Let's talk about the running back position. The Eagles have one of the best backs in all of the NFL in Brian Westbrook. He might be starting to show some age, but Westbrook is still a dynamic playmaker. Aside from him things are somewhat bare. Correll Buckhalter has played well the last three years, but he is scheduled to become a free agent. Lorenzo Booker showed so much promise in the off-season and then did so little in the regular season. Kyle Eckel played a limited role this year as a power runner, but might see more time at fullback in the off-season. You basically have Westbrook and some question marks.
Buckhalter is a player the Eagles should want to re-sign. The question may very well be whether he's interested in coming back. The Eagles keep talking about using him more, but consistently do not. As much as I'd love to see Buckhalter stick around, I wouldn't blame him one bit for talking to other teams in hopes of getting a more active role in the offense.
Buckhalter isn't a special player or anything to that extent, but he is a good backup running back that deserves touches. He makes plays when the Eagles give him chances. He was the only player to score a touchdown in the early season battle between the Steelers and Eagles. He broke free in the Dallas game on a 59-yard pass play that really opened up the game. He averaged almost five yards per carry over the last two seasons. Buckhalter is more than just a backup. Ideally, the Eagles will re-sign him and make him more of the offense.
Booker had a disappointing season. I think part of that is on the coaching staff as well. Every week he seemed to be lined up in the slot and running a slant pattern. Booker is a good receiver capable of catching a slant and moving the chains. I still think that you have to mix him into the running game first in order to get him in the flow of the game. Kevin Turner, a great Eagles fullback in the mid-to-late 90s, always said that Ricky Watters wasn't effective until his first play of 10 or more yards. Watters needed to get his legs loose. That isn't the case with all runners, but I do think they need carries. Let them touch the ball, run a little and take a hit. Once that has happened, you can throw all the passes that you like. Too often, I think the coaches forget guys are called "running backs." They need to run the ball, even if only a time or two.
Booker didn't help matters. He dropped a pass or two. He didn't do much when he did get the ball in his hands. He only had one game where he really showed us anything. In the Thanksgiving game, he had four carries for 21 yards. He looked quick and showed some burst.
Some Eagles fans think Booker should be cut now. I disagree. Figure out a way to mix him into the offense so he can help you out. Booker does have talent. He's an athletic guy. He just didn't show it for most of the 2008 regular season. He did show it in 2007 and in the off-season. The ability is there. Booker needs to step up his game. He's got to take advantage of opportunities when they come his way. Another showing like 2008 and he will be looking for a job.
The Eagles face an interesting question. Is it time to start looking for Westbrook's successor? That may seem premature to some, but I always think back to the great line from the movie Spy Game. When did Noah build the Ark? Before it rained.
If the Eagles do go looking for a future starter they will have some interesting choices. The two top candidates are first-round players, Knowshon Moreno and LeSean McCoy. Moreno only played two seasons at Georgia, but was very impressive and incredibly productive. He ran for 2,734 yards and 30 touchdowns in those two seasons. He also caught 53 passes, many of them screen passes. Moreno lists at 5-11 and 224 pounds. He's strong enough to break tackles, but also athletic enough to make guys miss. He actually leapt over a defender in an early season game. Moreno is also a very emotional player. He plays with a lot of energy. I like running backs who are fiery, passionate players. I think teams can feed off of that emotion. For my money, Moreno is the top runner available in the upcoming draft. He might still be on the board at No. 21, but that's no sure thing.
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McCoy is almost certain to be there. Like Moreno, he only played two seasons at Pitt. He posted even better numbers than Moreno. McCoy ran for 2,816 yards and 35 touchdowns. He caught 65 passes. He's very dangerous on screen passes. McCoy is about 20 pounds lighter than Moreno. He doesn't have the same kind of power. He is still a physical back when he needs to be. You don't get into the end zone 35 times in two years without being able to lower your shoulder and run hard when it's needed. McCoy is more elusive out in space. That's part of what makes him so dangerous on screen passes. He also has great vision. That helps on runs and screens. He sees the field in slow-motion and simply has a knack for knowing where to go and how to get there.
Both guys would seem to be terrific fits for the Eagles offense. Would Reid be willing to spend a first-round pick on a running back? That hasn't happened yet, but I wouldn't rule it out completely. The running attack cost the Eagles games last year. Reid knows this and it could push him to be more aggressive with the situation this off-season.
Donald Brown of Connecticut is probably a second-round prospect. He led the nation in rushing with more than 2,000 yards this past season. He really opened some eyes. Brown isn't as physically gifted as the first-round players, but he's still quite good. He can be a workhorse runner, but also a big play guy. I think many of us fear another Tony Hunt scenario where the team selects a guy who needs 20 carries to be successful and then tries to turn him into a role player. Brown carried the ball a lot, but had at least six carries that went for 40 or more yards. He's not a plodder that must get 20 carries to hit 75 yards. He's the kind of runner that you can work into the offense here and there early in his career. Brown only caught 48 passes in three years. UConn didn't have good quarterback play and basically just handed the ball to him all game long.
Beyond that trio things get complicated. There are several guys who have good ability, but they also have question marks. I'm not sure if the Eagles would look at these guys as future starters or simply key role players with a possible chance of becoming starting running backs. Andre Brown of N.C. State battled some injuries during his time in college, but had a solid career. He ran for 2,228 yards and 18 scores. He caught 55 passes. Brown went to the Senior Bowl and looked like the best runner down there. He showed some elusiveness. He ran with good power. Brown had a big gain on a screen pass in the game. He goes in the 225-pound range and would give the Eagles a more physical presence in the backfield.
An interesting player who's sort of flying under the radar is Mike Goodson of Texas A&M. He doesn't come close to the other players in terms of production. Goodson had to share the ball with Jovorskie Lane for his first couple of years. This season he got hurt and that limited his production. He did run for 1,964 yards and 13 touchdowns in his three seasons. He did stand out as a receiver. Goodson caught 90 passes, including seven for touchdowns. He is probably the fastest of the bunch. Put on the Miami game from this year and you can see his potential. He lined up at wide receiver on one play. They threw the ball to him on a flanker screen coming back across the middle. Goodson made a couple of guys miss, got wide and then used his speed to get free for a 62-yard touchdown.
Rashard Jennings transferred from Pitt to Liberty. He goes 6-1 and 234 pounds. He was a dominant player at the FCS level. Jennings ran for 42 touchdowns and more than 3,600 yards. He could be the big back some fans have been clamoring for. Jennings went to the Senior Bowl and looked good. He wasn't out of place at all. He has enough athletic ability to play in the NFL. He's got good feet and vision as well. Solid prospect.
Jeremiah Johnson was explosive for Oregon down the stretch and has the skill set the Eagles could love. I just question whether he's what we need. I see him as more of a speed No. 2 back. He'd be very good on third downs. I'm not so sure that helps the team all that much.
Cedric Peerman of Virginia was a backup early in his career. He became the starter in 2007, but couldn't stay healthy. That's a major concern. He only weighs about 210 pounds, but Peerman is a tough, physical runner. He's got some pop in him. He also is a good receiver. He has kickoff return experience. Good fit for us. The problem is that he's a fifth-round type of prospect and may not have the highest ceiling.
Nebraska's Marlon Lucky had a very disappointing senior season. His rushing yards were almost half of what he had as a junior. Ouch. The new coaching staff saw him more as a role player than a feature runner. He would be of interest for a couple of reasons. First, he played in the West Coast offense of former head coach Bill Callahan for three seasons. He'd have a major advantage in trying to learn the Eagles scheme. Also, he caught 135 passes in his career. That's a tremendous total for a runner. He averaged more than 10 yards per reception. Lucky is a mid-to-late round target.
Gartrell Johnson of Colorado State is one of my favorite runners. He's only a mid-round prospect, but I love watching this kid play. He goes about 5-10 and 220 pounds. He ran for 1,476 yards and 12 touchdowns this year. He runs hard. He's also elusive. He looks good catching the ball and finished the year with 32 receptions. Johnson might remind you of Duce Staley. He also runs a bit like Marion Barber. The big problem with Johnson is that he's just not fast. I don't know if the Eagles have any interest in him, but I find him really intriguing.
I haven't figured out an ideal scenario yet. I want to see what these kids do at the Scouting Combine next week. One interesting thought is doing what Dallas did last year and taking a pair of running backs in the draft. Take someone in the first or second and then add another runner in the third or fourth. That would inject a lot of youth. You could also add different types of players. Grab the feature back early and add the power back after that. We'll get a big hint on the Eagles plans when we see what they do with Buckhalter. If they let him walk, it would almost certainly point to an early selection at running back. If they bring him back, it allows the Eagles to be aggressive or selective. I think Reid knows the team needs some new blood in the backfield and will add at least one player.