The Eagles’ final major offseason addition may also turn out to be their biggest – quite literally. LeGarrette Blount joins Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood in the backfield, giving the offense the big running back fans have been coveting for years. The draft also produced the all-time leader in rushing in NCAA Division I/FBS history, Donnel Pumphrey.
There are certainly more and different options in 2017 than there were last season, but does that make the Eagles better? Ryan Mathews was the starter, and while he’s still on the roster for now, all reports point to his departure. Instead, the Eagles appear poised to go with a true running back-by-committee approach, which raises some questions.
One area where the Eagles were surprisingly lousy in spite of hard-nosed Ryan Mathews was in short yardage. On 3rd and 4th downs with 3-or-fewer yards to go, the Eagles ranked 21st in the NFL with 2.7 yards per carry and 26th with 57.1 percent of attempts going for first downs. The offense also ranked dead last in the league with 9 rushes for negative yards in these situations.
This is one department where LeGarrette Blount is almost guaranteed to help the Eagles. Blount led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns in 2016, so we know he’s a force to be reckoned with down by the goal line. In addition to his innate ability to get into the end zone, Blount also led the league with 5.4 yards per carry in short-yardage situations.
Simply put, at 250 pounds, it’s difficult to stop Blount from falling forward for at least a few yards. He may not be a capable receiver out of the backfield, perhaps limiting the Eagles’ ability to use him in other situations, but he’ll help the offense keep the chains moving and consistently putting six points on the scoreboard rather than settling for three.
No clear-cut “feature” back
Say what you want about Ryan Mathews being hurt all the time – not a wholly untrue statement. When he is healthy, the seven-year veteran is almost the complete package. Mathews can break tackles and fight for hard yards, he has home-run speed in the open field, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield. Ball security is an issue, but Mathews is a very versatile player.
Of course, Mathews isn’t expected be on the Eagles’ 53-man roster. He’s still recovering from neck surgery to repair a herniated disk, and the club is expected to part ways if and when he does return. Assuming that’s the case, the offense appears to lack a true three-down player in the backfield.
Blount is fantastic in short yardage, but is not much of a threat as a receiver, so his presence on the field tips the offense’s hand. Darren Sproles and Donnel Pumphrey are dangerous receivers, but are smaller backs who may not hold up with a workload of 15-20 carries per game. Wendell Smallwood looks the part, but touched the ball just 83 times as a rookie in 2016. Clearly, there’s no shortage of talent, but there isn’t any one player who we know can carry the load no matter the circumstance, either.
Entering his 13th NFL season, Sproles shows little sign of slowing down. He bested his 2015 marks last season, totaling 438 yards on the ground with a 4.7 average (compared to 317 and 3.8), and 427 yards and an 8.2 average through the air (388, 7.1 in ’15). Sproles failed to return a punt for a touchdown in 2016 for the first time since joining the Eagles, but he only had 17 opportunities, as teams finally learned to kick away from him.
Sproles just turned 34, and could be headed for decline. Nothing in his play would lead anybody to believe that’s about to happen. Expect the venerable veteran to do produce in all three phases in 2017, as always.
Nobody would suggest Smallwood did anything last season to prove he deserves a bigger role in the offense. That being said, it’s become unclear how and how much the Eagles plan to use the second-year back in 2017, as he appeared to take a backseat to Blount, Sproles and Pumphrey at spring workouts.
That may not mean a whole lot. Blount only arrived in mid-May and was a limited participant at OTAs, so he needed the work to get ingrained the offense. The Eagles have also been experimenting quite a bit with Sproles and Pumphrey on the field together, so again, this is the time to iron out the kinks with that package.
Still, at this point, there is no telling what kind of role Smallwood will play this season. He flashed some potential as a rookie, carrying 77 times for 213 yards – a 4.1 average – with 1 touchdown, but not enough to draw many conclusions. A fifth-round draft pick only a year ago, it remains to be seen what kind of opportunities he will get in a suddenly crowded backfield.
For now, it appears Pumphrey is going to see the majority of his work as Darren Sproles-lite. The Eagles call it a “move bac” – somebody can lineup in the backfield or at wide receiver, which can give defenses all sorts of problems.
How much we see that package this year likely depends how much of the offense Pumphrey is able to absorb between now and the start of the regular season. And beyond that, there are concerns about his size as a ball carrier. He may own the all-time college record for rushing yards, but at 5-foot-8, 176 pounds, Pumphrey may never be an every-down player in the NFL.
For now, that’s not even on the Eagles’ radar. However, even how much we see Pumphrey as a move back is a question mark.
BETTER OR WORSE?
Is Mathews a better all-around running back than Blount? I tend to think so, but it’s also unclear whether Mathews will even be able to play in 2017. Blount also gives the Eagles something they desperately need in somebody who can convert those short runs. That upgrades this team, even if you’re of the opinion he’s not quite as talented. Add Pumphrey to the mix for good measure, and there’s a lot of versatility in this backfield – even if the group is without a definitive starter. Better