The Inquirer/Daily News beat reporters are previewing the Eagles’ offseason. Free agency will begin on March 14, and the draft will be April 26-28.
Schedule of previews:
Tuesday, Feb. 20: Quarterbacks/specialists
Wednesday, Feb. 21: Offensive line
Thursday, Feb. 22: Running backs
Friday, Feb. 23: Wide receivers/tight ends
Monday, Feb. 26: Defensive line
Tuesday, Feb. 27: Linebackers
Wednesday, Feb. 28: Cornerbacks
Thursday, March 1: Safeties
Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey
The Eagles acquired Jay Ajayi on Halloween to boost their offense in 2017, but the move was also made with 2018 in mind. Howie Roseman emphasized after acquiring Ajayi that Ajayi had another year left on his deal, and suddenly what appeared would be a pressing 2018 offseason need was plugged four months early.
Ajayi, 24, averaged 5.8 yards per carry during seven regular-season games with the Eagles and 4.4 yards per carry in the postseason. He joined the Eagles’ running back committee, never taking on the featured role that he had in Miami. But he fit the Eagles offense, offering a big, explosive back who can be a high-volume runner if needed. Look for Ajayi’s role to grow in 2018 with the benefit of a full offseason with the team — and perhaps less of a committee approach in the backfield, depending on the team’s personnel. Ajayi already spoke to running backs coach Duce Staley about how much he could benefit from OTAs and training camp after joining the offense in midseason.
The Eagles can also plan on Corey Clement’s being a part of the offense next season. The development of Clement, 23, was one of the best stories of the season for the Eagles. He signed as an undrafted rookie last spring and worked his way from the last running back on the depth chart to the leading receiver in the Super Bowl. Clement earned a role on the roster in part because of his special-teams ability, which made him active in Week 1. But his role in the offense continued to grow as the season progressed, and he was the team’s third-down running back by the playoffs. Clement wasn’t a prolific pass catcher in college, but his receiving ability and blocking allowed the coaches to trust him in key situations. He had 321 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, and four touchdowns in the regular season, along with 10 catches for 123 yards and two scores. In the Super Bowl, he finished with four catches for 100 yards and a touchdown. If Darren Sproles is not back in 2018, look for Clement to be the Eagles’ third-down running back and the Glassboro native to be a trusted part of the offense.
The same isn’t certain for Wendell Smallwood or Donnel Pumphrey. Smallwood had a disappointing second season, with an injury slowing him during training camp before he fell out of the rotation after the Ajayi trade. He was expected to take on a bigger role, yet he finished the season with only 47 carries for 147 yards and one touchdown in eight games. He’ll need to play his way onto the 53-man roster next season — and prove he can stay healthy. Pumphrey arrived with a notable opportunity as the Eagles’ fourth-round pick in a loaded running-back draft class, and it appeared during the spring that the team would have a role for Pumphrey as a versatile weapon after he set the NCAA record for rushing yards. But Pumphrey struggled during training camp and the preseason, falling down the depth chart. He made the roster and was inactive for Week 1 before a hamstring injury in practice allowed the Eagles to stash Pumphrey on injured reserve. The team was high on him on last spring, but he’ll need to show he can be trusted at the NFL level — especially if the Eagles add a rookie running back to compete with him. Pumphrey said he tweaked the hamstring during training camp, so he wasn’t fully healthy. He knows the playbook and has added weight. He’ll have to make his mark this spring and summer. But he’s now behind Clement on third downs and will need to earn his roster spot.
LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles, Kenjon Barner
The Eagles signed LeGarrette Blount last May to a low-cost contract. Although Blount was an accomplished running back, the timing and price suggested what the market was for him last offseason. Blount proved to be a key signing for the Eagles, rushing for 766 yards and two touchdowns during the season before finding the end zone in all three postseason games. He was terrific in the Super Bowl, when he rushed for 90 yards and a score. He also maintained a strong locker-room presence.
Despite that season, Blount’s Eagles career might not continue. You can’t rule out a reunion, especially if the Eagles can get a team-friendly deal like they did last season. But with Ajayi and Clement already back next season, the Eagles likely won’t spend much to bring back Blount — and they could potentially find a younger alternative than the 31-year-old. If they signed him at the right price and right time, though, he’d fit right in with their running back committee. Bottom line: They can do much worse than re-signing Blount.
It appeared Darren Sproles was in his final season in 2017 before he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and a broken right forearm in September. Sproles, one of the league’s most versatile and respected players, has since indicated he would like to return in 2018. The Eagles could certainly find a role for Sproles, who can be used multiple ways on offense, is the Eagles’ best blocker in the backfield, and is a dynamic return threat. But the Eagles are already tight on salary-cap space, so how much would they be willing to pay Sproles? Sproles, who will be 35 next season and whose family is on the West Coast, could find a landing spot closer to home. Again, returning to the Eagles can’t be ruled out — especially because of how highly the team thinks of Sproles — but this could come down to price and where Sproles wants to play next season. The emergence of Clement has also softened the need for a proven third-down running back such as Sproles.
Kenjon Barner rejoined the Eagles after Sproles’ injury to contribute as a returner. He could come back in that role, although the Eagles let him walk last season and they should look to draft a return threat this spring.
With Ajayi and Clement returning, the Eagles likely won’t be major players for a free-agent running back. If they signed a veteran, it would make sense to try to keep Blount and/or Sproles. The top free-agent running back is Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, but the Steelers used the franchise tag on Bell last season and even if he somehow hit the market, the Eagles wouldn’t be able to afford him. New England’s Dion Lewis, a former Eagle, should also generate interest if he hits free agency. San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde is 26 and has topped 900 rushing yards the past two seasons, but again, the Eagles likely aren’t searching the market for a starting running back. Doug Martin, 29, is a former Pro Bowler who was released by Tampa Bay this week.
If the Eagles were searching for a younger veteran to replace Blount as a big running back, it could make sense to look at Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill. Hill, 25, fell down the depth chart with the Bengals last season and saw his season cut short by injury, but he rushed for 1,124 yards as a rookie in 2014 and the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder could be a buy-low candidate somewhere.
The Eagles would be better served looking in the draft for a running back, especially considering Ajayi is entering a contract year. Although the Eagles don’t have a Day 2 pick, this is another deep running-back draft class. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is atop the class and is expected to be a Top 10 pick, so forget about him in Philadelphia. LSU’s Derrius Guice, USC’s Ronald Jones, Georgia’s Sony Michel, and Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson are all candidates to go in the first or second rounds, too, but would the Eagles look for a running back that early? This is a year when they can take the best available player because they don’t have an immediate need, but they haven’t often looked for a running back on Day 1. San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny excelled after replacing Pumphrey, and he comes with better size (5-11, 220) and return ability (seven kick-return touchdowns).
Later in the draft, there will be intriguing options. Oregon’s Royce Freeman was a record-setting running back despite being slowed by injury, and at 234 pounds, he could be a team’s big back. Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough, who is 232 pounds, is another option to fill that big-RB role. Georgia’s Nick Chubb appeared as if he’d be a future star before a devastating 2015 injury, and he returned to be a productive running back for the Bulldogs the past two seasons, albeit not at the pre-injury level. One running back whose stock could rise at the combine is Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage, a versatile back with the size and athletic ability that will intrigue teams. Notre Dame’s Josh Adams is a Central Bucks South alum who has the size (6-2, 220) and production (1,430 yards), although he’s expected to be a later-round pick.
This is a deep class, and the testing at the combine will continue to sort out rankings. But it would make sense for the Eagles to add a rookie running back this year because of the uncertainty at the position beyond 2018.