Updated: Monday, September 4, 2017, 5:42 PM
The Eagles have five running backs on their roster, but only three will likely factor into the game plan when they open the season against Washington on Sunday. LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles, and Wendell Smallwood will form a three-man committee at running back.
One of the big questions for the Eagles this year – and one of the vexing quandaries for fantasy football players – is how the carries and playing time will be distributed among the top three runners. It’s not expected that the Eagles will use a traditional featured running back, even though Blount rushed for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns with New England last year.
“It goes back to the game plan, quite honestly,” coach Doug Pederson said Monday. “We understand that LeGarrette might be a little different runner even than Sproles or Wendell. I think it’s game-plan specific. It’s hard to go into a game saying, ‘LeGarrette, you’re going to get X number of touches,’ because you never know … what circumstances might be posed during the game. It’s going to be a great effort by all three guys each and every week. [We] want to get all of them, obviously, involved in the game plan.”
Running backs coach Duce Staley said it might look different each week, but he also wanted “to get the big boy rolling” and then “sprinkle everyone else around him.” The “big boy” is the 250-pound Blount, who averaged 2.8 yards on 13 preseason carries. The preseason didn’t sway Pederson, who has said all summer that the offense will look different once they prepare a game plan tailored to their players and the opponent.
“Now that we get into these weeks, begin to game plan a little bit, get a little specific with guys, by personnel, by play type, and really hone that in this week,” Pederson said.
Blount totaled 299 carries last season, averaged 18.7 carries per game. No running back averaged close to that many carries for the pass-happy Eagles in 2016. When Ryan Mathews was healthy, he had four games with at least 18 carries. Smallwood had 17 carries in a game once. Sproles never had more than 15 carries in a game. So unless Pederson changes his approach, Blount’s in for a decline in carries.
“You just gotta make sure you’re ready for whenever your number is called on Sunday,” Blount said. “I don’t know what my workload is going to be. Nobody really knows what their workload is going to be.”
Sproles, who had a career-high 94 carries last season, knows the Eagles like handing the ball to Blount and Smallwood. He thinks the Eagles will try to get him into space, which means he’ll likely continue as the primary pass catcher out of the backfield and will unlikely make him a lead rusher, even though he averaged 4.7 yards per carry last season and has a 4.9-yard career average.
“We all know our role,” Sproles said. “They told us our role, and the thing is, everybody’s fine with it. …It all depends on the game. We’ve got two backs right now that can pound it, so I might not have to do that this year.”
Pederson said the offense can be effective without one featured running back. Then again, he doesn’t have LeSean McCoy on this roster. And even though it would seem the players could fit well with niches – Blount on early downs, short yardage, and goal line; Sproles on passing downs; Smallwood mixed in – Pederson didn’t want to designate each player with those descriptions.
“I don’t want to just sit here and say that, ‘Darren, you’re obviously a third-down guy,’ or ‘Wendell, you’re a first-, second-, third- down guy,’ because we want to get all these guys involved in the game plan,” Pederson said. “If LeGarrette has the hot hand, he continues to carry the ball. If it’s Wendell, it’s Wendell. Again, I can’t sit here and tell you exactly how many touches these guys are going to get. At the same time, when we put game plans together, we’re very mindful of not only the run game, but also the pass game with these guys, too.”
As a second-year player who showed promise last year, Smallwood can be the X-factor. He looked good enough in practices to warrant carries. Rookies Corey Clement and Donnel Pumphrey could both be inactive on game days unless the Eagles want Clement for special teams. It appears likely Pumphrey will begin the season apprenticing with Sproles.
That could change with injury or if his development accelerates, but the Eagles are going into the season with Blount, Sproles, and Smallwood as their running-back committee. Good luck figuring out which running back will take which snaps on a given week.
“It’s week-to-week,” Pederson said.
Read full story: Eagles ready for running back by committee