signing a handful of no-risk, high-reward guys.

Players trying to revive their careers. Players trying to reclaim past glory. Players running out of chances.

These are no-risk, high-reward guys. They could become contributors, but if it doesn’t work out? The Eagles can release them before the season with modest or no cap ramifications.

When you’re in salary cap hell, you can’t sign all the free agents you want. So you sign the free agents that you can. And you do that by signing players nobody else wants. Guys with no leverage.

One tool Roseman likes to use is the NFL’s minimum-salary benefit, which gives teams some salary cap relief when they sign veteran players to certain deals.

The minimum-salary benefit can be used only for veterans with at least four years of experience who sign one-year minimum-wage deals with combined bonuses equalling $90,000 or less. 

Here’s a look at four of these no-risk, high-reward players the Eagles added this offseason.

Markus Wheaton

The Eagles signed Wheaton to a one-year deal with a $790,000 base salary (sixth-year minimum) with a $45,000 signing bonus, a $45,000 workout bonus but a cap number of $720,000, thanks to the minimum-salary benefit.

If the Eagles release Wheaton before the season, he would count just $90,000 against the cap, the value of his two bonuses.

Wheaton is only 27 and should be in his prime but has done nearly nothing the last two seasons after two very good years.

In 2014 and 2015, he combined for 97 catches for 1,393 yards, seven touchdowns and a 14.4 average. He had seven catches of 40 yards or more during those two years. Pretty good production.

But the last two years, Wheaton had just seven catches for 102 yards and one TD for the Steelers and Bears.

If he’s healthy and can be even half the player he was in 2014 and 2015, he could really help as a fourth receiver.

Matt Jones

The Eagles signed Jones to a two-year, $1.51 million deal that includes base salaries of $705,000 this year and $805,000 next year with no bonus money, which means no dead cap money if he’s released.

Even though Jones’ deal is not subject to the minimum-salary benefit, his base salaries of $705,000 and $805,000 are minimum wage for a third-year veteran in 2018 and a fourth-year vet in 2019.

Jones was one of the NFL’s best running backs the first half of 2016. Through seven games, he had 460 yards and a 4.6 average with three TDs. In a mid-October win over the Eagles at FedEx Field, he ran for 135 yards, the most rushing yards against the Eagles the last two years.

But he hurt his knee and never got his job back, then was released before last season. He resurfaced with the Colts but had only five carries all year.

Jones is only 25 and is a good enough receiver that he caught 19 passes for 304 yards and a TD as a rookie reserve.

With LeGarrette Blount gone, Jay Ajayi on a pitch count because of chronic knee soreness, Corey Clement’s role still undefined and Darren Sproles likely to be limited on offense at 35 years old, Jones will have a chance to work his way into the mix.

And if it doesn’t work out? No cap hit.

Richard Rodgers

The Eagles signed Rodgers to a one-year, $880,000 contract that includes a $790,000 base salary, a $45,000 signing bonus, a $45,000 workout bonus and a $720,000 cap figure, courtesy of the minimum-salary benefit rule.

If the Eagles release him, he’ll count $245,000 in dead money, the amount of guaranteed money in his one-year deal.

As recently as 2015, Rodgers caught 58 passes for 510 yards and eight touchdowns, which ranked him 12th among all NFL tight ends in catches and fifth in TDs. But he dropped to 30 catches in 2016 and just 12 last year.

Rodgers is only 26 and should be in his prime, but he’s reached only 30 yards twice in his last 31 games.

With Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, the Eagles have a potent 1-2 punch, but if Rodgers can regain his form of 2015, it would give Doug Pederson even more options in a ridiculously talented array of skill players.

LaRoy Reynolds

The Eagles signed Reynolds to a one-year, $880,000 contract that includes a $790,000 base salary, a $90,000 roster bonus and a reduced $720,000 cap figure.

Because there’s nothing guaranteed in his contract, the Eagles would not absorb any dead money under the cap if they release him before the season.

Reynolds, now with his fourth team in four years, has played in 68 games with seven starts. He’s only 27 and is considered an above-average special teamer and adequate depth linebacker.

The Eagles have some big question marks at linebacker, with Paul Worrilow (Reynolds’ former teammate) out for the year, Mychal Kendricks now with the Browns, Nigel Bradham suspended for the opener and Jordan Hicks able to finish one of his first three seasons.

Reynolds will have a chance to work into that mix. If not? No harm done.

More on the Eagles

Eagle Eye: When does a contract negotiation become a problem?

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Eagle Eye: When does a contract negotiation become a problem?

In the latest edition of Eagle Eye, John Clark and Barrett Brooks are pumped for the start of training camp. Following MLB Commissioner's comments on Mike Trout's marketability, the guys discuss if it's on the player or the league to market an athlete? The Falcons said they will not give Julio Jones a new contract. At what point does a public contract negotiation become a distraction in the locker room?

1:00 - Guys are excited for the start of training camp.
4:45 - Is it on a player or a league to market an athlete?
11:00 - When does a Julio Jones contract situation become a locker room distraction?
18:00 - When money starts dividing a locker room.

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