On the way to a 53-man roster the Eagles are going to have some difficult decisions to make between now and August 31, but none may be tougher than determining the picture at the running back position. Is it safe to say the Eagles are loaded at running back? That may be overstating the situation – or not – but the fact is the talent in that room is undeniable.
And it’s kind of interesting how it all happened at running back, because as recently as mid-March fans and the media were, well, mini-obsessed with the lack of inactivity there. Howie Roseman was grilled at the NFL’s Annual Meeting in Arizona about running back and what the Eagles were planning to do there. Don’t worry, he assured everyone, a plan was in place.
We’ve seen the plan. And it was a smart, tactical, and impressive one.
Just a few weeks after those meetings, Roseman made his first strike, acquiring Jordan Howard from the Chicago Bears for the cost of a late-round 2020 draft pick. Bingo. Great move. Howard was one of the most consistently productive, solid, durable, nose-for-the-end zone running backs in the league in his three years with the Bears. He no longer fit into what the Bears were doing stylistically, and the Eagles knew it. They saw an opportunity and Roseman made it happen.
And all of a sudden the Eagles’ backfield situation, one ravaged by injury last season, looked a whole lot healthier.
But the Eagles weren’t yet finished at the position. They used their first of two second-round draft picks – No. 53 overall – to select Miles Sanders from Penn State. They spoke glowingly of a player who had a great 2018 season escaping from the lengthy shadow of Saquon Barkley. Sanders drew comparisons to former Eagle and current Buffalo Bill LeSean McCoy for his style of running, his ability to make defenders miss, and his love of competition.
Two moves down, one more to make. That final signing was, with Training Camp a week away, bringing back veteran Darren Sproles on a one-year deal.
With that, the Eagles have conducted a Training Camp and played two preseason games and they’ve seen exactly what they hoped they would see from the running back position: The competition in the room has raised the level of play from the top of the depth chart to the bottom.
Howard and Sanders have been what they were expected to be: Howard is the Thunder in the backfield, a power runner who moves the chains, is always falling forward, may not offer the spectacular runs but who is going to keep pushing things in the right direction. He’s going to be productive here and Howard is going to be a plus in the red zone around the goal line.
Sanders has the “it” factor going. His talent is obvious and he’s learned the offense quickly. He has worked hard on his pass protection and looks like he’s going to play a sizable role in the offense. When asked on Tuesday what kind of impact Sanders would have this season, Pederson replied, “As much as we give him. I think he's done a great job for us so far. The biggest thing, obviously concern, coming into camp was the health issue with coming out of the spring being injured a little bit. I think he's checked that box. Obviously, he'll have a role for us and it's good to have at least those two guys back there that are different runners, but at the same time give us that running game that was missed a year ago.”
There are more than two runners in this backfield. Sproles looks like he hasn’t missed a beat, so he’ll have a role on special teams in the return game and in the offense as a change-of-pace back and a receiver in the open field. Who’s going to cover Sproles when there are so many other weapons to contend with in this passing game?
Those are three running backs you’d generally think would make the roster, right? Well, the Eagles are going to have more than three backs on the 53-man roster, and that’s where this gets really interesting. Corey Clement looked great in the two practices against Baltimore and could be in line for some playing time against Baltimore to shed any rust after rehabbing from last season’s knee injury. Clement does it all for the Eagles, including playing a valuable role on special teams.
Wendell Smallwood has had an under-the-radar solid summer after – did you know this? – leading the Eagles in cumulative rushing yards the last two seasons. Smallwood has proven he is good football player in this league.
Second-year man Josh Adams had a hiccup with his first-half fumble against Tennessee in the preseason opener but otherwise looks bigger and stronger than in his rookie campaign. Donnel Pumphrey appears to be a totally different back than the one who lacked explosiveness and elusiveness in his first two seasons – he’s clearly applied himself in the weight room and training for the offense.
And then there’s Boston Scott, who was on the active roster and returning kickoffs late in last year’s regular season and the playoffs. He knows the offense, he’s got an electric burst, and he opened eyes in Jacksonville last Thursday with seven carries, 43 yards (including a 20-yard gain) and a touchdown.
That’s eight running backs, all of whom have positive, attractive attributes. How many can the Eagles keep?
Roseman and the Eagles have done a brilliant job building the running back room with a diverse, selfless mix of talented players. We’ve got two preseason games and 10 days to sort it all out as the Eagles put together scenarios for the 53-man roster.
On a roster that is extremely talented through and through, there are going to be a lot of tough decisions to make. None, though, might be as difficult as parsing through the pros and cons of the eight running backs and deciding on the four or five who are going to make this 53-man roster. It’s a good situation to have, and it’s exactly what the Eagles hoped they would face at this point in the preseason, but it’s won’t be easy turning a Great 8 into a Fearsome 4 or 5 on the final roster.