Eagles once again eye running backs in NFL draft | Jeff McLane

Regrets, the Eagles had few last season. But if there was one, it was not drafting an elite running back.

The class was deep, they had a need, and they had more than enough picks. But when the three-day extravaganza was over the Eagles had procured only running back Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round.

“When we got together after the draft last year, the running back class that we thought was really strong going in, we thought that maybe there would be an opportunity that we’d get one of those running backs,” Eagles executive Howie Roseman said Thursday. “Maybe a different guy than Pumph.”

In a rare moment of transparency, Roseman simply stated the obvious. While Pumphrey was selected after impact tailbacks such as Christian McCaffrey (first round), Dalvin Cook (second), and Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt (third), the Eagles had hoped one would fall to them in each of those rounds.

Roseman had even tried to move up for Cook, but the Vikings leapfrogged two spots ahead of him. The Eagles would ultimately draft defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas in the first three rounds – each a promising prospect in his own right – but the team scrambled to get a running back it liked on Day 3.

The Eagles traded up seven spots and took Pumphrey, a productive but diminutive FBS-level tailback. He struggled in the preseason, and after an inactive first week, he was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.

To their credit, the Eagles made other moves to account for their slips in the draft. They added the undrafted Corey Clement, signed free agent LeGarrette Blount, and about a month after losing Darren Sproles for the season, they sent a 2018 fourth-round pick to the Dolphins for Jay Ajayi.

Ajayi, Blount, and Clement were instrumental in the Eagles’ championship run and all three were prolific in Super Bowl LII. Nary a soul would sacrifice those accomplishments to have one of the running backs who was missed out on in the draft, but the Eagles do find themselves a year later in a similar position.

This year’s running back class is seemingly deep and the Eagles have a need, although they don’t have as many picks – just a first-rounder on the first two days and six overall. Ajayi and Clement return, as well as Pumphrey and Wendell Smallwood. But their futures aren’t guaranteed, and coach Doug Pederson has shown a proclivity for a by-committee approach.

“Having another running back, you don’t know Jay Ajayi, in terms of long term, what you have there,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said recently. “And they showed last year having a bunch of guys you could roll through there was valuable. So you get a guy — a Sony Michel, a Derrius Guice, or somebody like that.”

Jeremiah has Michel, a Georgia product, slotted to the Eagles at No. 32 in his latest first-round mock draft. A former Eagles scout, Jeremiah correctly predicted the Barnett selection last April. But the Eagles haven’t drafted a running back as high in more than 30 years and the highest pick Roseman has expended on the position was with Pumphrey.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman talks to reporters at the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia on Thursday.

The organization has long devalued the running back spot, particularly how it ranks in importance alongside other positions, and it is a belief increasingly held across the NFL. Running backs’ relatively short shelf life is the most prominently cited reason for the decreasing value. Depth at the position over the last decade has also contributed to first-round talents falling.

“Kamara is the guy we talked about last year. … I know a lot of teams I talked to had first-round grades on him,” Jeremiah said of the 2017 offensive rookie of the year. “We had him in the 20s and he fell to the third round, and I guarantee … there’s some teams that passed on him in the second or early third round that wished they wouldn’t have.”

Aside from Kamara and the Chiefs’ Hunt, who led the NFL in rushing, Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas cited the Cardinals’ David Johnson as another recent third-round hit. But there are Day 3 examples, as well, like the Falcons’ Devonta Freeman (fourth round), the Bears’ Jordan Horward (fifth) and Ajayi (fifth).

Douglas, who spent one year in Chicago, played a significant role in the selection of Howard. But you would find few misgivings from the teams that spent first-round picks on Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Leonard Fournette.

“Great running backs are difference makers,” Douglas said. “We see that in today’s NFL – special guys that can come out of the backfield and hurt you in the pass game. If it’s the right player I don’t think we’re opposed to taking running backs at any point.”

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley has been mentioned in the same breath as Gurley and Elliott and he’s likely the be chosen by the 10th pick. Jeremiah sees Guice, a tough, physical runner out of LSU, and Michel as the rest of the best of the first tier.

“I think those first three have kind of separated themselves,” Jeremiah said. “And then after that I think you’ll see that order vary, and some of these guys you’re going to think are early second-round picks, they might be there in the late third round.”

Jeremiah listed Southern Cal’s Ronald Jones, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, San Deigo State’s Rashaad Penny, and Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson as the next tier. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock’s most recent ranking of running backs went Barkley, Michel, Guice, Chubb, Jones, and Penny.

The Eagles are open to the possibility of trading back – “We’re open for business,” Roseman said. – to account for their lack of second-day picks. That could make the second-tier prospects more of a reality, and maybe even Michel or Guice if one were to drop.

“Normally when you see a depressed market, it’s due to supply and demand,” NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks said. “The supply is great this year. … A lot of the success of running backs that are drafted later really comes down to fit and scheme. How do these guys fit in the scheme that they’re playing; how do the coaches deploy them?”

It’s incumbent upon the personnel department to make those projections. The Eagles haven’t given up on Pumphrey, but the first glimpses weren’t encouraging. The Packers’ Jamal Williams, the New York Giants’ Wayne Gallman, and the Colts’ Marlon Mack didn’t have anywhere near the impact of Kamara or Hunt, but they made far more contributions than Pumphrey, who was chosen ahead of them.

Smallwood has flashed potential at times, but injuries plagued him in his first two seasons after being drafted in the fifth round, and he was relegated to inactive after Ajayi came aboard. Ajayi is entering the last year of his rookie contract. He immediately produced in the Eagles offense and will likely be the lead back this season, but a chronic knee problem could limit his stay in Philly.

Clement blossomed into the third-down back after Sproles went down. There were predraft questions about his pass-catching and blocking abilities, but he showed an aptitude and willingness that compensated for his lack of experience in both departments.

“Maybe the perception is the draft is the last time you have a huge opportunity to improve your football team and what we’ve committed is that we’re going to attack in the draft, we’re going to attack in  June, we’re going to attack at the trade deadline,” Roseman said. “After the trade deadline it’s hard to do, but this is not the end of talent acquisition season.”

But the Eagles would rather hit in the draft than not.