The Eagles went into the offseason knowing they had to upgrade their rushing game.
The freefall from their Super Bowl-winning season in 2017 to last year was off-the-cliff stuff. In the championship season, they averaged 132.2 and were third in the NFL; last year they were 28th, averaging just 98.1 yards per game.
It’s what happens when you have to rely on an undrafted free agent running back in Josh Adams because your lead back, Jay Ajayi, goes down for the season in Week Five and Darren Sproles goes out after the season opener and isn’t seen again until the final five games. Corey Clement was hampered with nagging injuries most of the year before finally being shut down for the final three games.
The belief is the Eagles have taken appropriate strides in remedying that, by trading for Jordan Howard and drafting Miles Sanders in the second round. It looks like an upgrade – on paper, anyway.
Howard has a track record based on three very strong seasons in the NFL, but the question nags: why did the Bears trade him for something as little as a sixth-round draft pick in 2020?
Sanders we have no idea, and he certainly didn’t help himself by missing all of the OTAs and minicamp with what is believed to be a nagging hamstring issue.
So that leaves the Eagles with standbys Adams, Clement and Wendell Smallwood. Relative newcomer Boston Scott is also in the mix.
Adams, who knows? He had shoulder surgery in April and his return is unknown.
Scott, well, assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley said he is high on the 5-6, 200-pounder and, yeah, he reminds everyone of Sproles, but does that mean he is ready to step up and help this team beside returning a kickoff now and again, a role he settled into late last year?
Clement didn’t do anything, either in the spring as he continues recovering from a knee injury. The third-year running back could be ready when training camp practice begins July 25.
“I missed Corey,” said Staley. “I really did. He’s one of those passionate guys who plays with attitude. He comes out, he’s excited, he’s always smiling, he loves the game. I think it was always difficult just for him, coming off the Super Bowl, and in my opinion if Nick didn’t play through the roof, might have been the MVP, I don’t know.
“So, coming off a game like that, being able to face an injury, I felt what he was going through. I had a chance to talk to him periodically, communicate with him, try to keep his spirits up. Mentally he’s tough. Physically, right now, he looks good, so I can’t wait to get him back.”
The assumption was Clement would take an even bigger step in second season last year after a rookie season in which he averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 74 rushes and averaged 12.2 yards on 10 catches. In the playoffs, he rose even higher to the occasion, culminating in a Super Bowl performance that saw him record 100 yards receiving, including a 22-yard TD reception.
That leap forward never happened for Clement.
As for Smallwood, fans and media keep anting to write him off, but he has had solid production when called upon. He became an afterthought after the Eagles acquired Ajayi at the trade deadline back in 2017, but the former fifth-round draft pick is about to enter his fourth season and his numbers have gone up every year in both rushing and receiving.
Asked if he envisions a role for Smallwood this season, Staley said: “Oh, definitely. Wendell is having a great camp. I’m excited about Wendell. We talked about it earlier, we got a great room. They’re all competitive and they all know they’re competing against each other, which is awesome.
"And Wendell has picked his game up during OTAs. We all know he can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s just getting better within the offense, learning the offense even more. We continue to add on with this offense. We continue to come up with different things as far as pass routes, or just scheming. He’s catching on a little better there.”
So as much as the running back room has changed, it may end up looking completely the same with Clement and Smallwood playing bigger than expected roles after the Eagles brought in Howard and Sanders.