A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Philadelphia Eagles employed arguably the best running back in the NFL. LeSean McCoy, the franchise’s career rushing leader was jettisoned, unceremoniously, in the great Chip Kelly purge of 2015 to make room for Demarco Murray. Murray then sent away in the greater Howie Roseman purge of 2016, ridding the Birds of almost all the players that Kelly brought in as free agents.
Today, Ryan Mathews stands (or limps) as the starting running back for a young Eagles team under new head coach Doug Pederson.
The Eagles transition from a team with the best running back situation to perhaps the worst has been astonishing, but there is room for hope. The Birds employ a group of runners who ooze potential, but little experience. One such runner is 5th round rookie Wendell Smallwood, from West Virginia. The team has held onto former Kelly disciple Kenjon Barner, who last year showed he belongs in the NFL, while also adding undrafted rookies Byron Marshall (Oregon) and Cedric O’Neal (Valdosta State). Finally, veteran Darren Sproles returns to the Birds for his third (and fourth) year, after inking a one-year extension.
With little surprise, Doug Pederson will run a form of the offense that Andy Reid ran in Kansas City (and former in Philadelphia). With that in mind, the running back position poses a great need for Pederson and his team’s success. For the offense to move, the running back needs to be have good hands coming out of the backfield, as he will be used for swings passes, screens and dump offs. Expecting a lot of the unit will be dangerous, as the man expecting to be the bellcow, Mathews, has yet to practice in training camp, as he hurt his ankle prior. Next in line is Sproles, who has not carried a heavy workload since his days at Kansas State. Behind Sproles is a lot of unknown, and with that, let’s get to know the Eagles eclectic running back group.
The former 12th pick out of Fresno State in the 2010 draft, Mathews was supposed to be the new breed of running back: speed, power and anger. But, injuries limited him almost immediately, as he missed 4 games his rookie year. Only once has he been able to play a full season. Last year, his first in Philadelphia, Mathews played in 13 games and was highly effective. He rushed for 539 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and six touchdowns while adding 20 receptions and another touchdown through the air.
When healthy, Mathews provides a valuable piece to the running back group, but he has to see the field first. Once healthy, expect him to receive the bulk of the snaps with the first team offense.
The Kansas State product enters his third year in Philadelphia after two highly productive seasons. Sproles has been nothing but reliable for the Eagles, playing in 31 of 32 regular season games and averaging 4.6 yards per carry while adding 95 receptions for 775 yards. He also has 14 touchdowns, with four coming on punt returns.
Despite sitting out OTA’s, Sproles was able to receive a one-year extension, and with that, his role on the team should increase. Sproles experience and leadership should rub off on rookies Smallwood and Marshall, as they have similar games.
The former Oregon Duck was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2013 draft by the Carolina Panthers. He dressed for eight games as a rookie, but received limited playing time, carrying the ball just six times. He came to the Eagles in 2014 in a trade, although he did not make the roster out of training camp. The Eagles signed him to their practice squad near the end of the season.
In 2015, the speedster (4.39 forty-yard dash) showed he belonged in the NFL with two kickoff returns for touchdowns in the preseason. Barner made the Eagles roster out of training camp, despite a loaded backfield (or so we thought). Initially an afterthought, Barner dressed for 10 games, rushing 28 times for 124 yards. He added 9 receptions for 22 yards. With a strong camp (and injuries to other players), the former Duck could play himself into an integral role.
Smallwood entered the NFL draft following a stellar junior year at West Virginia, where he rushed for 1,519 yards and nine touchdowns. He also caught 26 passes for 160 yards. The Wilmington, Delaware native dropped to the Eagles in the 5th round due to the dreaded “off the field concerns.” Despite those off the field issues, the Eagles are hoping a more mature Smallwood can be effective learning from established veterans like Sproles and Mathews.
Smallwood, who was having a strong camp after OTA’s, recently spent time on the sideline in camp due to quad strain.
No Chip Kelly, no Oregon bias? Think again, as Marshall is the second of two backs on the roster with Oregon ties. As a sophomore, the jack-of-all-trades running back, Marshall came to the Eagles as an undrafted free agent after rushing for 1,038 yards last season as a Duck. More impressively, Marshall also caught 74 passes for 1,003 yards. He was the first Pac-12 player to rush and catch for over 1,000 yards separately in a season. Marshall missed most of the 2015 season following a leg injury.
It would be wise for the Eagles to find a place for Marshall on the roster, as he could become a valuable third-back back in the future, replacing the incumbent Sproles.
Little is known about the Voldosta State product, but what can be said is that he was highly productive as a four-year starter. O’Neal ran for 4,115 yards and 49 touchdowns in his college career. In his senior year, he added 36 receptions and two touchdowns.
The Eagles signed O’Neal as an undrafted free agent. Although a long shot to make the roster, O’Neal could play himself into the running back conversation with a strong camp. At worst, the Georgia native could find a way onto the Eagles practice squad.
What do you expect from the running this season? Can the Eagles find a lead back? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook or in the comments below…