When we all put together a let's-have-some-fun depth chart and labeled "key contributors in December" for the 2018 Philadelphia Eagles season way back in August, it's probable that it didn't include the names of Josh Adams at running back and Cre'Von LeBlanc at cornerback. But as the Eagles prepare for Sunday's game at Dallas, the rookie Adams is the team's leading rusher, coming off a 20-carry, 85-yard game against Washington, and LeBlanc is a key piece on the defense, lining up at the nickel cornerback position.
"You have to remember," assistant head coach/running backs Duce Staley said about Adams, "Josh was a Heisman Trophy candidate when he was at Notre Dame. He was definitely on our radar. We thought he was going to get drafted and when he didn't, we did everything we could to sign him. He was a big-time playmaker in college and he's come in here hungry and determined to show the whole NFL was wrong not to draft him."
"Cre'Von had some experience and the guys upstairs (pro personnel department) did a great job bringing him in here knowing he had the skill set to help us as a nickel cornerback," defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said. "He's come in here and worked hard to learn our defense and he's done a good job."
The Eagles' personnel department works around the clock evaluating the current roster, keeping reports active on players on every team in the league, monitoring players who are not on current rosters, and preparing for the future. It's an all-hands-on-deck approach and it helped the Eagles signed Adams immediately after the 2018 NFL Draft and then add LeBlanc in the midst of a season during which injuries tore apart the defensive secondary.
"We are always looking to upgrade our roster," Howie Roseman has said many times. "Every position, every spot on the practice squad, counts. You need everyone to contribute."
The Eagles traded up to select offensive lineman Jordan Mailata with the 15th pick in the seventh round of the draft (No. 233 overall) and then watched as 23 picks were made to complete the round, including two running backs – Alabama's Bo Scarbrough went to Dallas (he is now on Jacksonville's practice squad) and Northwestern's Justin Jackson was selected by Los Angeles (he has 127 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries this season). During that time, the Eagles worked the phones and Adams was labeled a "High Priority" by the personnel department. What does "High Priority" mean? It means the Eagles were determined to do everything possible to make sure they landed Adams.
At Notre Dame, Adams averaged a school-record 6.7 yards per carry, had more explosive runs than any player in school history, and had a 2017 season for the ages, gaining 1,430 yards on the ground. The Eagles, stocked in the backfield with Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, and knowing that Darren Sproles would play for another season, were looking down the line. Donnel Pumphrey was in the mix entering his second NFL season. Ajayi was in the final year of his contract. Sproles had one more season left in his career. Adding to the future in the offensive backfield was important.
Signing Adams had to happen.
For Adams, the final hours of the draft were crushing. He hosted a party for family and loved ones at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Warminster, Pennsylvania and as the names ticked off the scroller, his chances of being drafted faded. Adams, in fact, broke down crying when he wasn't drafted. In the world of the NFL, though, things happen fast and Adams had little time to mourn. He was a man in demand after the draft.
The Eagles, he thought, were the right team.
"Corey made the roster and played as a rookie," Adams said. "I knew they would give me a fair shot and a good look. I think that's all you can ask for. It was the right fit for me."
It has certainly turned out to be the case. Adams leads the Eagles with 376 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He's had one gain of 18-plus yards in each of the last five games. His big-play instincts translated well to the NFL.
"He picks things up quickly, he's humble – he doesn't say much at all – and he's here to work," Staley said. "We're just starting with Josh. His next step is to keep improving and stay within himself and trust the offense, the system. I'm very pleased and proud with the progress that he's made. He came in here hungry and he has to stay hungry."
LeBlanc's journey has more twists and turns. Undrafted in 2016 after playing collegiately at Florida Atlantic University, he signed with New England and then was waived on the final cutdown as the 53-man roster was formed. LeBlanc was claimed off of waivers by Chicago a day later. He played for two seasons with the Bears – 28 games and 10 starts – and one of those games was against the Eagles last season. Philadelphia crushed Chicago, 31-3, but the Eagles liked what they saw in LeBlanc, who had seven total tackles and two passes defended.
The LeBlanc file, then, was filling. The Eagles wrote him up as a draft prospect in 2016 and continued to keep tabs on him, as they do every player in the league. The Bears released LeBlanc on September 1 of this year as they cut down to 53 players prior to the regular season. The Eagles, feeling they were in good shape at cornerback on the roster and on the practice squad, weren't in the market to add to the position. Detroit added LeBlanc to the practice squad, promoted him to the active roster and he played 29 snaps in three games with Detroit before the Lions waived him on November 3. On November 5, the Eagles – with Jalen Mills out with a foot injury and Sidney Jones sidelined with a hamstring injury and looking to upgrade from a struggling Dexter McDougle – claimed LeBlanc and waived McDougle.
What stands out in the reports filed by the Eagles' personnel staff – particularly on the pro side – are words like "competes," "footwork," "quickness," and "feet/mirror," which is the skill set that allows a cornerback to have the quickness and the footwork to mirror a wide receiver off the line of scrimmage. The Eagles were in the market for a nickel cornerback. LeBlanc, waived by Detroit, looked to be a great fit.
LeBlanc played 63 percent of the defensive snaps in New Orleans, 73 percent of the snaps against the Giants, and 76 percent of the snaps on Monday night against Washington. He's expected to be in the nickel position on Sunday in Dallas.
"My confidence continues to grow," LeBlanc said. "The more time you spend in a system, the more you know it and you can play faster. The NFL, you have to be ready for anything and everything. That's just the way this business works. I've learned to keep my focus and go day to day. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow."