Eagles Training Camp Preview: The Running Backs
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Another year, another lead back.
For the fourth time in the four years of the Doug Pederson era, the Eagles will arrive at training camp on July 24 with a new name atop the depth chart at RB, trade pickup Jordan Howard.
From the perspective of most of the NFL, the running back position has unquestionably been devalued.
That said when Philadelphia made its late run to the postseason in 2018, the Eagles were essentially counting on an undrafted rookie in Josh Adams until a shoulder injury derailed the former Notre Dame star forcing Pederson to shift toward the written off Wendell Smallwood, an untenable path moving forward in a division which features Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkey and Adrian Peterson.
The status quo would have been welcoming back Jay Ajayi from a torn ACL and Corey Clement from a murkier knee injury of his own but Howie Roseman bypassed the Band-Aid and cobbled together a plan which could ultimately give Pederson his first true three-down back by 2020.
Miles Sanders, the team's second-round pick back in April, is the long-term plan. Short-term the Eagles needed a more concrete option with the window open for another Super Bowl run and the decision was sending pennies on the dollar -- in this case a conditional 2020 sixth-round pick -- to Chicago for a two-time, 1,000-yard back in Howard.
A powerful 6-foot-1, 225-pound runner, Howard set the Bears' rookie record with 1,313 yards as a fourth-round pick out of Indiana in 2016 before also cracking the 1,000-yard mark as a sophomore in 2017. Things tailed off last season when Howard finished his third campaign in Chicago with 935 yards at a pedestrian 3.7 yards-per-carry. He's also never been much of a receiving threat, ranging from 20 receptions last season to a career-high 29 as a rookie.
The glass-is-half-empty crowd will point out that Howard has essentially been on the market since Matt Nagy arrived in the Windy City. From there the narrative is that no one knows Howard better than Chicago so why were the Bears willing to sell so low on the fourth-year back?
The context to that is Nagy is another Andy Reid disciple who has a similar offensive philosophy to Pederson and much like the Eagles coach he wants the Christian McCaffrey-, Alvin Kamara-type that is all the rage in the NFL. The Bears, though, actually already have a reasonable facsimile with Tarik Cohen.
The issue is that Cohen's size limitations almost demand a pitch count when it comes to touches so Howard essentially was the innings eater on an offense where most teams approached things with the intent on forcing the limited Mitchell Trubisky to beat them.
In other words, you can crunch the numbers all you want and point to the downward spike in production but when Howard was ripping off big runs as a rookie, it was on a very bad team that still had Jay Cutler at the start of the campaign so the typical game plan against the Bears was to stop the arm talent of the veteran QB first and foremost. And that really never changed with Brian Hoyer as well.
Nagy is simply in a different place than Pederson at RB, possessing the desirable skill-set template with the obvious caveats. The Eagles, on the other hand, haven't been able to get that kind of back since Pederson returned for the 2016 season with the aging Darren Sproles serving as the closest option, something highlighted by the Eagles coach defaulting to the veteran in key situations when he's been healthy over the past three years.
From Philadelphia's perspective, Howard is the typical cost-effective Roseman pickup as 2019 will be the final year of his rookie contract at just over $2 million. The sixth-round pick in 2020 earmarked for Chicago could turn into a fifth-round selection if Howard reaches certain playing time conditions with the Eagles but with a projected net gain in compensatory picks, Philadelphia should have plenty in the war chest to barely notice a missing later-round pick by then.
In Pederson's offense, Howard will immediately be penciled in as the lead back in a committee which also currently employs Clement, Sanders, Adams, Smallwood, Boston Scott and Donnel Pumphrey.
Both Ajayi and Sproles remain free agents at this deadline and the acquisition of Howard likely shuts the door on Ajayi returning to Philadelphia. Sproles remains a Pederson favorite but hasn't technically decided if he wants to play in 2019 and the Eagles would prefer a younger player anyway.
Since entering the NFL, Howard has the third-most rushing yards of any running back (3,370), behind only Elliott (4,048) and Todd Gurley (3,441). He will be the fourth lead back in four years for Pederson but also should be a better two-down option that the others: Ryan Mathews, LeGarrette Blount and Ajayi. In fact, Howard is a lot like Ajayi without the knee concerns and also comes over $1M cheaper than the perceived alternative in free agency, Tevin Coleman, who opted for a reunion with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco for $3.25M guaranteed.
If it doesn't work out you simply move on in 2020 with little financial penalty and in the meantime the Eagles were not prevented in any way from continuing to uncover any rock in search of a true three-down back, where the hope rests with Sanders.
A THREE-DOWN BACK?
The Eagles interest in Sanders wasn't exactly a secret but the hope that Barkley's successor in Happy Valley would be there for Philadelphia in the second round was waning as the draft approached. NFL Network analyst and former Eagles scout Daniel Jeremiah even surmised that Sanders had "too much juice on him" around the league to get to No. 53 overall.
Turns out that summation had some merit but was incorrect because Sanders was indeed the second RB off the board after Alabama's Josh Jacobs but that didn't happen until 53 in a draft deep with far more top-level talent at other positions.
"Guess what, guys," a giddy Roseman joked to reporters after getting his guy. "We got a running back. We draft running backs in Philadelphia."
Sanders is the first running back taken by the Eagles in the premium rounds of the draft since 2009 when the organization drafted LeSean McCoy, also in the second round. The Eagles’ interest in Sanders, who rushed for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns with the Nittany Lions last season, can be traced to a well-rounded skill set which could develop into the elusive three-down option the team has been searching for.
For now, the Pittsburgh-area native is expected to complement Howard in a newly-minted backfield.
"I am very familiar with [Howard's] game," Sanders said. "He is a great running back. Going on to his second contract. He’s been in this league for a good amount of time, his fourth or fifth year and he’s done a lot in this league. Great running back like I said. I can’t wait to work with all the running backs in that room; [Corey] Clement, [Wendell] Smallwood and Josh Adams. I can’t wait to get in there and learn from them and I’m ready to compete with them. The only goal is to get a Super Bowl."
The Eagles were 28th in rushing last season at 98.1 yards per game. In the committee approach, Sanders figures to start off as the caddy and perhaps third-down back due to his versatility. The ultimate goal, presumably by 2020 when Howard is a free agent, is what has been missing over the past three years, that ever-elusive three-down option.
"Miles is a guy, he can play all three downs," Roseman assessed. "... You have these guys that can do different things. Coach is looking for guys that have different skill-sets so he can provide different looks to the defense. It’s a matchup league. That’s what we’re looking to provide our coaching staff with. Guys who can win one-on-one matchups."
THE SUPPORTING CAST
Sanders missed the entire spring with a hamstring injury and the ramp-up period for the rookie has been pushed back a bit.
“Obviously it hurts a little bit that he’s not getting the physical reps,” Pederson said. “But I don’t want to risk him any further. We’ll wait until camp and get him out there. He’s getting a lot of mental reps, [Duce Staley] is grilling him and drilling him in the classroom.”
That opens the door for someone like Clement or Smallwood to handle the complementary role to Howard, at least early in the season. Clement, coming off his own knee injury, figures to be the leader in that clubhouse at the start of camp. From there young backs like Adams, Boston Scott and even Donnel Pumphrey will try to push for a roster spot with Scott perhaps having a leg up because he offers some Sproles-like traits.
"He’s a guy that can kind of fill a Darren Sproles [role]," Pederson said of Scott. "He’s in that same body type and same quickness. We’re working him in a couple of different situations as a runner, as a punt returner, and just kind of getting a feel for him because he wasn’t a guy we initially brought onto our team early.
"Of course, there’s other guys, but he’s kind of been the one that, if you say you’re going to try to replace Darren, which you really can’t, he would be the guy that has kind of taken that role over right now."
RB1 Jordan Howard - Has the potential to be the best lead back in the Doug Pederson era.
RB2/Third-Down Back Corey Clement - Miles Sanders missing spring work opens the door for the Super Bowl hero, at least early in the season.
RB3 Miles Sanders - The Eagles have high hopes that Sanders can be a true three-down back by 2020.
ON THE BUBBLE:
RB4 Wendell Smallwood - He's written off every year but often plays a key role at some point. Can do a little bit of everything and even help on special teams but doesn't stand out in any area.
RB5 Boston Scott - Scott has the most Darren Sproles-like qualities on the roster and can help in the return game as well.
RB6 Josh Adams - Offseason shoulder surgery put Adams behind the eight-ball and there is some redundancy to his game with Howard.
RB7 Donnel Pumphrey - It's a tough numbers game for the former fourth-round pick.
POSITION GRADE: 5.5 [While improved on paper, the RB position is among the weakest on the team and maybe the only area where Philadelphia is clearly No. 4 in the NFC East.)
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen