One of the things waiting to be defined during the stretch drive of this Eagles season is what the running back roles are going to be, once Jay Ajayi is fully functional in the offense – something offensive coordinator Frank Reich indicated might be the case as soon as Sunday night at Dallas.
It seems likely Ajayi will emerge as the dominant back, probably at the expense of Wendell Smallwood (a lot) and LeGarrette Blount (at least a little), but it would be a big surprise if Ajayi cut much into the snaps of undrafted rookie Corey Clement.
Why? Because Clement is that guy that running backs coach Duce Staley said recently “battled, fought, scratched and clawed” his way into the discussion.
Reich was asked this week about Clement’s five red-zone touchdowns this season, including that amazing Monday Night Football catch against the Redskins, when Carson Wentz somehow found Clement while being swarmed, then Clement soared at the sideline, plucked the ball, and came down with both feet inbounds. Reich referenced that catch, which he said was “just ability.” Then Reich said: “Some of it is just want-to. I think all of our players have a lot of want-to … Corey has that little bit of extra want-to. That’s always been something that stuck out about him, as far as I’m concerned, from Day 1.”
Clement, 23, is coming off a three-touchdown afternoon against the Broncos. His two rushing touchdowns and one receiving TD in that 51-23 victory made him the first Eagles rookie with that stat line since Don Johnson in 1953.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson, asked this week about Clement in the red zone, gave a similar answer about “want-to.” He added that Clement is “a very violent, aggressive runner, and just loves ball. Any time he gets in there, he just goes 100 miles an hour, and he is a smart guy. He’s coachable. And he does exactly what you ask him to do.”
Five touchdowns in 51 touches (48 runs, three catches) is a lot. Clement has played only 19 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps so far, but his total has gone up steadily over the last month – from 10 to 12 to 19 to 28.
“Some people just have a knack for the end zone. Not putting anybody else down, but I think I just sniff it out a little bit more,” Clement said. “I feel like a dog on the goal line, I just have to get to that spot. We work so hard to work our way down the field, why not give it one last shot and punch it in? It’s very demoralizing when you don’t punch it in.”
This was a great draft year for running backs, lots of talent to choose from. Even so, Clement, at a chiseled 5-10, 220, with 1,375 rushing yards as a senior at Wisconsin on 314 carries, good for 15 touchdowns, would seem hard to overlook.
Draft evaluations mention his solid physique and his jump-cut ability. But they also mention an incident in his injury-stunted junior season in which Clement punched someone in the elevator lobby of his apartment building, cutting his hand, then lied to Wisconsin about what happened until video surfaced.
His NFL.com draft profile quotes an anonymous NFC North scout as saying that Clement “wasn’t very well-liked inside that program.”
Nine games into his NFL career, Clement certainly seems well-liked inside the Eagles’ program. One factor in signing him was Clement’s longtime friendship with Eagles security chief Dom DiSandro, who used to bring in the kid from Glassboro, N.J., to watch the Eagles practice. DiSandro says Clement is “like my little brother.” DiSandro vouched for Clement.
Clement could be the only guy in the NFL with five touchdowns this season and just a $35,000 guarantee, out of a $465,000 base salary that is typical for an undrafted player.
“That still weighs in the back of my mind. I’m pretty sure for any other undrafted rookie who has made a roster, [he] is going to feel some type of way of how you approach each day,” Clement said. “I don’t take anything for granted, I don’t take any film study for granted. … just being around, walking into this building, I don’t take it for granted. I make sure I give a positive vibe.”
Since Darren Sproles went down against the Giants, the Eagles’ backs have struggled with blitz pickup. Coaches touted Ajayi’s addition at least partly for that reason, though Miami didn’t have him on the field on third down the last few games before the Dolphins traded him to the Eagles at the deadline.
The back who gains the most trust in pass protection is going to get a solid measure of snaps.
“To be honest with you, the comfort level is there, but I got a lot of things to work on. Pass pro is definitely not an easy thing to pick up in a matter of four months,” said Clement, who had zero experience in pass blocking at Wisconsin. “Being able to stay out there on third downs means a lot.”
The Eagles posted a video from the Denver game of defensive end Chris Long kidding Clement, as they stood behind the bench.
“I can only imagine what you’re going to be like now. I thought you changed, ever since that touchdown on Monday Night Football,” Long teased, as Clement urgently protested Long’s assessment.
“It was a hat trick today? Congrats,” Long said.
Asked about becoming big-time this week, Clement said: “Not one bit. And I never will. I don’t know how to change. My friends and family, anybody outside this organization, knows I’m the same guy you knew in high school.”