Ford: Smallwood makes big sense for Eagles

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Rookie running back Wendell Smallwood of West Virginia, is interviewed after practice on July 26, 2016.

On the list of trouble spots for the Eagles this season - a list that is lengthy at the moment - the running back position isn't at the top but not for a lack of potential problems there.

When the offensive line is in serious disarray, the receivers are lackluster, and the defensive secondary is still suspect, it's difficult to focus on a position that has proven players, even if they have asterisks attached to their names.

Before the season is over, however, maybe before it starts, the run game will climb the list again. It seems unavoidable.

The shorthand for the situation is that Ryan Mathews is a good running back, but he always misses time with injury; that Darren Sproles is effective in small doses, but at 33 years old can't be used that much; and that Kenjon Barner is a career special-teams player who wouldn't be here (or maybe anywhere) had he not played for Chip Kelly at Oregon.

If the Eagles get the Ryan Mathews who gained 1,255 yards for the Chargers in 2013, there won't be any worries, but that is the only one of Mathews' six seasons in which he played a full 16 games. No, the likelihood is that offensive coordinator Frank Reich will be looking around for other answers, and he just might find one in rookie Wendell Smallwood, who is expected to make his preseason debut on Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Smallwood, who missed the first exhibition game because of a slight quadriceps strain, has been back on the practice field this week, hoping to show why the Eagles selected him in the fifth round of the draft.

"It was definitely tough watching those guys go out every day and grind. I was sitting on the side, and I wanted to be out there competing," Smallwood said after Monday's practice. "I just made sure I stayed dialed into the playbook, studied film and watched the guys closely to see what they were seeing."

Smallwood, 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, was a bit of a contradiction coming out of West Virginia after his junior season. He was the Big 12's leading rusher, gaining 1,519 yards with a 6.4 average, and he did very well at the combine, setting the lowest times among running backs in the three-cone drill and 60-yard shuttle run. When the draft came, however, 10 running backs were selected ahead of him before the Eagles took him with the 153rd pick.

It was assumed that some off-field issues, including a witness tampering accusation that was later dropped, made teams leery of taking a chance on Smallwood, who grew up in a rough neighborhood of Wilmington, Del. That might have been part of the reason, but Smallwood's size worked against him, too, particularly as he jumped to a one-back, passing league in which the runners have to be able to block.

"If you want to get on the field, the coaching staff and the quarterback have to have confidence you know what you're doing in protection," Reich said Monday. "All the early signs are Wendell sees it pretty good. He understands protection concepts and executes the fundamentals of pass protection. Now, you have to see it in games, but early indications are this should be a good thing for him."

Adjusting to the dirty work required of a running back at the NFL level isn't easy for some backs who have been stars all their lives. Smallwood accepts it is the only way he's going to stick in the league. He has the reputation as a quick, one-cut runner with great vision as he threads through the line and finds the hole. That's great, but the plays that are called when he doesn't get the ball will determine his roster fate.

"I just need to put on film that I can block and pick up blocks in pass protection. That's the biggest thing," Smallwood said. "I study a lot of film, and that helps me pick up the blitzers. That gets you on the field, when the coaches trust that you can protect the quarterback."

According to Reich, there are a couple of things NFL running backs need when it comes to being effective pass protectors. The first is the "want-to," and the second is the ability to absorb the protection calls and audibles and know where to go.

"With all the different blitz packages teams use, you've got to know what's going on out there," Reich said. "There's two kinds of backs in pass protection. There is the kind who doesn't know what he's doing and is just looking for a free body to block. And then there are the guys who know what the line call is and where they have to fill in."

So far, according to Reich, Smallwood appears to be in the second group. He was a proven runner in college and, of course, he'll have to help with special teams at this level, but the dirty work is where it's at.

There are three backs ahead of him right now, and Wendell Smallwood knows that. He also knows that things change quickly and opportunities need to be grabbed when they arise. Of all the uncertainty regarding the Eagles this season, one certainty is that, sooner or later, there will be opportunity at the running back position.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports