Wendell Smallwood

Eagles Stay or Go — A few underperforming youngsters

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Eagles Stay or Go — A few underperforming youngsters

Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro continue our series examining the future of the world champion Eagles.

Donnel Pumphrey
Roob: Normally, I wouldn't even hesitate to say that a 23-year-old running back who the Eagles had drafted in the fourth round would be back for a second season. But Pumphrey looked so over-matched in training camp and in the preseason games and the Eagles are so deep at running back that I wonder. If the Eagles go with Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement and keep Wendell Smallwood as a third running back and Darren Sproles as a punt returner, where does Pumphrey fit in? It would be unusual to give up on him this early, but barring a huge turnaround this summer, Pumphrey faces a tough road.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: You probably forgot all about Pumphrey didn't you? The fourth-round pick just never looked good last spring or summer and then landed (*cough* was stashed) on injured reserve for the 2017 season. The Eagles probably haven't given up on him just yet, but he's going to need to be much, much better this summer. After being an undersized between-the-tackles running back in college, the Eagles asked him to be a receiver out of the backfield. At 176 pounds, that needs to be his role, but he might just not be cut out for the NFL. He has a shot, but based on what we've seen so far, there's no reason to think he makes the team. 

Verdict: GOES

Isaac Seumalo
The Eagles gave Seumalo every opportunity to win the left guard job, but he just wasn't able to put together a consistent enough brand of football to hold off Stefen Wisniewski, who eventually became the starter after a brief Chance Warmack experiment and played exceptionally well. Seumalo is a third-round pick and still only 24 so I would expect him to stick around as a backup. But as long as Wiz and Brandon Brooks are healthy, it's hard to imagine Seumalo getting another chance to start.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: The Eagles really wanted Seumalo to be their starting left guard last season and that didn't work. Seumalo was really bad in that role and became a bench player the rest of the way. He is versatile; he's the only guy on the team who can play all five offensive line spots. But what good is that if he can't play them well? The problem for Seumalo is, his most natural position is center and Jason Kelce is coming off his best professional season. Seumalo might end up being a wasted third-round pick, but the Eagles shouldn't throw in the towel just yet. 

Verdict: STAYS

Wendell Smallwood
Smallwood's a tricky one. When he's healthy, he's a generally productive runner who also has a nice knack in the receiving game and is a willing blocker. In fact, despite not even being active the second half of the season, he still led all Eagles backs in the regular season with 13 catches. But he just can't stay healthy. Smallwood is only 24 years old and is an above-average kick returner. I think he's flashed enough that despite the injuries he'll get another year.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Smallwood had a great chance of becoming the Eagles' third-down back once Darren Sproles went down, but instead he ended up sitting on the bench after Jay Ajayi was brought in. Smallwood was a fifth-round pick just a couple years ago but has just shown flashes as a running back and a kick returner. He's in an interesting spot now, though, with the futures of LeGarrette Blount and Sproles in question. He'll be brought to camp and have a chance to make the team. I like his chances more than Pumphrey's. 

Verdict: STAYS

Are Eagles barreling toward contract dispute with Jay Ajayi?

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Are Eagles barreling toward contract dispute with Jay Ajayi?

After sharing the backfield last season, Jay Ajayi appears to be in line for a bigger role with the Eagles in 2018. Will he demand a contract commensurate with his status as the primary ball-carrier?

There were a lot of stories floating around when the Eagles acquired Ajayi from the Dolphins for a fourth-round draft pick in October. Yet rumors about a selfish athlete who would demand more touches never externalized after the trade, as the Pro Bowl running back worked seamlessly with LeGarrette Blount.

Team culture and locker room chemistry, as one Miami Herald report put it, proved to be non-issues. Now that Ajayi spent 14 incident-free weeks with the Eagles, the story has been altered slightly.

“But to say a clash of personalities was the only reason the Dolphins dealt Ajayi would be wrong,” Adam H. Beasley of the Herald wrote.

“Ajayi, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, was not shy about telling the Dolphins he wanted a contract extension.”

The timing of Beasley’s report — the morning after the Eagles won the Super Bowl — lends the appearance of damage control. Per NFL rules, Ajayi isn’t even eligible to sign an extension until March 2018, so any conversations about a new deal were likely preliminary in nature.

But just because Ajayi was a good soldier in his relatively short time with the Eagles doesn’t mean money can’t come between them. He’s set to earn only $705,000 next season as the team’s No. 1 back, having averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 10 games, including playoffs. Blount, by the way, is a free agent.

The trouble is paying Ajayi might be easier said than done. The Eagles have a lot of maneuvering ahead with the salary cap this offseason, and based on current projections, they’re actually over the spending limit at the moment.

The cap space dilemma should buy the Eagles some time — at least a few months. But if the organization isn’t making progress on a new deal with Ajayi by this summer, it’s fair to wonder what the consequences of that might be.

*Ages as of September 2018

Jay Ajayi
Age: 25
2018 Cap Hit: $705,000

The other issue here is Ajayi’s health. Some around the NFL feel his right knee is a ticking time bomb, which led to his falling to the fifth round of the 2015 draft and obviously was a factor in the trade. Ajayi possesses amazing short-field burst but visibly labors at the end of long runs. The Eagles may need to placate him financially but should be cautious about the structure of an extension.

Donnel Pumphrey
Age: 23
2018 Cap Hit: $699,000

If we’ve learned anything from guys like Nick Foles, Nelson Agholor and Brandon Graham, maybe don’t write players off after one or two seasons. Or, in Pumphrey’s case, one preseason. A fourth-round pick, Pumphrey looked like a massive disappointment before landing on injured reserve. It was a much-needed redshirt year for the NCAA’s all-time rushing leader. He’ll get a shot to earn a roster spot as the third back and return specialist.

Wendell Smallwood
Age: 24
2018 Cap Hit: $691,000

At this point, Smallwood probably needs a change of scenery. He runs hard but wasn’t able to stay healthy his first two seasons in the league, and his opportunity with the Eagles has probably passed. With a clear depth chart already forming, a trade would be beneficial for Smallwood.

Corey Clement
Age: 23
2018 Cap Hit: $558k

Another reason the Eagles would hesitate to pay Ajayi: He may not even be the most talented back on the roster. Clement carved out a role as the offense’s change of pace in the playoffs, recording 10 receptions for 139 yards with a 55-yard catch in the Super Bowl and a 22-yard receiving TD. He finished with 616 yards from scrimmage as an undrafted rookie, including 172 in the postseason. All appearances are Clement can be a starter in this league.

Darren Sproles
Age: 35
Free Agent

Sproles reportedly wants to return for his 14th NFL season, and until recently the Eagles were probably very interested. Since Clement emerged as a viable receiver out of the backfield, maybe less so. Money is a factor as well. Sproles was lost for the season to a torn ACL and broken forearm in September.

LeGarrette Blount
Age: 31
Free agent

Prior to his stellar performance in the Super Bowl, Blount was showing signs of slowing down. Over the Eagles’ final eight games, including playoffs, he averaged 3.7 yards per carry — 2.9 if you subtract the Super Bowl. Blount is a volume back, and his touches diminished after the trade for Ajayi as well, but the late-season dip in performance is part of a larger trend for this particular aging back.

Kenjon Barner
Age: 28
Free agent

Re-signed after the injury to Sproles, Barner was primarily used as a specialist, lining up for only one offensive snap in the playoffs. Aside from earning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in his first game back, he was not an especially dangerous or reliable return man, either.

Previously: Quarterbacks

Doug Pederson changes his tune on Eagles' RB rotation

Doug Pederson changes his tune on Eagles' RB rotation

Doug Pederson has sworn by a running back rotation all year. With the playoffs on the horizon, that could be changing.

Pederson said Tuesday there's a chance Jay Ajayi, who's been the Eagles' most effective running back down the stretch, could have an expanded role once the postseason begins.

LeGarrette Blount finished with a team-high 173 carries for 766 yards, and Corey Clement had 74 carries for 321 yards. Ajayi carried 70 times for 408 yards in seven games after the Eagles acquired him from the Dolphins in October.

Wendell Smallwood (47 carries), Kenjon Barner (16 carries) and injured Darren Sproles (15 carries) were also part of the mix at one time or another.

But Ajayi's 5.8 average is third-highest in the NFL over the second half of the season, behind only Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (6.3) and Saints rookie Alvin Kamara (6.1).

Ajayi has also become a factor in the passing game, with a career-long 32-yard catch against the Giants and his first career receiving touchdown against the Raiders. He didn't play against the Cowboys on Sunday.

Pederson has stuck to a running back rotation all year, but on Tuesday he said Ajayi could very well be the featured back when the playoffs begin.

"I think that's a possibility," he said. "What he's shown us down the stretch here and giving him rest last week and we'll see where he's at this week health-wise. I think he's one of the guys that we can rely on.

"Again, I don't want to get away from the things that got us to this point, too. That's the other thing. You don't want to just abandon ship on everybody else. But I do think there could be a little more role for him down the stretch."

Ajayi has lingering knee soreness, so that's a consideration, too. Including his time with the Dolphins, Ajayi had 208 carries for 873 yards and 232 total touches in 14 games this year.

Pederson said Tuesday Ajayi either won't practice or will be limited on Wednesday. The Eagles don't play until Jan. 13.

Ajayi and Blount both have postseason experience. Ajayi ran 16 times for 33 yards in the Dolphins' wild-card round loss to the Steelers last season. Blount has played in eight career playoff games, all with the Patriots, with 111 carries for a 4.2 average and eight touchdowns. He won a Super Bowl rings with the Patriots after the 2014 and 2016 seasons.

Pederson said whatever happens with Ajayi, Blount will remain a key part of what the Eagles are doing

"LeGarrette has embraced his role," Pederson said. "I'll tell you what, he's been a pleasant surprise, particularly with the younger guys. He understands his role. He's going to be a big part of the success and has been a big part of the successes this year already.

"He has been to the pinnacle. He's been there and understands it, what it takes. Those are the things I'm going to lean on him with our team and with the guys that haven't been there. How to practice, how to prepare. So he's really done a nice job this his role."