Of the many questions the Eagles have to answer with the new business year starting on March 14, one of the most intriguing is this: How should the offensive backfield look in 2018? A running back-by-committee approach worked beautifully in 2017. Is that the way the Eagles want to approach next season?
As it stands now, the Eagles are in a strong position at running back. Jay Ajayi, who rushed for 408 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry in the regular season after the Eagles traded for him in a deal with Miami, then averaged a strong 4.4 yards per carry in a terrific postseason that included 6 receptions for 70 yards. Corey Clement will be another year better after a solid rookie season. He showed in 2017 that he can run the ball (he had 321 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in the regular season), catch it and make big plays in the passing game (Clement caught 10 postseason passes for 139 yards including a fantastic touchdown grab in Super Bowl LII) and block in the pass-protection game.
LeGarrette Blount is the wild card here after signing a one-year contract last spring. He ran hard in 2017, gaining a team-high 766 yards and averaging 4.4 yards per carry in the regular season. Blount was a hammer in the playoffs with 130 yards and 3 touchdowns on 29 rushing attempts.
The Eagles ranked third in the NFL in rushing during the regular season, averaging 132.2 yards per game. The teams in front of them, Jacksonville (Leonard Fournette) and Dallas (Ezekiel Elliott), relied primarily on the star power of a single running back. The Eagles spread the wealth around.
Additionally, the Eagles have on the roster the likes of Wendell Smallwood, who enters his third NFL season, and second-year man Donnel Pumphrey.
The questions are the free-agents-to-be: Blount, who signed a one-year contract last spring to play here, Darren Sproles, the all-timer who wants to continue playing after suffering a torn ACL and broken arm in the Week 3 win over the New York Giants, and Kenjon Barner, who helped the team from the backfield and in the return game after Sproles went down.
Just what do the Eagles do with those players?
This is going to be really interesting to watch. Each of the potential free agents offers something of value: Blount is a pounder who was at his best in the postseason with his blend of power and big-play ability. Sproles, of course, is one of the great return men of all time and a dazzling receiver out of the backfield, but coming off a serious knee injury. And Barner did a lot of good things in spot duty at running back and as a punt return man with Sproles out.
At the same time, the Eagles are excited about what they have as they look at the under-contract picture of the backfield. Ajayi was managed expertly in the half of the regular season he played here, averaging 11.4 touches per game, and then he upped that average to 16 touches per game in the postseason.
Clement, signed after the 2017 draft, was a do-it-all running back who handled every bit of the responsibility the Eagles gave him during the season. He started the season with a tackle on the opening kickoff at Washington and then gradually became more and more involved in the offense. How much more of a load should Clement have moving forward?
Smallwood had a disappointing second NFL season after showing flashes as a rookie when he averaged 4.1 yards per carry. Smallwood played in only eight games in 2017 with 47 carries and 13 receptions. Nagging injuries have plagued Smallwood – mostly hamstring and knee injuries – and he has to show that he can be durable and consistent. The talent is there. But just when it seems that Smallwood is ready to push through, he takes a step back with the injuries.
But there's a reason the Eagles kept Smallwood after acquiring Ajayi. They weren't ready to give up on a fifth-round draft pick who runs with power and explosiveness. At 208 pounds, Smallwood can bring it. He's likely to get a very long look in the summer and he will have to show he can stay on the field and play at a very high level.
Then there's Pumphrey, a record-setting running back at San Diego State who made the initial 53-man roster before suffering a hamstring injury that landed him on Injured Reserve all season. In a tough preseason, Pumphrey averaged only 1.9 yards per rushing attempt and averaged 5.5 yards on 13 preseason receptions. He says he's up to 190 pounds now – an increase of 14 pounds from his listed weight of 176 pounds. Pumphrey likely will have to show in the spring and summer that he has his explosiveness back after all of that wear and tear in college – he had 1,059 rushing attempts in his four seasons at San Diego State – and that he can be an asset in the return game.
If you step back and take a look, the Eagles truly have a strong situation in the backfield. They can come back in 2018 with Ajayi, Clement, Smallwood and Pumphrey and feel really good about the depth and versatility. But who knows how it will look a couple of months from now? Blount made a real contribution in 2017 and was signed in the latter part of the free-agency period, so he was a cost-effective addition. What will the market be like for him if he reaches free agency?
How about Sproles? Can he make a strong return after such a tough injury? Does he fit into the picture here? Same with Barner.
The Eagles have a lot of tough decisions ahead, and how they see the running back picture is one of them. As it stands now, though, the Eagles have options in the backfield already under contract. The running back-by-committee approach worked very well last season. Do the Eagles move forward with the same approach in 2018?