Domowitch: Running back not a first-round priority for Eagles

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Wendell Smallwood showed promise as a rookie before a season-ending knee injury.

INDIANAPOLIS - Joe Douglas is a product of the highly respected Baltimore Ravens scouting department, where he spent the first 16 years of his career honing his craft under the watchful eye of general manager Ozzie Newsome.

That's the football equivalent of being a Harvard-educated lawyer.

The Eagles hired Douglas as their vice president of player personnel last May mostly because of his acumen as a talent evaluator, but also because of the best-player-available-regardless-of-need scouting approach he brought with him from the Ravens.

"One of the things I told Joe when we brought him here was 'Remind us all the time, let's take the best player,' " said Howie Roseman, the Eagles' executive vice president of football operations. "Let's not miss on guys that we have a sixth-round grade on because we're getting to the third round and we haven't drafted a particular position of need.

"We're looking at the draft as an open canvas. Let's get the best guys and not project based on need. Ideally, you're taking care of some of your needs in free agency, and you're going to the draft and just trying to add guys who can help you going forward."

If only Douglas had been around to whisper in Roseman and Chip Kelly's ears three years ago when their desperate need for an edge rusher prompted them to reach for Marcus Smith, a guy most teams had a third-round grade on, with the 26th pick in the 2014 draft.

This is not to suggest the Eagles will completely ignore their positional needs in the April draft. If they're picking 14th and the two best players left on their board are a cornerback and a safety, and they have a similar grade on both, they'll grab the corner because, well, they kind of don't have one at the moment.

The truth is, the Eagles have so many needs right now that, no matter who the best player on their board is when they're on the clock in the first or second or just about any round, he almost certainly will address a need.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to the Eagles' current running-back situation. I guess it qualifies as a need, though it's not as pants-on-fire pressing as cornerback or wide receiver or edge rusher.

Yes, injury-prone Ryan Mathews probably has played his last game for the Eagles.

Yes, Darren Sproles turns 34 in June.

And yes, the other four backs on the Eagles' roster - Wendell Smallwood, Kenjon Barner, Byron Marshall and Terrell Watson - have a combined 166 career carries.

This year's draft has an inordinate amount of quality running backs. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock has first-round grades on no fewer than five backs - Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Joe Mixon. He thinks three of them - Fournette, Cook and McCaffrey - will be taken in the first round, with Mixon probably sliding because of character questions and Kamara dropping because he inexplicably averaged less than nine carries a game at Tennessee despite a 6.2-yards-per-carry career average.

Would the Eagles take a running back in the first round? Sure, it's possible. If the versatile Cook still is on the board when they're on the clock and they have a significantly higher grade on him than any unclaimed wide receiver or cornerback or edge rusher, they'll probably take him.

And if the Eagles are able to address some of their other needs in free agency, I wouldn't have a problem with them taking a running back in the first round, particularly a versatile playmaker such as Cook.

But Roseman indicated on Wednesday that the Eagles, who have less than $11 million in salary-cap space, probably won't be major players in free agency.

This draft class is thick with cornerbacks and edge rushers. "You can get a corner in the second or third round," said Mayock. "You can get an edge guy in the second or third round. This defensive draft at edge and corner is outstanding."

At wide receiver, not so much. There are three really good ones: Mike Williams, Corey Davis and John Ross. After them, there's a bit of a drop-off. If they want a guy who has a chance to help their young quarterback, Carson Wentz, this season, they'll need to take one of those three in the first round.

While they'll need to add another running back at some point in the draft, I think they would be OK this season with Smallwood, Sproles, Barner and Marshall.

Smallwood, a 2016 fifth-round pick, had only 77 carries before a knee injury ended his season. But he showed promise.

"Wendell's a young, talented guy we were fortunate to pick up in last year's draft," coach Doug Pederson said. "He's part of the running-back mix. This will be a big offseason for him, coming off the injury. I'm looking forward to this April and getting him back in the building and seeing where he's at physically and going forward."

The guy who's intriguing is Marshall. At Oregon, he played both running back and wide receiver and was the first player in Pac-12 history to have 1,000-yard rushing and receiving seasons. He went undrafted last spring after breaking an ankle and missing most of his final season in Eugene.

He spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad before getting an opportunity to play in the Eagles' final three games. He can line up anywhere in the formation and showed some LeSean McCoy-like moves on a few of his 19 rookie runs.

"He really handled (being on the practice squad) extremely well," Pederson said. "I'm looking forward to seeing what he does this spring and competing in that running-back room and seeing what he can do. He's got a year under his belt. He understands our offense. I look forward to him contributing this spring."

What the Eagles don't really have with Marshall and Sproles and Smallwood and Barner, and what they probably will look for in the draft, is a back with power to replace the 6-foot, 220-pound Mathews.

Samaje Perine, a 5-10, 235-pounder out of Oklahoma who is projected to go in the third or fourth rounds, confirmed Thursday that the Eagles were one of the many teams he has met with at this week's scouting combine.

"We're comfortable with the guys we have, but you'd still like to add some depth," Pederson said. "Add some competition at that position."

Just not in the first round.

pdomo@aol.com

@Pdomo Blog: philly.com/Eaglesblog