There are decisions to make with the 53-man roster, some that will come more easily than others as the three preseason games are played and the Eagles also take into consideration joint practices against the Patriots and the Jets. The cream usually rises to the top, making the cuts more obvious at most positions. One position where it is going to be difficult – and where the Eagles are going to have to think beyond the immediate roster – is running back. In a 17-game schedule, the extra manpower in that room is going to be needed.
"It's an extra game and that's a big deal," running back Miles Sanders said. "I love it. More games. More opportunities for all of us. But no doubt it is going to tax running backs in the league. We all have to be ready for that."
What does a 17th game mean? For most front offices planning out the roster, it means four running backs on most active rosters and another couple of backs on the practice squad who are ready to step in and play on short notice. With that in mind, the Eagles have assembled a diverse group of backs who complement each other nicely and who work well within the framework of the offense. The responsibilities aren't just to run the football, as you know. The backs here are going to be involved in the passing game, both from a receiving end and a pass-protection standpoint.
With that in mind, the Eagles have something good going on with their running backs. Sanders enters his third season and is taking the first-team reps in Training Camp. Sanders has averaged 4.9 yards per rushing attempt since he entered the league in 2019 and his four 60-yard-plus gains in two seasons is best in the league. Sanders has skills as a receiver as well, with 78 catches. He's aiming high in 2021.
"I think I'm one of the best running backs in the league, a complete player," he said. "That's my goal, to show that every day here and then every week when we're in the regular season. I'm excited about this offense and the way we're going to use our backs. We've got our offensive line back and healthy. I feel like we're going to attack the running game. We have a lot to work with."
Boston Scott has worked hard to become a back who can plug in and help in a variety of ways. He averaged 4.7 yards a carry last year and added 25 receptions. His numbers have grown in his three years in Philadelphia and now he's primed for another jump – Scott has prepared for 2021 and a more robust role, if called upon.
"I think anybody would be excited to be in this offense with everything we have around the offense – playmakers at every position and a big, strong offensive line," Scott said. "We're still learning about it, but so far I love it. We're all going to have a lot of chances to do our parts."
After Sanders and Scott, the roles aren't clearly defined, but the competition sure is going to be fun to watch through the preseason, which opens on Thursday against Pittsburgh at Lincoln Financial Field (NBC10, 7:30 PM). Rookie Kenneth Gainwell has had a lot of touches in camp as the coaches move him around the formation and take advantage of his receiving skills and his open-field ability. He's also going to get some carries as he knocks off the rust after sitting out last season at Memphis. The coaching staff can't wait to see what he can do in a game situation.
Two veterans are very much in the mix of things – Jordan Howard returned to the Eagles last season and re-signed in the offseason, and Kerryon Johnson was claimed off waivers from Detroit in the spring. Both have something to prove – Howard that he can return to the form he showed with the Eagles in 2019 when he gained 525 yards and scored six touchdowns on the ground in 10 games and Johnson that he is healthy and the same player who was so dynamic for Detroit when he was healthy for parts of 2018 and 2019. Both have their skill sets – Howard is a downhill runner who excels in short yardage, and who is in terrific shape and intent on proving that he's the all-around back who was among the NFL's most productive in his three seasons with the Bears before coming to Philadelphia. Johnson is a slashing, physical back who can catch the football and is one of the sturdiest players at his position in pass protection.
Wait, there's more. The Eagles made sure they fortified the depth here heading into camp because, well, the season is going to be a grind and the team knows it needs to be deep. Jason Huntley is a speed back who comes back for a second season here and he will get touches in the preseason to show what he can do. Elijah Holyfield is a power running back who impressed in Training Camp in 2020 and spent much of the season on the practice squad – he was elevated for the Week 11 game in Cleveland and played on special teams. Adrian Killins is a quick, whippy back who has been moved around the offensive formation in camp. He has excellent receiving skills and was a home run hitter in his college days.
Eight backs fighting for jobs. Every spot matters. Every rep has impact. We'll know a lot more when the preseason games begin and the running backs are in live game situations. The message here is to understand that it's going to take a village of running backs to make it work in a 17-game season. The focus is on the entire group, not just one player. The Eagles have set themselves up for success here with a deep and talented room. They'll need every one of them to contribute in 2021.