darren sproles

NFL free agency 2019: What will the Eagles do at running back?

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NFL free agency 2019: What will the Eagles do at running back?

Reuben Frank, Dave Zangaro and Andrew Kulp continue the 2019 edition of Stay or Go, trying to figure out the future of the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Today, they’ll look at running back: 

Jay Ajayi

Roob: I love the way Ajayi runs and nobody can ever take away what a big part of the 2017 Super Bowl run he was. But the knees. I really worry about the knees. The Eagles could sign Ajayi to a risk-free deal and bring him back to see if he can stay healthy, but my gut feeling is they draft a back in the second round and maybe also sign a free agent and move on from Ajayi.

Verdict: Goes

Dave: If Ajayi could get healthy and there were no problems with his knees, he could still be a good running back in this system. But he had knee concerns before his trade to the Eagles and now he’s coming off a torn ACL. Maybe they work out a prove-it deal to keep him in town, but I just don’t think the Eagles can rely on him being healthy. Tough to say goodbye, but I think that’s where we’re heading. 

Verdict: Goes 

Kulp: The Eagles could use a vet ball carrier, and Ajayi’s price will be discounted coming off a torn ACL. That said, the injury is why I ultimately believe the team moves on. Stability is needed in the backfield, meaning healthy bodies, and while Ajayi should be ready Week 1, there’s no telling what you’re getting from a guy who had a bum knee in the first place.

Verdict: Goes

Corey Clement

Roob: Looks like Clement’s the only back I’m keeping. The Eagles really missed him this year. He’s a perfect fit in this offense — a tough runner, a very good receiver, a willing blocker and also a solid special teamer. I don’t think Clement will ever be a lead back, but I do think he’ll be a significant part of the offense in 2019.

Verdict: Stays

Dave: I don’t think Clement is really the answer as a feature back, but I think he can be a nice piece to the puzzle. He never looked truly healthy in 2018 and it showed even before the knee injury that ended his second season. I expect him back in 2019 as a part of the rotation. 

Verdict: Stays 

Kulp: Don’t know the precise nature of Clement’s injury, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he misses games in 2019. Still, he’s only 24 and under contract for basically the league minimum. Even if he started the year on the physically unable to perform list and consequently fell out of the mix, Clement could return mid-season and contribute on special teams.

Verdict: Stays

Wendell Smallwood

Roob: Smallwood runs hard, catches the ball pretty well and has had some big games, and he finally proved this year he can stay healthy for a full season. It wouldn’t shock me if he’s back for a fourth season with the Eagles as a reserve back, but I just think the Eagles need to get better across the board at running back, and I don’t think he’s back.

Verdict: Goes

Dave: I’ve counted out Smallwood before. Not going to make that mistake again. I know many Eagles fans have seen more than enough of Smallwood, but he ended up having a big role for the Eagles in 2018 and became the guy in the playoffs. He’ll be battling for a back-end-of-the-roster spot again in 2019. 

Verdict: Stays

Kulp: Fully anticipate the Eagles adding two backs — a free agent and a draft pick — and those are the primary ball handlers. Yet, Smallwood may have done enough to carve out a role as the No. 3. He is serviceable in a pinch, plays special teams and basically makes the league minimum. And if the backfield gets crowded, he probably has some trade value in August, too.

Verdict: Stays

Darren Sproles

Roob: Tough one. Will Sproles come back for a 15th NFL season or retire? The Eagles counted heavily on Sproles in the postseason, but he averaged only 1.6 yards on 16 carries and had 35 yards on seven catches. Sproles did help down the stretch, but what can the Eagles get out of him at 36 years old? If Sproles does want to play it’s a tough call for the Eagles. Gut feeling is he retires.

Verdict: Goes

Dave: This is all on Sproles. If he wants to come back, I’m sure the Eagles would like to have him. His whole reasoning for coming back in 2018 was because he didn’t want his career to end with an injury. Not sure if he thinks he did enough to feel ready to move on after an injury-plagued season last year. I have a hunch, he’ll want one more chance and if he can stay healthy, he can really help the Eagles. 

Verdict: Stays

Kulp: I don’t know how Sproles can retire after watching the final seven weeks. He makes one or two big plays seemingly every game. It shouldn’t cost the Eagles a ton of money to keep him, either. Sproles turns 36 and earned less than $1.5 million for 2018, which is a deal for the spark he provides.

Verdict: Stays

Josh Adams

Roob: Adams has some ability and spent a chunk of the fall as the Eagles’ lead back, and had some big games. I think he’ll get every opportunity to make the team next year. But I also expect the Eagles to remake the running back position in 2019, and nothing is guaranteed. Adams isn’t a polished receiver and doesn’t play special teams, and his postseason benching isn’t a good sign for his future here.

Verdict: Goes

Dave: For a short stretch of time in 2018, Adams was the Eagles top running back after not even making the 53-man roster at the beginning of the season. And then he didn’t even play in the playoffs. I think the Eagles are going to draft a running back that can run between the tackles and makes Adams expendable. 

Verdict: Goes

Kulp: Wonder how much Adams’ diminished performance was a result of wearing down and injuries. Even if that were the case, it’s not a great sign given the 22-year-old’s relatively modest workload (157 touches, including preseason). With only one postseason carry, looks like he’s fallen out of favor regardless.

Verdict: Goes

Boston Scott 

Roob: Eagles’ mid-season pickup returned some kicks but was really only here because of injuries to Ajayi and Clement and never got any touches on offense. Scott could be a practice squad type of guy, but I don’t see him playing any sort of role with the Eagles moving forward.

Verdict: Goes

Dave: Scott came to the Eagles late in the 2018 season and I haven’t really seen enough one way or the other. He barely played on offense and didn’t blow me away as a returner. He’ll get his fair shot in training camp, but for now, I’m not sold. 

Verdict: Goes

Kulp: The fact that the Eagles plucked this kid off the Saints’ practice squad in December and he was active two weeks later and every game thereafter says something. I just don’t see a spot. Might think better about his chances if Sproles is out of the picture, but that scat back role is likely filled. Scott is a practice squad candidate.

Verdict: Goes

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Top five positional needs for Eagles this offseason

Top five positional needs for Eagles this offseason

The top storyline for Eagles fans this offseason is going to be the fate of Nick Foles and how he gets there, but there are a ton of other things for the Eagles to worry about. 

They are about to have quite a bit of turnover on the roster and there are definitely some positions of need. 

Here are the five I find to be most pressing: 

Defensive end 

Brandon Graham is set to be a free agent, Derek Barnett is coming off season-ending shoulder surgery, Chris Long might retire, Michael Bennett turned 33 in November and Josh Sweat barely played before his season ended on IR. 

For a team that prioritizes getting to the quarterback without sending blitzes, the Eagles have a lot of questions at their main pass-rushing position. We’ll get to the DT position in a moment, but they need more edge rushers. 

I think Bennett will be back in 2019. He got off to a slow start, but once he began playing more and feeling more comfortable, he was the Eagles’ best defensive end and had a legitimate case to be named a Pro Bowler. But if Graham doesn’t return and if Long retires, the Eagles are going to have some huge holes to fill. Barnett is a nice player and he was having a pretty consistent season before his injury, but we still don’t really know what kind of player he’s going to be. 

You have to remember, the Eagles don’t just use two defensive ends. They need to be four deep at defensive end to rotate the way Jim Schwartz likes. The good news is Howie Roseman said this draft is “historical” for DL. 

Running back 

Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement both ended their seasons on IR and Darren Sproles missed most of the 2018 season, so it should be no surprise the Eagles struggled to consistently get their running game going. Now, Ajayi and Sproles are set to be free agents; Ajayi is coming off a torn ACL. And Clement is coming off a season-ending knee injury of his own. 

Josh Adams, Clement, Wendell Smallwood and Boston Scott are under contract for the 2019 season. That’s not going to be enough. 

Roseman has always been hesitant to pay big money or use top draft choices on the running back position, but it’s pretty clear the Eagles need a very real infusion of talent at running back. It’s a shame they missed on Donnel Pumphrey a couple years ago, but now they’re in the market for another running back. 

There were already concerns about Ajayi’s knee before he tore his ACL, so bringing him back can’t be the only answer. And even if Sproles doesn’t retire, his possible return can’t prevent the Eagles from finding another talented running back they desperately need. 

Offensive tackle 

Lane Johnson is still an absolute stud at right tackle and as long as he stays healthy, the Eagles are set there. But Jason Peters is another story. He’ll be 37 soon and he really struggled to stay healthy in 2019. I just don’t know if the Eagles can go into another season just hoping every week that his aging body can hold up. What makes this hard is he actually played pretty well when he was able to stay on the field; heck, he just shut down Khalil Mack a couple weeks ago. 

The real problem is I don’t think the Eagles can feel confident in Halapoulivaati Vaitai to be the guy if Peters isn’t here. And Jordan Mailata has all the makings of a great left tackle, but the guy just started playing American football a year ago. They can’t just insert him into the lineup because no one really knows what would happen. Maybe Mailata is Peters’ long-term replacement at left tackle; if so, great. But the Eagles seriously need to think about drafting an offensive tackle with one of their first picks this year. 

Defensive tackle 

When we talked about defensive ends, I mentioned that Roseman thought this draft is great for defensive linemen. There are two ways to look at that. One, you can wait longer to get one because there are so many. But on the flip side, there can be runs of players and you need to get the guy you really want. 

Tim Jernigan came back late in this season and is under contract for 2019 but his cap hit is $13 million. He can't be back at that number. If he doesn’t want to restructure, he’ll be gone and the Eagles will need to find a replacement. 

Fletcher Cox is an absolute monster and is one of the best defensive players in football. But the guy next to him this season was a constant revolving door until Jernigan came back. Remember, Destiny Vaeao actually began the 2018 season as the second DT starter; he didn’t make it through the season. And now Haloti Ngata is set to become a free agent. At least the Eagles found a nice depth piece in Treyvon Hester, but he’s not ready to be a starter. 

Wide receiver 

Mike Wallace was supposed to be the Eagles’ speed guy. He was supposed to be the Torrey Smith replacement … heck, the Torrey Smith upgrade. But he got hurt in his second game and didn’t make a single catch last season. He’ll be 33 in August and is now a free agent. Maybe the Eagles bring him back on the cheap, but either way, they need to find some straight-line speed. 

Golden Tate will also be a free agent as Nelson Agholor is set to play next season on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. The Eagles could theoretically elect to keep Tate over Agholor, but not sure why they would. Tate has said he wants to be back, but he’ll probably demand more on the open market and the Eagles need that speed guy. Agholor and Alshon Jeffery have speed in their own ways, but they’re not that cliched field-stretch. 

If the Eagles finally find a player who can take the top off a defense, just think about what it could do for Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert and Agholor in the middle of the field.

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A recap of all 17 pending Eagles unrestricted free agents

A recap of all 17 pending Eagles unrestricted free agents

At the end of every season, players lament the fact that it’s the last time this exact NFL team will be together. That holds true for the 2018 Eagles. There’s going to be plenty of turnover going into next season. 

We’ve already explored the Nick Foles situation (see story), but the Eagles also have 17 players who will become unrestricted free agents on March 13 at 4 p.m. The Eagles will have exclusive negotiating rights with these players until March 11. 

Here’s a rundown of every Eagles player set to become a free agent in March: 

Brandon Graham
We all know about Graham. He’s probably the most high-profile free agent the Eagles are going to have. He’ll be 31 by next season after spending the first nine of his NFL seasons in Philadelphia. The Eagles would probably like to have him back but the price needs to be right. This is his last chance to earn some real money in this league, so he might not be willing to give a big discount. He had just four sacks this season and has never gone over 9 1/2, so not sure exactly what type of market he’ll see. Spotrac estimates his market value at five years, $80 million, which breaks down to $15.8 annually. That might be too much for the Birds. 

Golden Tate 
On Monday, Tate said he would like to be back in Philadelphia. He liked it here during his 10 games in an Eagles uniform, but his production didn’t exactly match what a lot of us expected. Another 30-year-old player, Spotrac estimates he’ll get a contract worth around $10 million per season. With Alshon Jeffery under contract for a $14M cap hit this year and Nelson Agholor right now on his fifth-year option, it’s hard to imagine the Eagles spending that much on Tate. I guess there’s a chance, though. 

Jordan Hicks 
Of all the free agents on this list, Hicks might be the toughest to figure out. When he’s on the field, he’s a good player. But he can’t stay on the field. His entire four-year career has been riddled with injuries and I don’t know how any team can really commit to him. If the Eagles want him back, they will probably be able to get a bargain. But can they really depend on him? It’s a tricky situation. 

Jay Ajayi 
Even when the Eagles traded for Ajayi during the 2017 season, there were already serious concerns about his knees. Now, he tore his ACL and is set to become a free agent. He was a good player in Philly, but they need to upgrade the RB position and I’m not sure this is the way to do it. They have a few of these guys coming back from injuries. 

Ronald Darby
Darby is another one. When healthy, he was probably the Eagles’ best cornerback, but the Eagles can’t just sign a bunch of guys who are hurt. Of the injured free agents, though, I’d probably feel the most comfortable with Darby returning. I know the Eagles shored up their cornerback group with Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox and Cre’Von LeBlanc and Jalen Mills should be back next season, but adding Darby couldn’t hurt. We’ll see how much other teams are interested. Maybe if a market doesn’t develop, he can come back on a prove-it deal. 

Haloti Ngata
He was here on a one-year deal worth $3 million in 2018. He had a slow start to his season but did play better down the stretch. The Eagles need to upgrade the DT position and Ngata is about to turn 35. 

Mike Wallace
He was supposed to be the speed guy opposite Jeffery, but he didn’t get a single catch before breaking his fibula. At 33, he made $4 million last season. The Eagles still need a speed receiver, but I have my doubts it could be Wallace. But he really seemed to enjoy being here and if he still wants to play, maybe the Eagles see if they can get him on the cheap. 

D.J. Alexander 
An injury kept him out of a good portion of the end of the season, but he did return for the New Orleans game. He didn’t play on defense this year but was a big special teams guy. He was a special teams Pro Bowler with the Chiefs back in 2016. The Eagles claimed him off waivers earlier this season. He’s still just 27. 

Jordan Matthews
Our old friend Jordan Matthews came back during this season and actually made an impact. He had a few big plays. I don’t think he did enough to warrant a big contract, so maybe he’s back. The problem is that he’s not much of a special teamer. But he and Carson Wentz seem to play well together. 

Darren Sproles
I think if Sproles wants to come back next season, the Eagles will bring him back. It’s really up to him. He has to decide if he wants to give himself one more season to end his career better. If the Eagles bring him back, they can’t rely on him to be anything close to a featured guy. He just needs to be a role player who can still help the offense when healthy. 

Richard Rodgers
The Eagles have Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert established as their top two tight ends, so unless they draft another one, they’ll need a veteran to fill out the room. Rodgers is a possibility. Maybe Will Tye, who was on the practice squad, could also fill that role. 

LaRoy Reynolds
A big special teams contributor who played sparingly on defense. There’s a chance he’s back, but he’s also 28. We’ll see if the Eagles draft any linebackers this season. That could be bad for him or Alexander even if they sign a minimum deal. 

Chance Warmack
He barely played in 2018 and was inactive for a lot of the season. This hasn’t been the reclamation project the Eagles hoped it would be. The former first-round pick got paid a lot of money to sit on the bench in 2018. With Brandon Brooks’ injury, the Eagles might need to get an interior lineman, but I think the Warmack experiment might be over. 

Corey Graham
Everyone is going to remember that 4th-and-15 in Tennessee, but Graham actually played pretty well down the stretch. He almost retired after the 2017 season, so I have a feeling he’s going to hang ‘em up this time. 

Paul Worrilow
He tore his ACL in the Spring but stayed around the team all year. He was a staple of early, early pregame warmups, running around the field. He wasn’t a lock to make the roster last year. The Eagles have some decisions to make at linebacker. 

Chris Maragos 
We don’t know the extent it, but Maragos had another knee surgery late in this season and missed the entire 2018 season. He’s a great leader and a great guy to have around the team, but there seems to be a good chance his playing days (at least with the Eagles) are over. 

Rick Lovato
The Eagles' long-snapper did a good job this year and should be back for the 2019 season. No reason to split up that group of specialists. 

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