Kenjon Barner could win numbers game with Eagles

Eagles running back Kenjon Barner. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

The players can all count. They can count the 53-man roster and the 10-man practice squad and, most important for those still unsure of their place in the Eagles universe, they can count the three days left to make a difference.

There are practices Tuesday and Wednesday and then the final exhibition game on Thursday, one of those meaningless NFL specials that is anything but meaningless to the players hoping to remain employed.

The Eagles have to make their final cuts by 4 p.m. Saturday. That's when all the counting comes to a halt and the players on the wrong side of the cut line must find somewhere else to be. Quickly.

"Your job is to come in here and get a job. [If] it means taking someone else's job, that's what you do," said running back Kenjon Barner, who joined the team in a trade with Carolina just Wednesday and is scurrying to catch up. "Everybody here is fighting for a job, fighting for their livelihood. I'm no different than anyone else."

Well, a little different, but we won't know until Saturday if that little bit makes a difference in the battle for the last two offensive backfield spots. Barner, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound burner, is one of four running backs hoping to grab one of those spots behind LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. Matthew Tucker, Chris Polk and Henry Josey are the others, and, based on talent and NFL production, the competition is too close to call.

The decision might come down to which players are suited to helping out with the special-teams coverage units. It might come down to which are able to contribute to the return game. And, of course, it might come down to which of them played four seasons at Oregon for Chip Kelly.


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That would be Kenjon Barner.

"Some people might think, 'Oh, he played for Coach Kelly. He's got the edge.' But it's a business and if you don't come in and perform, you don't have a spot on this team," Barner said. "This is a performance-based business and I plan on performing."

Barner did that at Oregon, gaining 3,623 rushing yards in his career, including 1,767 with 21 touchdowns as a senior, when he finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting. That can't hurt his chances here, but he was also acquired because Polk can't seem to stay healthy and because the Eagles are really looking for a regular kickoff return man.

"I've been pretty much doing everything," Barner said after practice on Monday. "They're trying to get a feel for what I can do, so they're putting me in there."

Barner was a sixth-round pick by the Panthers in 2013 and played in eight games, mostly on special teams. The Eagles traded a conditional seventh-round pick to acquire him and put him on the field the next night against the Steelers. Picking up the offense on the fly, he gained 32 yards on seven carries, returned one kickoff for 22 yards and took a fair catch on a punt.

"We worked with him, making sure he was ready to go, and then when we put him in the game, we had him just do a small handful of things," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "So, he's obviously the new guy and we don't know as much about him as a coaching staff. Certainly, Chip knows about him quite a bit, having played for him."

It's not a stacked deck, but Barner is holding some good cards. He has familiarity with the basic tenets of the Kelly system, even if the terminology and numbering is completely different here.

"It might have been toe-mah-toe out there and toe-may-toe here, so he has to get those words changed in his mind, those numbers changed in his mind. The good thing about him is he's a quick study," said running backs coach Duce Staley. "He's able to go back to his Oregon days and dig in that big pile of gumbo and pull out some plays that we run."

I'm constantly in the classroom," Barner said. "Everything's kind of slowed down in the last couple of days. I can't worry about what's going on upstairs or this or that conversation. I can't worry about who else is here. I can't worry about whether I'm getting a fair shot. Then you start worrying about the other guys instead of yourself. Once you worry about other people, you only go downhill."

There's no point in trying to guess now. The practices will say a lot. The injury issues will say a lot, as will the Thursday game against the Jets. You can't blame them all for guessing, though.

And you can't blame them for counting, either.