Your guess is as good as Doug Pederson’s. Training camp and the preseason haven’t offered much reason to think that things will play out much differently than last season. While LeGarrette Blount is a sure-handed ballcarrier who is tough to bring down once he gets going, there’s a reason the Patriots decided to bring in a couple of free-agent running backs while bidding him adieu. The best hope is that 2016 fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood can give the Eagles the kind of reliable burst that they so often lacked last season. But I’m not sure the Eagles’ running game will ever rise to the level of “reliable.”
My sense is this is going to be a running-back-by-committee kind of season. LeGarrette Blount had career highs in rushing attempts (299), rushing yards (1,161), and rushing touchdowns (18) with the Patriots last season. But at 30 years of age, he’s not going to put up those kind of numbers again. At least not the attempts and yards. And frankly, the Eagles don’t expect him to. He’s not going to be a workhorse. If he gets more than 160 carries this season, I’ll be shocked. They got him primarily for short-yardage and goal-line situations. Darren Sproles had a career-high 94 carries last year, but he’s not going to come close to that this year either. Doug Pederson wants to use him more as a receiver, moving him around the formation and exploiting coverage mismatches against linebackers and safeties. If their offensive line can stay healthy this season, the Eagles will be effective running the ball. But I don’t expect any of their backs to crack 1,000 yards.
The Eagles are going to try to run the ball by committee, and that committee will probably include LeGarrette Blount, who’s coming off a heavy, 299-carry workload in 2016, and Wendell Smallwood, who had just 77 carries as a rookie last season. Given the relative uncertainty around those two backs, when the Eagles need two or three yards to extend an important drive, won’t Darren Sproles be the most reliable option? He’s durable. He has shown few signs, if any, of slowing down. And though he has never had more than 94 carries in any of his 11 NFL seasons, he has also averaged more than 4.2 yards a carry in nine of those seasons.
LeGarrette Blount was signed to be the primary running-down ballcarrier, but Wendell Smallwood could see a significant amount of time in the backfield on first and second downs. He ran hard and effectively during the first week of training camp, but a hamstring injury sidelined the second-year tailback. Can Smallwood stay healthy all season? Darren Sproles, even at 34, is probably the best overall running back on the roster. He’s the Eagles’ best receiver out of the backfield and he’s their best blocker. He may also be their most productive runner, in terms of yards per carry. But he’s more effective on the ground as a complement. A running-back-by-committee approach can be just as fruitful as having a workhorse. But the sense here is that Smallwood will steal carries from Blount as the season progresses.