Previewing the Eagles' offseason: Running backs

The Inquirer is previewing the Eagles’ offseason. NFL free agency will begin on March 9, and the draft will be April 27-29.

Schedule of previews:

Monday, Feb. 13: Quarterbacks
Today: Running backs
Wednesday, Feb. 15: Wide receivers
Thursday, Feb. 16: Offensive line
Friday, Feb. 17: Tight ends
Monday, Feb. 20: Defensive ends
Tuesday, Feb. 21: Defensive tackles
Wednesday, Feb. 22: Linebackers
Thursday, Feb. 23: Cornerbacks
Friday, Feb. 24: Safeties

RUNNING BACKS 

UNDER CONTRACT

Andrew Bonnet, Byron Marshall, Ryan Mathews, Wendell Smallwood, Darren Sproles, Terrell Watson.

Ryan Mathews is unlikely to return. The 29-year-old running back was fairly effective when healthy, but injuries were an issue – to no great surprise – along with ball security. Matthews’ 2017 base salary ($4 million) isn’t guaranteed, so it won’t cost much to cut him this offseason. The Eagles will have to eat $1 million in dead money from his prorated signing bonus. As obvious as Mathews’ eventual release will be, it could be some time before he’s sent packing. He suffered a season-ending neck injury that required surgery on Dec. 27 and the Eagles might have to come to a settlement if his salary is guaranteed for injury only.

Mathews was slated to be the lead tailback after DeMarco Murray was traded last offseason. He did lead the team in carries (155), yards (661) and rushing touchdowns (8), but there were times when he slipped out of favor – in particular, after his devastating fumble in the Lions game – and watched as Darren Sproles carried the load.

Still, the Eagles will need to find a replacement, and it’s not as if they have an obvious replacement on the roster. Sproles has yet to hit the proverbial over-30 wall, and is expected to return for a 13th season. But he is best used as a complementary piece, at least as it pertains to the ground game. He increased his averages from the year before in rushing (4.7 yards per carry vs. 3.8), receiving (8.2 vs. 7.1) and punt returns (13.2 vs. 11.7). He is slated to earn $1 million in what could be his final NFL season.

Wendell Smallwood could become the primary ball carrier, or he could just share duties with Sproles and whomever. I don’t think we saw enough from the rookie to rule out that possibility. My sense is that he projects more as a No. 2, but the Eagles might have higher expectations for their 2016 fifth-round draft pick. Smallwood rushed 77 times for 312 yards (4.1 avg.) and one touchdown last year. We didn’t see much of him as a receiver (six catches for 55 yards) even though he was effective in the passing game in college. Smallwood needs to improve his blocking, though, if he wants to be on the field consistently on third downs. Sproles was well ahead of him in that regard.

Undrafted rookie Byron Marshall saw some action late in the season as injuries piled up. He showed some flashes, and could benefit from a full offseason. The Eagles signed Terrell Watson to the practice squad in December after the Broncos waived him. He was promoted to the 53-man roster for the season finale and ran 8 times for 31 yards. Doug Pederson opted to go without a fullback last season, but the Eagles re-signed Andrew Bonnet last month. The North Dakota State product had a cup of coffee on the practice squad as a rookie.

ROSTER DECISIONS

Kenjon Barner is a restricted free agent. The Eagles might opt to tender him, but my guess is that if they do, it will be at the lowest level. I can’t imagine another team swooping in with a contract offer. Barner is a capable runner. He rushed 27 times for 129 yards (4.8 avg.) and two touchdowns last season. He’s a below-average receiver and blocker, and in Pederson’s offense, those are necessary traits. Barner does bring a little extra with his return capabilities. He averaged 30.8 yards on nine kick returns.

FREE-AGENT OPTIONS

I could see the Eagles adding a free agent at this position, but they won’t likely spend premium dollar. The draft is said to be relatively deep at running back, and even if the Eagles avoid expending an early-round pick, they could still get a Year 1 contributor on Day 2 or 3.

Le’Veon Bell is by far the cream of the running backs slated to become free agents when the new league year opens next month, but it is unlikely the Steelers will allow the 25-year-old to hit the market. He might be the most efficient runner in the NFL. If only he could stay healthy and avoid suspensions. Still, Pittsburgh should extend Bell or use their franchise tag on the Michigan State product.

If the Eagles are to sign a free agent, I can’t imagine it would be from the over-30 set (e.g. James Starks, Danny Woodhead, DeAngelo Williams, Darren McFadden, Justin Forsett). Williams filled in capably in Bell’s absence, but he also benefited from running behind the Steelers’ line. Super Bowl champion LeGarrett Blount had the best season (1,161 rushing yards and 18 TDs) for an over-30 tailback.

There are some options in the mid-20 range, and I’d expect the Eagles to explore those possibilities. Pederson’s running attack is varied, so Howie Roseman should have some flexibility in terms of the kinds of the tailbacks he’s evaluating. But again, I can’t see the Eagles getting into a bidding war for someone such as the Raiders’ Latavius Murray. He rushed for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016. The big-bodied tailback (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) is only 26.

The Buccaneers’ Jacquizz Rodgers is still young (27) and still productive (560 yards rushing). The Cowboys’ Lance Dunbar could be an under-the-radar free agent. He was all set to step into Murray’s spot in 2015, but tore up his knee early in the season and became a deep reserve after Dallas added Ezekiel Elliott last year. The 5-8, 191-pound Dunbar strikes me as only a role player, though. The Packers’ Eddie Lacy and Christine Michael, both 26, have some skeletons. Lacy has battled with his weight, but when in shape, he can be a dangerous, between-the-tackles runner. Ronnie Hillman? Andre Ellington? Not likely.

Isaiah Crowell is a restricted free agent, so the Eagles would probably have to dip a little into their salary cap if they want to chase after the Browns running back. The 25-year-old had a breakout season (952 yards rushing, 4.8 avg.) in his third year.

The addition of Bonnet could suggest that Pederson is committed to having a fullback on the 53-man roster. If so, there are free agents such as Patrick DiMarco (27) of the Falcons and James Develin of the Patriots.

DRAFT OPTIONS

Two prospects could intrigue the Eagles when they pick at No. 14 or 15 in the first round – Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (5-11, 206) and LSU’s Leonard Fournette (6-1, 230). They’re different kinds of running backs, but both should be able to step in and start from Day 1. I’d be surprised if the Eagles took a tailback in the first round, even if, say, Cook were to fall. They don’t want to pass up on a elite-caliber player, but they have more pressing needs and the career longevity for running backs doesn’t typically match that of other positions. That being said, would you pass on Adrian Peterson or Ezekiel Elliott in hindsight? The Eagles have to decide if Cook and/or Fournette are of that caliber. If so, they could have an offensive piece that will help Carson Wentz as much as any receiver.

Still, my guess is that the Eagles wait until Day 2 or 3. Alvin Kamara (5-10, 215) of Tennessee and Christian McCaffrey (6-0, 202) of Stanford could go in the late first round or the second round. Kamara is a slasher. He didn’t have many carries over his career, but some teams might view that as a positive. Curtis Samuel (5-11, 200) of Ohio State is a multi-positional prospect. He could end up as a slot receiver in the NFL, or he could handle a variety of roles.

Jeremy McNichols (5-9, 212) of Boise State and Joe Mixon (6-1, 226) of Oklahoma will have their supporters. Mixon might have first-round talent, but he’ll have to answer for off-the-field incidents – the most significant being a 2014 misdemeanor assault charge for punching a woman in the face. The Eagles took flyers on several character-issue rookies last season. Could they be willing in this case?

Wayne Gallman (6-0, 215) of Clemson ran well in space, but you wonder if he benefited from the attention quarterback Dashaun Watson drew as a runner. Gallman’s a tough, physical back, though, and he caught 65 passes over his career.

Marlon Mack (5-11, 205) of South Florida and Samaje Perine (5-10, 235) of Oklahoma could slip into Day 3. I liked what I saw out of Toledo’s Kareem Hunt (5-10, 208) at the Senior Bowl. He was sure-handed (only one fumble in 760 career carries) in college. N.C. State’s Matthew Days (5-9, 207) and San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey (5-8, 169) were also in Mobile, Ala. You shouldn’t always judge a book by its cover – Sproles is a perfect example – but Pumphrey came in 11 pounds lighter than his listed number during Senior Bowl weigh-in. James Conner (6-2, 240) of Pittsburgh and Elijah McGuire (5-9, 212) of Louisiana-Lafayette will probably end up being late-round guys. Conner isn’t particularly fast, but Clemson had a hard time bringing him down in its only loss last season.