Corey Clement knew that the running back room wouldn't be the same the second time around. LeGarrette Blount was gone, a free agent signee in Detroit. Matt Jones, not that long ago a rising young power back, was added in free agency. Jay Ajayi would be here from the jump after playing for half a season with the Eagles.
Things would be different, for sure.
And they are.
"It's extremely competitive, but I love that," said Clement, who signed as an undrafted rookie last spring and went on to play a key, and very versatile, role for the Eagles in their Super Bowl-winning season. "Competition brings out the best in everyone. No matter the day, the weather, anything, we're all giving it 100 percent. We are pushing each other. I think you need that to be the best player you can be. You don't take anything for granted here. They're always going to challenge you."
The Eagles have long had an excellent picture at running back, dating back to the Ricky Watters days, followed by Duce Staley, then Brian Westbrook followed by LeSean McCoy and into this decade. What they've got now is different, though. The Eagles are overflowing with talent at running back, led by Ajayi, who is primed to have a next-step season in the offense after joining the Eagles last October. Clement worked his lower extremities in the offseason to become more explosive as a running back and sturdier as a pass blocker, and he's deserving of more carries and touches. Wendell Smallwood, who showed flashes of ability in his first two seasons despite a flurry of nagging injuries, is right back in the mix and – knock on wood – running healthy. There's Jones, a former third-round draft pick by Washington who was the Redskins' lead back heading into the 2016 season, trying to resurrect his career.
Oh, and Darren Sproles is back and hopefully healthy for Training Camp and the season to give the Eagles matchup advantages all over the field in various personnel packages.
All in all, it's a running back-by-committee approach, yes. But in this case, each running back has enormous upside.
"Everybody is bringing it," Jones said. "I see that. Every rep on the practice field is just - everybody is really good. To play here you have to be able to run and catch and you have to pass block and you have to be able to line up in a lot of places. It's challenging, and I love it. Being around Duce (Staley, assistant head coach/running backs) has already made me a better player. He is a demanding coach that's good for us."
Ajayi figures to get the most touches and with that in mind, he reported to the offseason conditioning program in tremendous shape. He tidied up his diet and hit the weight room and Ajayi looks great.
"The whole roller coaster of last year, to have it finish with a Super Bowl, that's the dream, to be a champion," Ajayi said. "To add that to my legacy obviously is special. And then to be able to come into this team and do my part, that was a special thing as well. I learned a lot during that time and now it's a new year, another fresh start to do something special again."
In the final year of his contract, Ajayi has some added motivation, but he says it's not on his mind and that eventually, the "crossroads" will come. He wants to be the "best running back in the league," and he wants to be "the guy again." He wants the football.
Ajayi is going to get it.
But what makes the running back room extra special is the diverse talents the players bring. The Eagles are going to shake it up as much as they can with the personnel groupings. They're going to use their backs in a lot of different ways and attack what they feel are the defense's weaknesses. Both Ajayi and Clement have some power with their flash and dash. Sproles is all quickness in short areas. Smallwood has a terrific burst. Jones is a big, power back who has to impress every day to make the 53-man roster.
What about Donnel Pumphrey, a fourth-round draft pick last season who spent the year on Injured Reserve? He's got fresh legs now and a lot to prove. Josh Adams, sidelined with a foot injury since he signed as an undrafted rookie, is a long, lean back who enjoyed a big-play career at Notre Dame.
Competition is the name of the game here with this ultra-talented running back group.
"If you don't show the coaches what they need to see, you aren't going to get your reps, you aren't going to get on the field," Clement said. "It's always going to change. That's fine with me. I just concern myself with what I do. I've worked to take the next step and to be the best player I can be. That's really all I can focus on."
The rest of us look at the names, weigh the depth chart, and wonder how it's all going to shake out. The expectations are high, in a share-the-football kind of way. The Eagles may lean more on Ajayi than they did in the final few months of the 2017 season, but they aren't going to wear him down. No need to do so. The Eagles have plenty of options in the backfield to inflict damage in a variety of ways on NFL defenses.