He understands the issue. That’s one thing you can say about Wendell Smallwood. It’s too soon to render any definitive judgments on his injury woes, but the second-year running back is well aware that a football team’s patience comes with an expiration date.
“I definitely think it’s a big year for me,” he said after Monday’s joint practice session with the Dolphins. “I gotta stay healthy and I’ve got to stay in tune with my body and I’ve got to get better at the same time.”
Thus far, Smallwood’s NFL highlight reel looks more like a game of Operation: a quad strain, a concussion, a knee sprain, and, most recently, a hamstring injury. The quad came last summer, and it sidelined him for the early part of training camp and the first preseason game. A concussion knocked him out of the Eagles’ third preseason game and kept him out of practice for the following week. Then, in a Week 14 loss to the Redskins, Smallwood suffered an MCL sprain that landed him on injured reserve, ending his season.
Like everything in the NFL, a player’s health is judged on a sliding scale: The more productive you are, the more time you can miss before you start worrying about your job. The Eagles haven’t given any indication that Smallwood’s roster spot is in danger yet. He’s still their starting kick returner, and he’s still taking the majority of reps behind LeGarrette Blount. But at the very least, his recent hamstring issues opened up an opportunity for undrafted rookie Corey Clement to make his case to the Eagles coaching staff. The former Wisconsin back had a 24-yard run against the Bills, but has totaled 23 yards on his other 14 preseason carries.
Clement’s numbers are pretty representative of the Eagles backfield situation as a whole. When they drafted Smallwood in the fifth round out of West Virginia last season, they seemed to have high hopes for the rookie, who tested well at the combine and showed impressive burst during OTAs. During the regular season, though, he didn’t show much to make you carve his name into your five-year plan.
Smallwood’s two biggest games came in the Eagles’ two biggest wins of the season: 79 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in a stunning Week 3 rout over Pittsburgh and 70 yards on 13 carries in a Week 9 win over the Falcons. Against the Steelers, though, 38 of those yards came on three second-half carries in a game the Eagles were up three-plus possessions. He gained one or fewer yards on seven of his 17 carries. On the season, His 4.1 yard-per-carry average was lower than those posted by Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner, who combined for an average of 4.5 yards per carry.
It’s worth remembering that Smallwood was a fifth round draft pick …11 running backs were taken before the Eagles snagged him with the No. 153 overall pick in 2016. In other words, anybody labeling him a disappointment probably wasn’t being truthful about his odds from the start. The Bears might’ve taken Jordan Howard three picks before him, and Howard might’ve rushed for 1,313 yards on 252 carries, but the Giants drafted Paul Perkins one pick before Howard, and he rushed for 456 yards on 112 carries. Point is, Howard vs. Smallwood is a case of one guy overproducing his draft slot, rather than the other guy underperforming it. In either case, the guy who drafted Howard is now the top football guy in the Eagles front office, so bully for them.
As for Smallwood, the injuries could have factored into his underwhelming performance. He says he’s made it a point to monitor the various methods that Sproles, a veteran running back, uses to keep his body in game shape.
“He might’ve had a couple injuries a couple of years, but for the most part he’s been healthy and he’s been able to stay in there,” Smallwood said. “Obviously, he’s doing something right, so I’ve been following him. Whatever he’s doing — if he’s going to see someone Friday, I’ll be going to see him too.”
Sproles, for his part, says that the most important part of his routine is the 20 minutes he spends stretching each night before bed all year round. It’s a practice he began earlier in his career, shortly after moving from the Chargers to the Saints.
“One night, I just did it,” Sproles said. “I got up in the morning feeling good. So ever since that time I just do it now. It’s my little thing now.”
He’s also recently begun attending acupuncture sessions.
“For a player my size to be able to last for this long, that’s big to me,” said Sproles, who is listed at 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds. “Just to show people that size really doesn’t matter. To be able to keep going.”
Smallwood’s challenge is to prove the same thing, except at 5-foot-10 and 208 pounds, and with more of an upright running style.
“You can’t control it, but you can prevent it,” Smallwood said. “Nobody wants to get hurt, nobody wants something bad to happen, but there’s definitely ways to prevent it. Taking precautions, taking care of your body, eating the right things, getting your sleep, a bunch of things.”
Right now, what he needs more than anything is a solid performance in Thursday’s preseason game against the Dolphins.
“Ultimately it’s my decision if I’m on this team or not, and for other guys it’s their decision and what they do on the field,” Smallwood said. “Talk doesn’t matter at all.”