Who Makes the Cut: Running Backs

LeSean McCoy is a bona fide star at running back and will continue to be a central part of the Eagles’ offense. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

The Eagles will encounter tough decisions when determining their 53-man roster. During the next two weeks, The Inquirer's Eagles beat writers will try our best to predict the players that stay and players that go. The NFL deadline for teams to trim rosters from 90 to 75 is Aug. 27. Final cuts are due by Aug. 31. Here’s the lineup:

Wed, Aug. 15: Offensive line
Thur., Aug. 16: Defensive tackles
Fri., Aug. 17: Cornerbacks
Mon., Aug. 20: Running backs

Tues., Aug. 21: Wide receivers / tight ends
Wed., Aug. 22: Linebackers
Thur., Aug. 23: Safeties
Fri., Aug. 24: Quarterbacks / Specialists
Mon., Aug. 27: Defensive ends


WHO STAYS: LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis, Bryce Brown, Emil Igwenagu

WHO GOES: Chris Polk, Stanley Havili

I’ll be honest – I don’t have much confidence in picking those final two spots, and Polk and Havili can easily make the team over Brown and Igwenagu. In fact, Polk and Havili would make more sense right now, based on what we've seen. But I’ll explain both picks, which at this point in the preseason, are still very fluid.

Before we get there, let’s start at the top where there is no dispute.

McCoy is a bona fide star at running back and will continue to be a central part of the Eagles’ offense. One area to watch this season is how he catches the ball out of the backfield. McCoy vowed to do better in this area in 2012, even though he recorded 48 catches last season. One advantage – catching the ball in the flat gets McCoy closer to the sideline and would, in theory, reduce the amount of hits he endures per touch.

There were questions entering training camp about whether Dion Lewis could be unseated as the No. 2 running back. He won’t be – it’s that simple. Lewis is further ahead than Brown and Polk, and has actually flashed throughout training camp. He only had 23 carries last season and is only 5-foot-8, but Lewis is strong for someone his size and demonstrates natural rushing skills. He suffered an injury in the first preseason game, so I’m curious to watch him on Monday to see how he looks.

Of course, those two are easy to predict. It’s the next two spots that are still very much wide open – the No. 3 running back, and the possible fullback.

Let’s start with the No. 3 running back. Bryce Brown was drafted in the seventh round with little college experience. Polk was a rookie free agent with an impressive college resume, but an injury history. Polk is clearly further along than Brown as a total runner, particularly when looking at how Polk blocks and catches out of the backfield. Brown, though, has a rare combination of speed and power. This is like the age-old baseball question – do you take the “toolsy” player, or the polished player?

As I said, the next three games will help determine the battle. But when discussing the No. 3/4 running back, it’s important to remember that’s often a developmental spot on the roster. The player can contribute if needed, but it’s usually someone who either helps on special teams or a team sees as someone who can contribute down the line. Polk would probably be the safer pick, and if the Eagles can make numbers work and don’t believe they can hide one on practice squad, then they could potentially keep four running backs.

However, it’s also important to factor in the fullback question. The Eagles used their fullback on just 15.8 percent of snaps last season, and some NFL teams use their fullback on even fewer snaps. It’s clearly a position that is losing some of its value around the league, although Andy Reid continues to say it will be used in the Eagles’ offense. If that’s the case, the options on the roster are Havili, a seventh-round pick last year who spent the season on practice squad; and Igwenagu, an intriguing fullback/tight end from UMass who offers versatility to the spot.

Havili has been playing with the first team and knows the system after spending last year with the Eagles. He also knows his role on special teams, which is absolutely vital for the fullback spot on the Eagles roster. But I keep going back to the fact that Igwenagu has experience at tight end.  The way the fullback position is evolving, that ability to swing between fullback and tight end is a valuable tool on Sundays. Considering the two-tight end sets, it also helps keep the offense complete if Brent Celek or Clay Harbor were to suffer an injury during a game.

Again, this is fluid. But if the blocking is evaluated as near equal among the two, then a bigger body with experience at tight end could help when paring the roster to 53.

Of course, the wild card to watch out for is Polk, who has experience as a lead blocker when he played at Washington with Jake Locker. That would be a way to ensure both Brown and Polk are on the roster. The Eagles have had internal discussions about Polk as a lead blocker, but considering that it hasn’t happened yet, it would need to be a quick acclimation process if they went this route.

Making the pick today, I’m going with McCoy, Lewis, Brown and Igwenagu. Ask me again on the morning of Aug. 31, and half of those four could look different.