Before reporters even had the opportunity to ask why the Eagles hadn’t drafted a running back, Howie Roseman reached into his hat of personnel tricks and — voila! – pulled out fan favorite Darren Sproles.
It was unexpected – announcing that the veteran tailback was returning — after three rather uneventful days of the NFL draft. If there was a surprise prior to the Sproles news — aside from trading back from the first round for a 2019 second round pick or drafting a 6-foot-8, 346-pound Australian rugby player — it was that the Eagles didn’t get a running back.
“We try to stick to our board as much as possible,” Roseman said Saturday. “Darren’s a special player, a special guy. It’s hard to compare anyone we would have gotten in the draft to Darren anyway. It just didn’t work out the way our board was to get one. So it wasn’t like we bypassed one to get Darren.”
Still, for the second year in a row the Eagles didn’t take a running back in the first three rounds of what many evaluators have called historically deep drafts at the position. It didn’t hurt them last year as Roseman and his staff pieced together a strong group post-draft, and it might not hinder them again this year, but the Eagles had chances to get several possible impact tailbacks.
Unlike last year, however, they didn’t have as much ammunition. The Eagles had just six picks entering the draft, and after expending a fifth in the trade up for tight end Dallas Goedert in the second round, they had only five.
But as Roseman pointed out, the Eagles lost a fourth-rounder last October when they dealt for running back Jay Ajayi at the deadline, and by trading out of the first round they created enough salary-cap space to bring the 34-year-old Sproles back.
The running back room, which lost leading rusher LeGarrette Blount in free agency, may not be younger, but Ajayi, Sproles, and Corey Clement give the Eagles a formidable rotation at the top. Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey round out the returning group.
“We like our running backs. That’s a pretty good room now,” Roseman said. “Jay’s a pretty good player. Corey’s a pretty good player. Darren’s a pretty good player. Wendell’s a pretty good player. Pump has a lot to prove. And we still have the opportunity to get someone here after the draft.”
The Eagles agreed to terms with Notre Dame running back Josh Adams after the draft, a NFL source said. Some scouts and analysts had late-round grades on the Central Bucks South product, but Adams slipped through the cracks and could have an opportunity to follow in Clement’s footsteps.
While Ajayi, Sproles, and Clement are virtually assured roster spots, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Adams could be their north-to-south, big-bodied complement and fill Blount’s role. Smallwood is running out of chances and Pumphrey, who spent most of his rookie season on injured reserve, didn’t look NFL-able before his injury.
Pumphrey was drafted in the fourth round after Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, and Kareem Hunt, but Roseman admitted last week that in retrospect he wished he had more of an opportunity to get one of the top prospects.
Who will be this year’s Kamara or Hunt? It seems as if there’s a third, fourth, or fifth round running back every year who outperforms his draft stock. Rashad Penny (27) and Sony Michel (31) were selected before the Eagles’ were on the clock at No. 32 Thursday night, but Nick Chubb, Ronald Jones, Kerryon Johnson, and Derrius Guice were still on the board.
The Eagles, who had moved back 20 spots into the second round, then watched Chubb (35), Jones (38), and Johnson (43) get selected before they jumped three spots. And while many fans had pined for Guice’s name to be called, Goedert was the chosen one.
Guice had first-round talent, per many evaluators, but he fell all the way to the Redskins at No 59. His combine interview and predraft visit with the Eagles didn’t go well, according to sources close to the situation, and the LSU running back dropped down their board.
NFL Network reported that Guice had gotten into a “shouting match” with Eagles personnel during his visit to the NovaCare Complex and former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook said on the radio Friday that he heard Guice had gotten into an argument with Roseman and “quite possibly” with running backs coach Duce Staley.
“There was no altercation here in this building that any of us are aware of,” Roseman said Saturday. “I don’t know where that report came from, but I can speak for everyone in here that nothing like that happened here in Philadelphia. … When you hear the word altercation, it sounds like fisticuffs or something. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a room where a player has yelled at anyone.”
Coach Doug Pederson and vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas, who were also on the dais, also denied that there was any disagreement.
“My trip to the Eagles was great,” Guice said. “There wasn’t an altercation when I went. It was great. They were also like family. Me and Duce have a great relationship.”
In all, eight running backs were chosen in the first three rounds – the same number as last year. The Eagles haven’t drafted a running back in the first three rounds since 2009, when they took LeSean McCoy in the second round.
They have long placed running backs, mostly because of their short shelf lives, low on their positional value list. Most of the NFL feels the same way. The Eagles acquired Sproles from the Saints for a fifth-round pick, after all.
Sproles’ season ended in September, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He had said he was leaning toward coming back, and Pederson had first publicly lobbied for his return last month, but a deal wasn’t struck until late Saturday afternoon.
“It’s been a priority to get Darren back,” Roseman said. “I think I got the message when Coach would come by my office maybe once a day, twice a day, and say, ‘What’s going on with Darren? When are we getting Sproles back?’ ”
But not long before drafting tackle Jordan Mailata of the South Sydney Rabitohs with his last pick, Roseman made the call for the rabbit-quick running back.