The model had usually been consistent for the Eagles: draft a running back, develop him and help him prosper. Last offseason's departure from an approach dating back to 1997 was so abrupt, and startling, and a year later the plan has changed again, leading to the question: Who is carrying the football for the Eagles in 2016?
As we've settled into Phase 2 of free agency, one of the obvious questions comes in light of the trade that sent DeMarco Murray to Tennessee. Murray was part of last year's massive investment in running backs during free agency, as he and Ryan Mathews were signed in a reshaped backfield. LeSean McCoy, the franchise's all-time leader in rushing yards, had been traded to Buffalo. Murray and Mathews were signed and added to a backfield that included Darren Sproles and all kinds of possibilities.
Except that the "three-headed monster" never gained traction and the season went down the tubes. New head coach Doug Pederson took over in January and the Eagles have been addressing the inconsistencies of the roster ever since.
The backfield is going to have a new look. Just how the Eagles fill the void of Murray, who was disappointing in his lone season in Philadelphia with a team-leading 702 rushing yards, remains a primary question. There is still some time in free agency if the team chooses to go that route or perhaps the draft is the right channel to address the position.
If history means anything, the latter approach is more likely. Following the successful free agency foray in 1995 that netted Ricky Watters from the San Francisco 49ers – he then produced three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons as an Eagle and a franchise-best 106.5 yards from scrimmage per game – the team took the draft-develop-have-success route to run the football.
There was Duce Staley, a third-round draft pick in 1997, who played with the Eagles until 2003 and was a perfect, all-purpose back. He led the offense during some tough times until then-head coach Andy Reid surrounded Staley with some weapons. Staley ran for 4,807 yards in his seven Eagles seasons and contributed another 2,498 yards on 275 career receptions. His abilities served as a mold for what the Eagles wanted moving forward.
After Staley there was Brian Westbrook, a third-round draft pick in 2002, who had a sensational eight-season career here. Westbrook had the ability to move around the formation on offense and he presented matchup nightmares to defenses who did all they could to keep him out of space. Didn't work. Westbrook still holds the Eagles' franchise record with 9,785 total yards from scrimmage and last year was inducted into the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame for his outstanding play.
In 2009, the Eagles used a second-round draft pick on McCoy, who spent a year learning under Westbrook before busting out and delivering six seasons of broken tackles and big plays until he was sent to Buffalo.
History says the Eagles have done an excellent job through the years drafting and developing their best running backs. Wilbert Montgomery was a sixth-round draft pick by the Eagles out of Abilene Christian in 1977. Steve Van Buren was the fifth pick in the first round of the 1944 draft from LSU, played for eight seasons with the Eagles, won two NFL Championships and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.
Other than Watters and Herschel Walker – who rushed for 2,344 yards from 1992-94 after being signed as a free agent – the most successful running backs in team history have been homegrown, if you will. Draft, develop, prosper.
So what are the Eagles going to do to replace – and hopefully upgrade – Murray's production? Mathews showed last season how explosive he was, but staying healthy has always been his greatest challenge in the NFL. Sproles is a good change-of-pace back who can certainly help in several areas within the offense. Kenjon Barner had 28 carries and 124 rushing yards in limited duty in 2015. There is a need at running back. How the Eagles fill it is the question.
Remember this, too, as we consider what the Eagles might do in the draft: They took Staley in the third round, Westbrook in the third round and McCoy in the second round. Should the Eagles consider a running back in the draft, just how high would they need to use a pick? The team has nine draft picks overall, including the eighth overall in the first round and two selections in Round 3.
No doubt Pederson and Staley, now the team's excellent running backs coach, and Howie Roseman have considered all of the angles. The offseason plan has been executed efficiently and according to the blueprint, so the Eagles know how they want to address running back in the weeks ahead.
The history part of all of this is interesting to note, though. The draft success at running back, starting with Staley to Westbrook (with a touch of Correll Buckhalter mixed in) to McCoy, was remarkable. It's a guide that makes sense in the current climate, although in the slam-bang days of NFL free agency, plans can change in a hurry.