Losing running back Jay Ajayi to a torn ACL is another blow to an Eagles offense that has not yet been able to get into any kind of rhythm, takes away a hard-charging, dynamic back who was instrumental in the team’s Super Bowl championship a season ago. The Eagles certainly understand the “next man up” principle which again comes into play.
The twist here is that the “next man up” has to be healthy. And the Eagles don’t have a whole lot of healthy options at the moment.
With a short week here, the Eagles turn to Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, and rookie Josh Adams in the backfield. Veteran Darren Sproles has missed the last four games with a hamstring injury, so he is a dicey proposition moving forward. Let’s take a look at the backfield as it stands now and project what Howie Roseman could do to fortify the position.
An impressive all-purpose back, Clement has handled every responsibility the Eagles have given him in his two seasons here. Now he’s likely to be the lead back – in a rotational situation – moving forward. Clement runs hard, runs intelligently, catches the ball well in the passing game, and is solid in pass protection. How much of a workload can he handle? That’s an important question because Clement has not played the last two games with a quad injury. Will he be healthy enough to play on Thursday? The Eagles held a walk-through on Monday and Clement was a full participant. He was in uniform on Sunday against Minnesota but did not play. Is that quad ready to go against New York? And how much can the Eagles put on Clement’s shoulders for the rest of the season?
The third-year running back is closer than he’s ever been to putting it all together. He did a lot of good things the last couple of weeks – running hard and with a purpose, protecting the football, making big plays in the passing game. He had a crucial drop on a third-down pass from quarterback Carson Wentz early in the game against the Vikings and needs to eliminate those kinds of mistakes to take the next step in his career. But there is no doubt that Smallwood has the confidence of the coaching staff. He’s going to be a big part of the backfield picture here, so Smallwood, who has had nagging leg injuries in his career, has to stay healthy and available for duty.
He’s a 6-2, 225-pound running back who has some burst. Adams is a developing talent. The Eagles are high on his ability. But Adams is also raw. He’s under the tutelage of coach Duce Staley, who is excited about Adams. It’s just tough to accelerate the comfort level for a rookie running back, particularly in the passing game as a receiver and in pass protection. The original plan was to keep Adams on the practice squad and develop him through the course of the year. That was blown up when Sproles suffered his hamstring injury in the week before the game at Tampa Bay. Adams is here to stay and he’s going to get playing time.
One of the season’s great disappointments is that Sproles hasn’t been able to play after helping the Eagles beat Atlanta in the opener. The Eagles believed that Sproles, who looked so great in the summer after rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered last season, would help as a change-of-pace running back and as a punt returner. But hamstring injuries are tricky and the Eagles have to make sure they bring Sproles back when, and only when, he’s all the way back from the injury. His status for this week is again very much a question. The Eagles could use his experience in the backfield. As it stands now, they’re going into New York with a third-year back (Smallwood), a second-year back (Clement), and a rookie (Adams). It’s hard to make up for a lack of experience.
There is no doubt that Roseman, who is always on the lookout to improve the roster, is keeping his eyes open. The rampant speculation about pulling off a blockbuster trade for a certain disgruntled Steelers running back needs to be debunked, because it is a deal that makes no sense for the Eagles, who would have to A) Give up prized draft picks; B) Create more room under the salary cap; and C) Pay an outrageous amount of money to retain said running back’s services beyond this season.
That doesn’t mean Roseman will stop looking. The Eagles have their emergency list of running backs and they’ll look at every team’s roster to see if a player is potentially available. But the Eagles also have to see if they can add to the roster in every area. They haven’t been dynamic at wide receiver for most of the season, the defense has had spotty moments, and the bottom of the roster is always subject to churning. As much as the Eagles have to keep their focus on 2018, Roseman’s responsibility also requires him to plan out the roster two to three years into the future. There are several notable Eagles – defensive end Brandon Graham, linebacker Jordan Hicks, cornerback Ronald Darby among them – who are playing on the final year of their contracts.
Losing Ajayi hurts. He runs hard and he’s been a good Eagle since the team acquired him via trade last season. Ajayi’s future becomes unclear with the injury; he’s playing in the final season of his contract and is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the year.
For the Eagles, it’s another injury to overcome. This is nothing new. The “next man up” philosophy has always been in place. It’s being taxed to the max once again this season.