Wendell Smallwood

After move from predictable Bears offense, Jordan Howard should excel with Eagles

After move from predictable Bears offense, Jordan Howard should excel with Eagles

Is Jordan Howard another Ezekiel Elliott or Todd Gurley? No. Those guys are on a different plane athletically.

Do the Eagles need an All-Pro running back? Also no. They won a Super Bowl with a backfield comprised of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement.

But those statements, while true, dramatically undersell Howard’s ability and the potential for him to excel in the Eagles’ offense.

Howard is only 24 years old. He averaged over 1,100 yards rushing and eight touchdowns over his first three NFL seasons. Only Elliott and Gurley produced more yards on the ground during that span.

Yet, some have been quick to downplay the Howard addition, pointing to declining numbers the last two seasons, his lack of impact as a receiver out of the backfield and the Eagles’ tendency to rely on multiple backs. Again, all of that is true.

It’s also a fact Howard was playing in an offense with a below average passing attack the past two years. The Chicago Bears ranked dead last in the NFL in passing yards in 2017, and 21st in 2018. Opponents knew if they stopped the run, they would force Mitchell Trubisky to beat them.

Is it a coincidence Howard’s yards per carry dipped from 5.2 as a rookie to 4.1 and 3.7 in ensuing seasons? Or is it a symptom of seeing a steady barrage of eight-man fronts as part one of the league’s most predictable ground attacks?

Howard finished second with 1,313 yards in 2016. In the right situation, he can flourish.

And the Eagles already proved they don’t need a do-it-all feature back who’s going to double as a receiving threat. In 2017, Wendell Smallwood led the team’s runners with 13 receptions. Clement emerged as a viable receiver in the playoffs, but his 10 catches matched his season total.

It’s not like Howard is incapable of catching a pass, either. He recorded at least 20 receptions each season with the Bears, topping out with 29 grabs for 298 yards and a touchdown in ’16.

The Eagles are probably a lock to take another running back early in the draft and don’t write off Darren Sproles returning quite yet. The expectation here is very much Howard will be part of a rotation of some sort.

The expectation here is also for Howard to post numbers — specifically yards per carry — more in line with his rookie campaign.

Ajayi averaged 4.9 yards in 2016 and 3.4 the first seven games of 2017 with the Dolphins, but his YPC jumped to 5.8 over his final seven with the Eagles. Blount averaged 3.9 for the Patriots in 2016, then 4.4 for the Eagles in 2017.

Like Howard, Ajayi and Blount are not known for their prowess as dual-purpose backs. Still, in the Eagles’ pass-first offense with an MVP-caliber Carson Wentz at the helm, and behind a star-studded offensive line, that tandem carried the team to a world championship.

Howard’s best NFL season to date tops both Ajayi’s and Blount’s, and it was as a member of a 3-13 Bears team quarterbacked by Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley.

Now imagine Howard in midnight green, as arguably the offense’s fifth most dangerous weapon behind Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, DeSean Jackson and Nelson Agholor; with Dallas Goedert and maybe even Darren Sproles also in the mix; with Jason Peters, Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce paving the way; and with Wentz back at 100 percent, throwing the ball for miles or taking off whenever the mood suits.

Howard might not be on the level of an Elliott or Gurley, but in the Eagles’ offense, he should also do a lot more than his last two seasons in Chicago suggest.

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With few options at RB, Eagles might have to get creative

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With few options at RB, Eagles might have to get creative

Maybe hold off on declaring the Eagles “winners” after the NFL’s initial free agent rush, unless you’re comfortable with the idea of Wendell Smallwood as the team’s lead ball carrier.

Running back was arguably the Eagles’ biggest need entering the offseason, yet so far the front office has come up empty-handed here. Worse still, there appear to be few great options remaining on the market, which means executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman may need to get creative.

You can understand why the Eagles might avoid a volatile, high-priced Le’Veon Bell type or somebody with Kareem Hunt’s baggage. More unclear is why the club wasn’t in on an established back like Mark Ingram or high-upside prospect Tevin Coleman, both at affordable prices.

Regardless, the top free-agent runners are spoken for, and the Eagles likely must look elsewhere to obtain a true feature back.

Is a trade on the horizon?

I wouldn’t be too quick to criticize the front office quite yet. The appearance the Eagles weren’t serious players for any of the big names on the market may be a sign Roseman has something — or somebody — else in mind.

For example, the Eagles have been linked to Bears running back Jordan Howard since before last season’s trade deadline. I’m not sure why another team is itching to get rid of a 24-year-old averaging 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns rushing in his first three seasons, but Howard would certainly fill the void here.

There are no official reports confirming the Eagles’ interest in Howard. However, if he is available, one can surmise Roseman has been on the phone.

Arizona’s David Johnson and Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette were also mentioned as potential Eagles targets in the past six months, though both backs are currently believed to be staying put.

Perhaps there is a deal out there that’s not yet been rumored or even imagined in the sports media landscape. Nothing seems impossible with Roseman at the helm.

Looking to the draft?

The Eagles are almost certainly going to take a running back at some point in April’s draft, and with three picks in the first two rounds, it could happen early. But while nobody would balk at the idea, that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.

It’s always a leap to assume a rookie will immediately fill a feature role in an NFL offense, which is what the Eagles need. Furthermore, the cupboard is bare in the backfield, with only Smallwood, Corey Clement — who ended last season on injured reserve — Jamal Adams and Boston Scott under contract. One new body may not be enough.

So while this draft could contain the Eagles’ running back of the future, it shouldn’t be treated as a given, either.

Another year of running back by committee?

If Roseman doesn’t have a trade up his sleeve, it’s looking like the Eagles will be back to relying on a committee in 2019.

There are some borderline lead backs on the market, granted in short supply. Were the Eagles to pair the likes of Isaiah Crowell, C.J. Anderson or Spencer Ware with a promising rookie, such a tandem might not electrify the fan base, but it would create some semblance of stability at the position.

The Eagles could even re-sign Jay Ajayi, provided he’ll be healthy. Were it not for a torn ACL, Ajayi probably would’ve been one of the top runners on the market, even with a chronic knee issue.

Free agent T.J. Yeldon and Browns running back Duke Johnson have also been mentioned as possibilities, but more as potential replacements for Darren Sproles.

Any of these additions is a strong indication the Eagles will once again go without a feature back, an all-too-familiar situation for the offense since LeSean McCoy’s departure in 2015. If that turns out to be the case, it makes you wonder what Roseman was thinking when the top free agents all chose to sign elsewhere.

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Does Le'Veon Bell make sense for the Eagles?

Does Le'Veon Bell make sense for the Eagles?

The Eagles are desperate for a running back. One of the NFL’s best is about to hit the open market.

No-brainer, right?

It’s not that simple.

On one level, Le’Veon Bell makes a ton of sense for the Eagles. He’s a three-time all-pro running back who’s rushed for over 1,200 yards with at least 75 receptions in three of the last four seasons that he’s played. And he’s a tremendous blocker.

The running backs currently on the Eagles’ 2019 roster? Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement, none of whom is a starting-caliber NFL running back.

The Eagles’ inability to run the ball in the postseason — they didn’t even reach 50 rushing yards in either game — was damaging, and they don't have a more pressing need as they head into free agency in the draft.

So the Eagles will pursue Bell?

Probably not.

Two reasons, and they’re intertwined: 1) Philosophy and 2) Money.

Howie Roseman’s philosophy — and he’s never wavered from it in either stint as general manager — is that the historically limited shelf life of running backs means you never devote a tremendous amount of resources in the form of draft picks or salary for running backs. 

Because you’re just not going to get anywhere close to the return that you get from other positions.

The Eagles haven’t drafted a running back in the first three rounds since LeSean McCoy 10 years ago, and their only recent big-money free agents have been disasters — $42 million over five years for DeMarco Murray, $11½ million over three years for Ryan Mathews, both during the one year Chip Kelly was GM.

Remember, LeGarrette Blount’s one-year deal was worth about $1.6 million, Jay Ajayi cost the Eagles only a fourth-round pick and was on a fifth-round rookie contract when they acquired him, and Clement was undrafted. Those three were the backs on the Super Bowl championship team.

Bell only turned 27 earlier this week, but he’s got the fifth-most touches in NFL history by a player in his first 62 games. That's a red flag for Roseman. 

Is it smart to pay a fortune to a guy who plays a position where historically production begins to decline at the point he’s at?

I looked at the rest of the 20 running backs with the most touches after 62 games (the number of games Bell has played in his career) and compared their rushing average in those 62 games with the rest of their career.

The results are shocking: 16 of the 19 declined after the initial 62 games, and 11 of them — more than half — declined by at least half a yard per carry.

The only ones who increased were Jim Brown, Curtis Martin and Ricky Williams, none by more than 0.3 yards per carry.

On average, they declined by 0.42 yards per carry. 

Here’s that chart:

Playing running back in the NFL is not conducive to long careers. And as talented as Bell is, we may have seen the start of that decline in 2017, when he averaged 4.0 yards per carry — exactly half a yard below his career average of 4.5 going into 2017.

This doesn’t mean Bell will definitely experience the same sort of decline as Eric Dickerson, Terrell Davis, Earl Campbell, Jamal Lewis, Eddie George, Clinton Portis or the others. It just means the average NFL running back with a similar workload will.

So we may have already seen Bell at his best.

And Howie knows that. 

And that brings us to Part 2, which is money, and the Eagles just don’t have a whole lot of it to spend. 

According to an NFL.com story last year, Bell already turned down a five-year, $70 million contract from the Steelers. That would have been nearly 30 percent more lucrative than any running back contract in history.

CBS Sports reported earlier this week that Bell is looking for a deal worth $50 million in just the first two years.

For the sake of comparison, the Eagles paid their running backs a TOTAL of $3.21 million in 2017 and they won the Super Bowl.

The Eagles have cap issues, they have a young quarterback they need to sign and they have three of the first 57 picks in a draft that has some intriguing running backs.

I’m sure Howie could figure out a way to do this deal if he really wanted to. He’s Howie. This is what he does. 

I just don’t think the numbers make sense for the Eagles and the way they’ve historically done business.

The Eagles are going to get themselves a franchise running back. It’s just almost certainly not going to be Le’Veon Bell.

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