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Eagles: Great Shape At RB

Posted Apr 13, 2012

What has happened to the running back position? Once valued at the top of the NFL's food chain, a running back today has a short shelf life, limited market value and diminishing star power ...

Oh, don't get me wrong: It's great that the Eagles have one of the best in the league in LeSean McCoy, and in no way am I suggesting that he isn't worth a new contract and a big-time pay raise. He's going to get his, and he is as deserving as anyone in the NFL.

The Eagles are a better offense with McCoy on the field, no doubt about that. He is a tremendous, versatile football player.

But when you look around the league, and you see all of these two-back running attacks, and you notice on the free-agent market that good players like Joseph Addai and Ryan Grant and Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson and LaDainian Tomlinson and Justin Forsett and .... the list goes on and on of decent-to-good running backs who don't have a job right now.

Why not?

Furthermore, even though who have signed free-agent contracts have really not gotten huge dollars. Michael Bush got some cash in Chicago, just enough to send reporters off to find out how upset franchised running back Matt Forte feels about Bush's addition to the Bears backfield. But Peyton Hillis signed for prove-it money and BenJarvus Green-Ellis made good, but not great, money to move from New England to Cincinnati and Brandon Jacobs is playing for very reasonable money to back up Frank Gore in San Francisco.

Houston signed Arian Foster to big dollars, but the bottom line pales in comparison to what, say, the top-of-the-line wide receivers are making in today's NFL.

It makes for good conversation. One, the league is so much about throwing the football and creating big plays that the wide receivers -- second to the quarterbacks -- are the ones with the superstar power. That hasn't always been the case. Running backs ruled the league not so long ago, back when teams played a more grind-it-out style and relied more heavily on the running game.

Two, running backs just don't last too long. Here is my theory: A great running back discovered in youth football carries the football 30 times a game from the time he is 10 years old. He gets pounded in weight-league football. He takes a beating in CYO games. Then he goes to high school and bangs into a wall 25 more times every week.

By the time the kid is in college, he's about to peak physically as a running back. But he continues to take a licking as the lead running back and then has only a few years of productivity when he reaches the NFL and has to, from the ages of 22 to 25, line up against men who weigh 50 more pounds and who are five years older and so violently fast.

Maybe the advent of the spread offense in college will save and prolong some running backs' careers. Maybe not.

All I know is that the league seems to think that quality running backs fall off of trees. I don't happen to agree, but the position is clearly valued differently now than in the past.

Take, for example, the situation the Eagles have. They love McCoy, their franchise running back. He is the lead back and the Eagles are going to count on him heavily. But Andy Reid is very aware of the break-down factor, the fatigue factor, whatever it is, that afflicts running backs in the NFL. So he is smart with the amount of touches that McCoy gets moving forward.

The backup running back at this point is Dion Lewis, who I happen to think is a rising player in this league. I think Lewis can give the Eagles 5 to 7 touches every week and provide greatly to the offense. Could he carry the offense as a lead running back should something happen to McCoy? That, I don't know. Lewis has not yet been in that position in the NFL.

So, the Eagles, I'm thinking, are probably going to add a running back somewhere along the line in the weeks to come. Maybe in the draft, where there are maybe four backs ranked among the top 50 or so players overall, and then another several backs who fit as part-time, we-will-see-if-they-are-full-time players. If the Eagles don't have a chance to draft one of those players that they really, really like, they can re-visit free agency and find a good fit with players who have absolutely no leverage in negotiations.

The point is, if you want a running back in this league, and in the case of the Eagles, a running back who is a role player, you basically have your pick of the crop.

The Eagles are in a very good spot at running back. They've got McCoy, who has great football years in front of him. They have Lewis, who I think is going to be one of those excellent change-of-pace running backs (not a kickoff return man, however) within this offense. They will certainly add a third player who brings the same kind of multi-dimensional skills to an offense that requires backs to run, catch the football and perform in pass protection.

At no time has the front office this offseason acted with any kind of urgency to address the position, and I understand the approach. There is no need to rush a decision. There are plenty of options. In this day and age of pass-first offense, running backs are -- relatively speaking -- left in the dust. The Eagles, when all is said and done, are going to have a great group of running backs to use in this multi-pronged offensive attack. 

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