Friday, September 19, 2014
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State of the Eagles: Running Back

While the Eagles finish their offseason program with 10 organized team activities and a three-day mini-camp, The Inquirer will reset the team’s 90-man roster and look at each position heading into July’s training camp. We have already looked at offensive line, tight ends, defensive line, outside linebackers, wide receivers, quarterbacks, inside linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties.

State of the Eagles: Running Back

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. (Matt Rourke/AP)

While the Eagles finish their offseason program with 10 organized team activities and a three-day mini-camp, The Inquirer will reset the team’s 90-man roster and look at each position heading into July’s training camp. We have already looked at offensive linetight endsdefensive lineoutside linebackers, wide receiversquarterbacks, inside linebackers, cornerbacks,  and safeties.

Projected first team

LeSean McCoy (5-11, 208), 25, 6th season

The question about whether LeSean McCoy or Adrian Peterson is the NFL's best running back makes for good barroom fodder and talk show debate, but the fact that it’s a question speaks volumes about the type of season McCoy produced in 2013. It became clear that McCoy is an ideal running back for coach Chip Kelly’s system, and he proved last year that he can handle a heavy workload. McCoy’s 1,607 yards and 314 were both tops in the league. He is able to produce big plays, tough yards, on third downs, and in the red zone. He can catch, he can block, and he stays healthy. There is little more that the Eagles can want from McCoy, and he’s taken the leap into one of the best players in the NFL.

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McCoy is in the prime of his career, and does not take as many big hits as some of the other running backs. He’s adept at getting down just before a hit, or sneaking out of bounds. A running back’s shelf life is shorter than other positions, but McCoy can stay in top form for another few seasons.

However, he can benefit from a lighter workload. McCoy believes it can keep him fresher late in games. He averaged six yards per carry in the fourth quarter last season – the best of any of the quarters. He also had an outstanding December, rushing for 5.9 yards per carry in the final month. A fresh McCoy can be a positive for the Eagles offense, but there’s no need to overthink this one: He’s a star player in the prime of his career.

Projected second team

Darren Sproles (5-6, 190), 30, 10th season; Chris Polk (5-11, 222), 24, 3rd season

The Eagles’ top offseason acquisition on offense was Darren Sproles, who can be looked at either as a proven versatile threat that adds another offensive weapon to Kelly’s arsenal; or as a declining undersized running back without a clear role in the Eagles offense. Time will tell which one it is, but both sides – Sproles and the coaching staff – are outwardly bullish about Sproles’ prospects in the offense.

Kelly insists Sproles is a running back and not just a receiver out of the backfield. Sproles has had more receptions than rushes in three of the past four seasons. He said that’s the way the coaches want to use him in New Orleans’ offense. He has never been a primary running back in his career, which has also helped extend his career. Sproles operates best in space, away from big bodies. The Eagles don’t want Sproles to siphon carries away from McCoy, so don’t expect Sproles to become a major rusher in Philadelphia, but he will still be used in the running game.

Sproles is another option for Kelly, and he can become a weapon in man-to-man coverage in the hurry-up offense. Kelly emphasized that he wanted to take advantage of one-on-one coverage; a matchup with Sproles against a linebacker will be an advantage for the Eagles. The key in the offense is to have versatile players who can fill different roles, and Sproles does that. He will also be valuable as a returner. Sproles turned 30, and the Saints were aggressive in moving him, so he needs to prove that he’s not about to take a sharp decline.

The Eagles dealt Bryce Brown on draft day, and one of the reasons was their optimism in Chris Polk. The running back had offseason shoulder surgery, but he’s a player that the coaching staff likes quite a bit. Polk has good size and an aggressive running style. He had only 11 carries last season, but he finished with 98 yards and three touchdowns. Polk’s workload will depend on McCoy’s health and how involved Sproles is in the running game, but the Brown trade should be viewed as an encouraging sign for Polk.

“Obviously we have a talented one in LeSean, and then when you add Sproles to the mix, where does Chris fit into it?” Kelly said. “ But I think in terms what has he done in the offseason, I think he's really put himself in the picture.”

Others

Matthew Tucker (6-1, 227), 23, 2nd season; Henry Josey (5-8, 194), 22, rookie; David Fluellen (5-11, 224), 22, rookie

The Eagles can carry three or four running backs. If they carry four, one of these players will make the team. Matthew Tucker started last season on practice squad before he was promoted on Oct 19. He spent the remainder of the year on the 53-man roster and was active for two regular season games and the playoff game. He did not record a stat, but there is optimism about him in the building. When the Eagles traded Brown, Kelly mentioned Tucker as a promising player who was in “the best shape” of all the running backs. He has good size for the position.

Henry Josey is a good story with some talent. He tore his ACL, MCL, meniscus, and patellar tendon as a sophomore standout at Missouri in 2011. Josey returned in 2013 and finished with 1,166 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. He went undrafted even after running a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Josey has been compared to Sproles because of his size, and he will try to make the team as a Sproles understudy. The difference is Josey was not used often as a receiver or returner in college.

David Fluellen had a strong college career at Toledo and was also signed as an undrafted free agent. His 4.72-second 40-yard dash at the combine did not help his case, although Fluellen’s size and college production makes him intriguing as an inside runner.

Both Josey and Fluellen are also potential practice squad candidates.

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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Birds' Eye View is the Inquirer's blog covering all things Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL.

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