The Eagles got through the start of free agency and the NFL Draft addressing some very pressing needs to a roster that, in the two years before Doug Pederson took over as head coach and Howie Roseman re-took-over as general manager, had been decimated by the shortsighted tinkering of Chip Kelly.
The Eagles do not have a Super Bowl-caliber roster yet, but decisions to improve the wide receiver position, bolster the secondary with young players and draft for need to strengthen the defensive line have undoubtedly increased the talent level.
And then there’s the running back situation.
The Eagles weren’t able to draft Stanford do-everything back Christian McCaffrey, taken six picks higher than the Eagles drafted at No. 14 in the first round. The Birds passed on Florida State running back Dalvin Cook in the first round, then passed on Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon — and his immense pre-draft baggage — before snagging Donnel Pumphrey, who broke the NCAA rushing record at San Diego State, in the fourth round.
Pumphrey has been compared to Darren Sproles because of his size and style of play, something the Eagles will need as Sproles spins toward retirement. There are serious questions if Pumphrey can be an every-down back, and general questions about what the need for an upgrade at the position says about last year’s fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood. Some thought last year that Smallwood could develop into an every-down back, but his rookie season was limited to just 77 carries and 312 yards in 13 games.
Ryan Mathews is still on the Eagles roster, but he probably won’t be soon, and he certainly won’t be when next year’s running back-heavy draft comes around. And yet, recent history has proven that running backs can be found and developed as much as drafted.
So…were the Eagles smart?
Devaluing running backs
The last time the New England Patriots drafted a running back in any of the first three rounds was 2011, when they took Shane Vereen in the second round and Stevan Ridley in the third. The last running back the Pats drafted at all was James White, in the fourth round in 2014. They seem to do just fine with finding and developing players.
There’s been a ton of talk recently about the value of backs in general. Bob Brookover wrote a piece this week for the Inky that mentions how top draft picks have been just as successful as undrafted backs in the Super Bowl.
In fact, since the turn of the century five of the 17 teams to win the Super Bowl did so with a running back who was undrafted, which is the same number of teams to win with first-round picks as their featured guy. The most recent was last year’s New England team, which rode the legs of LeGarrette Blount to the title. Blount, who by the way is still a free agent, was also the Pats’ featured back in 2014-15, when they beat Seattle in the Super Bowl.
Blount, of course, ended up on New England after being cut several times, most recently in Pittsburgh, but Brookover’s point remains: NFL teams can win without first round running backs.
What’s more interesting, for sure, is that in the last decade and a half, having a successful running back means pretty much nothing.
In the last 15 seasons, a top-5 rusher made that season’s Super Bowl just three times. The last time a top-5 rusher won the Super Bowl was 2004, when Corey Dillon led the Patriots to a championship over, yep, the Eagles.
Of last 10 Super Bowl winners, only five had 1,000 rushers, and only three of them — Blount, Marshawn Lynch and Ray Rice — had more than 1,100 that season.
The pass-happy NFL has devalued the running back position so much, only 12 backs had more than 1,000 yards rushing, and just one had more than 300 carries last season. In 2004, 18 backs had more than 1,000 yards rushing, and nine had more than 300 carries.
So maybe the Eagles are right to devalue the running back position, looking for more do-everything backs who can also return kicks, punts and catch the ball out of the backfield.
Pederson: Andy Reid 2.0?
And yet, when word broke the Eagles had attempted unsuccessfully to move up to draft Cook, fans were noticeably rankled online and, if this is worth anything, on sports talk radio. It’s hard to say the Eagles are devaluing the position when word sneaks out they tried to move up to take someone at that very position.
Cook was in the conversation at No. 14 for some, so not being able to get him in second round and drafting injured cornerback Sidney Jones in that spot instead will have fans second-guessing this for years, especially if Cook develops into a star for Minnesota.
For what it’s worth, running back always seemed devalued in Andy Reid’s offense, which Pederson ostensibly runs here now, but Reid had guys like Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy as his main backs. Even Westbrook wasn’t the feature back until later in his career, serving as the change-of-pace guy for Duce Staley as a rookie and Staley and Correll Buckhalter his second season. So far in Pederson’s era, the Eagles dumped DeMarco Murray to run with Mathews, Sproles and Smallwood, then picked the 11th running back taken in last week’s draft.
Something has to give. There is a point of devaluing the position based on industry trends and there’s an equally-valid point of not making Carson Wentz into a noodle-armed quarterback who needs shoulder surgery because you made him throw 750 times a season.
Someone has to be there to take handoffs and keep the defense honest, so even if the Eagles passed on the first few running backs and didn’t feel moving up to take Cook was worth what they were being asked to surrender, it’s crazy to think Smallwood, Sproles and Pumphrey are enough to get you through an entire season.
So, what? Or, rather, who?
The case for keeping Ryan Mathews
The Eagles could end up keeping Mathews, something that kind of makes sense given the current running back market. Mathews is due $4 million this season in base salary, and comes with a $5 million cap hit, though just $1 million in dead cap money should the team cut him. He’ll be 30 this season.
Having said that, he’s not very good. And he’s always hurt, as Andrew Kulp at The 700 Level pointed out way back in January.
Mathews’ ’16 campaign was plagued by two familiar problems though: health and ball security. The seven-year veteran missed three games entirely due to injuries and was limited in several others, while three fumbles — one of which directly led to an Eagles loss to the Lions in Week 5 — also conspired to keep him sidelined.
The case for signing a free agent
Another option is to sign a guy in free agency.
The list of available backs is slimming by the day, after former Kansas City star Jamaal Charles agreed to a one-year deal with the Broncos. Adrian Peterson was the big-ticket back on the market, but he signed a pre-draft deal with the Saints.
The top unrestricted free agents right now are LeGarrette Blount — Super Bowl here we come — DeAngelo Williams who just turned 34 and Christine Michael who has 1,080 yards in his career for Seattle, Dallas and Green Bay.
The only other UFA on the NFL.com list is Khiry Robinson who, well, no. No.
The case for going with what they’ve got
And then there’s roll the dice with what they have and hope for the best, keeping an eye out for scrap-heap level players during training camp (or thereafter) who might be able to contribute. Eagles.com scribe Dave Spadaro penned an oped for Bleeding Green Nation in which he all but suggested that might work.
Running back, remember, is only as good as the players around him. The Eagles are strong up front and they have weapons in the passing game. Maybe they add to the position. Maybe they go with what they’ve got. In 2000, when Duce Staley was injured, the Eagles turned to Darnell Autry for, gulp, 112 carries. Late-season addition Chris Warren had 85 rushing yards as the starting running back in the playoff win over Tampa Bay that season. It can be done, even with less-than-ideal personnel.
Less-than-ideal personnel is the way most fans would describe the current offensive backfield. By the time the season starts, it’s hard to think the Eagles won’t find someone else who is bound to be cut from another team.
The question is, who? And when? Right now, this isn’t a huge concern. But in September, this could be an issue.