Smallwood is Set for Increased Role
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Wendell Smallwood may have an even bigger role as the 2017 season progresses but for now the second-year Eagles running back is on the precipice of being one of the NFL's more impactful kickoff returners.
Smallwood got his feet wet with the job description when he got nine opportunities as a rookie, returning one for 86 yards and a touchdown against Washington, the team Philadelphia plays this Sunday in the season opener.
Overall, the West Virginia product averaged 29.0 yards on his returns besting the team's average in 27.3, which happened to be the best in the NFL last season.
The Eagles did it piecemeal last season when it came to KRs with Josh Huff being the main cog until he was released and the now departed Kenjon Barner split the role with Smallwood from there. Also getting opportunities were Nelson Agholor and Byron Marshall.
This time around Smallwood is the guy, however, something Doug Pederson confirmed earlier this week.
"I think we can even be better with the kick return game," the head coach said. "Wendell shows some explosiveness back there. It's exciting to put the ball in his hands. He's a tough runner, being a running back and definitely has the speed to go the distance. Yeah, we can definitely improve there. It'll be a great opportunity for him this weekend."
Smallwood was actually the upback on his return against the Redskins last season as Washington tried to play keep away from the explosive Huff, who actually averaged a gaudy 36.0 yards-per-return before off-the-field issues curtailed his career in South Philadelphia.
Smallwood lauded his teammates for paving the way on his TD and accentuated just how important a special teams score can mean for the team.
"I think it's more of a team effort on special teams because everyone has to do something right," he said. "People work so hard in that area, it being special teams and not a lot of points come off special teams. I think it means a lot, all the work we put in and everyone getting their job done. It barely happens but it happens sometimes and when it does, it's big plays. It definitely means a lot. I feel like we celebrate special teams touchdowns more than we do offense and defense."
The Eagles have been at the top of the special teams rankings in the Dave Fipp era and that's expected to continue this season despite a few hiccups in the preseason.
During Wednesday's practice, rookie Corey Clement served as Smallwood's upback on the first team while Agholor serving as the backup KR with receiver Marcus Johnson playing the upback role.
"We have a lot of starters on [special teams] actually," Smallwood said. "We got a lot of guys that take pride in special teams. Fipp tells us every day, man. He drills it into us every day how important it is to us. I think we approach it every day like we're going to make a difference in the game."
Smallwood's offensive role, meanwhile, will be as part of a running back-by-committee approach with starter LeGarrette Blount and third-down back Darren Sproles.
“It goes back to the game plan, quite honestly," Pederson said. "We understand that LeGarrette might be a little different runner even than Sproles or Wendell. I think it’s game plan specific. It’s hard to go into a game saying, ‘LeGarrette, you’re going to get X number of touches,’ because you never know what the game — what circumstances might be posed during the game."
“If LeGarrette has the hot hand, he continues to carry the ball,” Pederson continued. “If it’s Wendell, it’s Wendell.”
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-Mike Groh runs his WR drills be pecing order with the exception of Nos. 1 and 2. Torrey Smith, the outspoken leader and veteran, takes the fisrt rep ahead of Alshon Jeffery. From there it's Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins, Marcus Johnson. The interesting part comes in there where practice-squad receivers Bryce Treggs and Greg Ward still go ahead of Shelton Gibson.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen