It’s no secret that the Philadelphia Eagles struggled running the ball last year.
The Eagles were 28th in the league in rushing yards and 30th in yards per attempt. That is one season after they were 3rd and 4th respectively.
There was a myriad of injuries that hit this position group that caused such a steep drop-off. Jay Ajayi was lost for the season, Darren Sproles missed the majority of the season, and Corey Clement played banged up practically the whole year. With LeGarrette Blount in Detroit, the Eagles were forced to turn towards the likes of Wendell Smallwood and Josh Adams for production, and the overall rushing game suffered.
This year, the Eagles will have an entirely new rushing attack. Upgrading the running back position was a major focus of the off-season and general manager Howie Roseman devoted a fair deal of assets to give the position a much needed makeover.
Roseman acquired the 24-year-old Jordan Howard from the Chicago Bears in exchange for a 2020 sixth round pick. The Bears drafted Howard in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Howard is listed at 6 feet tall and 224 pounds, making him bigger than the average back. The former Indiana Hoosier has 3,370 career rushing yards and 24 touchdowns across three seasons. After posting back to back one thousand yards seasons to start his career, he finished last season with 935 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Howard saw his numbers decline in 2018-2019 partly due to the offensive scheme brought in by new head coach Matt Nagy. Tarik Cohen became much more involved in Nagy’s system due to his electric pass catching ability. Howard is more of a downhill and between the tackles runner, and it was widely speculated exactly how he would fit in the new system.
Those questions were answered when Howard was sent to the Eagles in March. Howard, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal, will provide the hammer that the Eagles sorely missed after the loss of Ajayi and especially Blount.
The Eagles entered the 2019 draft with two second round picks. Roseman decided to use both of them despite wide speculation that they could be used as trade ammo. Roseman used the first of the two to select Penn State running back Miles Sanders 53rd overall.
Sanders was behind Saquon Barkley on the depth chart for his first two years with the Nittany Lions. However, once Barkley left for the NFL, Sanders took full advantage of the lead back role.
Sanders rushed for 1,274 yards with a 5.8 YPC and 12 touchdowns in his first and only season as the starter. He also chipped in 24 receptions for 139 yards.
The 22-year-old Pittsburgh native is a very balanced running back. Sanders makes tacklers miss with his elusiveness and has the ability to challenge defenders up the middle. His receiving ability bodes well for his future playing time in Doug Pederson’s offense.
One of the most appealing things about Sanders is his low mileage. He only had 308 touches in three years in college, thus increasing his overall shelf life in the NFL. If Sanders can fully recover from his foot injury suffered in practice, he should provide a nice 1-2 punch with Howard this season. But, Sanders will have to fix his problems with pass protection and ball security (10 fumbles, 7 lost in 38 college games) to earn his full share of playing time in the NFL.
The undrafted free agent turned Super Bowl hero Clement had a rough sophomore campaign following his surprise rookie year. Clement only played in 11 games last year due to suffering nagging injuries practically all season. And in the games he played with injuries clearly limited him.
The former Wisconsin Badger combined for 444 yards from scrimmage on 84 touches his rookie year in the regular season. The injury hampered Clement finished 11 games in 2018-2019 with actually more total yards at 451, but the rushing numbers were way down and the receiving numbers were boosted by higher volume.
Clement’s rushing yardage dropped from 321 to 259 and his receiving yards per reception dropped from 12.3 to 8.7. His total touchdown numbers dropped from 6 to 2.
Perhaps Clement set the bar too high his rookie year. After all, there were reasons he went undrafted. But time will tell if last season can just be written off as a injury riddled year.
It was widely assumed that Darren Sproles was going to retire following a disappointing 2018. He had come back for one more year after tearing his ACL and breaking his arm after three games in 2017, but had last season cut short by a hamstring injury.
Sproles played in just six games last season and finished with 44 touches for 280 yards and three touchdowns. But out of nowhere, Sproles and the Eagles agreed to terms on a one year contract for 2019-2020 on July 22nd. Perhaps fans can thank his daughter for his decision to come back.
A healthy Darren Sproles gives Doug Pederson one his favorite toys in the offense. As Eagles fans all know, Sproles is still a threat to rip off huge gains and score at any time the ball is in his hands. But he is now 36 and has played in 9 total games since 2016. The key to Sproles’ season will be staying healthy.
Adams was thrust into a role into the Eagles offense after the position was ravaged with injuries in 2018. The undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame was active for 14 games and started five of them. In those games, Adams rushed for 511 yards with three touchdowns and a 4.3 YPC.
For a bigger back (6’2, 225) Adams struggled in short yardage situations, which made the Eagles offense stall on a lot of drives whereas they excelled in this area in 2017.
Adams will be a fighting for a roster spot this season but his most likely scenario is a spot on the practice squad.
The Eagles’ 5th round pick in the 2016 draft has largely disappointed to this point. Smallwood, like Adams, was forced into a bigger role in the offense due to injury. He finished the season with 364 yards and 3 touchdowns with a 4.2 YPC in 16 games played.
Smallwood will most likely be the odd man out in a crowded backfield, and may be among the Eagles final cuts heading into the season.
Scott was signed to the Eagles 53 man roster in Week 15 in an attempt to add some depth lost by injury. He was originally a sixth round pick of the New Orleans Saints in the 2018 draft. His only two career games came last season as a kick returner. Scott finished with 96 yards on 4 returns and no touchdowns.
Scott has an outside shot of making the team as a special teams player, but the presence of DeSean Jackson and Darren Sproles may force him to compete for a practice squad spot.
The running back position went from one of the biggest weaknesses on the Eagles roster to one of its biggest strengths. They have three quality proven backs in Howard, Clement, and Sproles, in addition to an exciting young player in Sanders. Doug Pederson has the envious position of trying to find a way to get the ball to all of these talented backs.
However, as we learned last year, everything can chanGe in an instant due to injury. This is especially relevant in regards to Clement and Sproles and to a lesser extent Sanders. But if everyone is healthy, the Eagles should have no problems running the ball in 2019.