If it’s up to Eagles rookie running back Wendell Smallwood, he’ll be playing in the team’s second preseason game Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
Smallwood, who returned to practice on Saturday after missing nearly two weeks with a quad injury, is eager to compete but knows that he’ll have to be fully cleared by the team’s medical staff before that can happen.
“I definitely believe I’m ready, I’m just limited to certain stuff I can do,” Smallwood said after Sunday night's open practice at Lincoln Financial Field. “But I think I ran well [Sunday]. I still feel it a little bit, but I’m getting healthier every day.
“I’m still kind of working my way through it. I’m almost full speed and running, but they’re just focused on easing me in slow. I did more today than I did yesterday, so that’s what they want.”
Smallwood on Sunday did not participate in 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drills, though he did take some snaps against the scout team. Smallwood said he expects to continue progressing and plans to be without limitations for Tuesday’s practice.
During his time on the sidelines, Smallwood tried to absorb as much knowledge as he could despite his frustration at not being able to compete.
“I learned a lot, especially from me sitting out,” Smallwood said. “Taking notes on those guys, seeing what they’re doing wrong and doing right, and seeing things I wouldn’t if I was practicing. Right now I can only watch their reps, and I think watching their reps is making me better. The same thing happened to me in college, I was out for a couple months, and I think I got better in the film room, in the classroom, and watching those guys, correcting those guys.”
However, Smallwood still knows that the practices and preseason opener he was forced to sit out would have been great opportunities for him to continue to develop and become more comfortable in a new offensive system.
“It’s been two weeks and I’ve missed a lot of ball,” he said. “I’ve missed reps that I definitely thought I would take advantage of … I think I would have gotten better with each of those reps. But with me sitting out, I just got to stay focused. [Running backs coach] Duce [Staley] is on me every day, he doesn’t let me drift away from the game.”
As Smallwood returns to full health, he understands the emotions his roommate Carson Wentz is dealing with (even though he admitted, with a smile, that he's never experienced the pain of a broken rib).
“I know him, he’s a competitor, and he couldn’t wait until the first game and to prove to everyone he’s the best quarterback and he was worth the draft pick,” Smallwood said. “So I know him being the competitor he is, he’s kind of upset right now.”
Smallwood is fortunate enough that his return to game action should happen earlier than for Wentz, who is aiming to play in the team’s final preseason game. Smallwood is itching to return but remains cautious as he thinks about his first taste of competition in the NFL.
“Staying healthy is always number one,” Smallwood said. “But [I want to] just leave my mark. It was kind of rough missing my first preseason game in the NFL, so I was kind of hurt watching. I’m just ready and eager to go and play.”
In the Eagles’ offensive system, Smallwood believes he can contribute in a variety of ways. Though he currently appears to be behind Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner on the depth chart, Smallwood could assume a significant role should any of those backs, including the injury-prone Mathews, get hurt.
“All that Doug [Pederson] asks from the running backs as far as running, catching, blocking, learning certain positions and learning different things, spreading out, going out wide — that’s what I’m eager to do in this league,” he said. “I was eager to do it in college, and I got to do it a little bit, so I think this is going to be the next step for me.”
During his final season at West Virginia, Smallwood rushed for 1,519 yards (14th-best in the country) and nine touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He also caught 26 passes for 160 yards. While he obviously won’t be the focal point of the Eagles’ offense like he was at West Virginia, Smallwood said he actually thinks this system is better suited to his versatile skillset.
How often he gets to show off that ability will depend on how the coaches evaluate him compared to the other running backs on the roster. The players all recognize the reality of that competition, but according to Smallwood, there’s no tension between this group of Eagles running backs.
“I don’t believe anybody is selfish in anything we do,” Smallwood said. “We’re a unit and we help each other out. The [veteran backs] help us out. They’re not selfish in anything, trying to take stuff from us, because I’ve seen that happen before. But with this group, we’re one unit and when one of us succeeds, all of us succeed.
"I got pumped for them on Thursday in the game, and I know they’ll be pumped for me.”