The Eagles’ leading rusher a season ago, LeGarrette Blount, was allowed to walk in free agency. Of course, the team already picked up his replacement, Jay Ajayi, in an October trade with the Dolphins.
The changing of the guard is complete in the running backs room, but are the 2018 Eagles better for it?
Blount proved there was something left in the tank, but was running on fumes by December. Over his final eight games including playoffs, the 31-year-old averaged 3.5 yards per attempt or below in all but two — a meaningless Week 17 contest against the Cowboys and 14-carry, 90-yard performance in Super Bowl LII.
The Eagles should be better served by fresh legs down the stretch. Ajayi, 25, quickly snatched the lead role from Blount with a healthy 5.3-yard average after the trade, bringing a needed explosive element to the offense. And Corey Clement, 23, is in line for more touches after racking up 616 yards from scrimmage and leading the team’s backs with seven total touchdowns.
Blount served his purpose. His bruising, between-the-tackles rushing style simply isn’t conducive for a running back’s body holding up over a full season at that age. With a split workload, wearing down shouldn’t be an issue for Ajayi and Clement.
Somewhat surprisingly, the most troubling aspect of the Ajayi trade wasn’t his bad knee, which has been referred to as a ticking time bomb — not yet, anyway.
That’s a concern, although the more immediate question is whether Ajayi can take care of this fumbling problem. He’s now put the ball on the carpet eight times over the past two seasons, or once every 73 touches. Only Tavon Austin has coughed it up more during that span.
Ball security is paramount. It doesn’t matter how fresh Ajayi is in January. If he fumbles at the wrong time, it can cost the Eagles their season.
Technically, you can call this an upgrade, seeing as the Eagles were without Sproles since September of last season. The important thing is the Eagles know what they’re getting when they plug the three-time Pro Bowl selection into the lineup. He’s a shifty ball carrier who can get to the second and third levels quickly, and a matchup problem as a receiver out of the backfield.
Sproles is 35 and coming back from a torn ACL, issues we addressed in a previous chapter. Despite those concerns, as a special weapon getting 5-10 touches per game, he has enough short-distance quickness and veteran savvy to get the job done.
Chosen in the fourth round in last year’s draft, Pumphrey looked completely out of place in preseason action. The NCAA’s all-time leading rusher averaged 1.9 yards per carry, 5.5 yards per reception and couldn’t get much going in the return game, either.
Listed at 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, is Pumphrey too slight to play in the NFL? With 4.48 speed, is he not elusive enough to dodge hits at this level? Maybe.
It’s also possible Pumphrey was some combination of slowed by a hamstring injury (he eventually landed on injured reserve in September, though it’s unclear whether it was related), a little in over his head learning the playbook and not put in a position to succeed in the third-string offense. Yes, he needed to bulk up and needs to adapt to the speed of the game, but the Eagles felt the 23-year-old warranted another look. We’ll see.
Better or worse?
Blount exceeded some expectations last season, but the late-season declines have become a regular occurrence. It’s only a matter of time before he’s plodding and un-menacing in September, too. Give those touches to Ajayi and Clement, mix in Sproles, and maybe even a dash or Pumphrey or Wendell Smallwood, and this has the making of a much more dynamic group than a season ago. BETTER