Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, and Josh Adams worked next to each other at the start of practice on Tuesday, the Eagles' lone session leading up to Thursday's game against the New York Giants. Those are the three healthy running backs on the Eagles, and they'll form a committee to replace Jay Ajayi.
The biggest story for the Eagles this week was unexpected when fans awoke Monday: Ajayi, their top running back, is out for the season with a torn ACL.
With a quick turnaround, the Eagles are not in the position to make a trade for a running back in time to contribute in the game. So this is the group they'll go with on Thursday, and perhaps going forward. Clement was a full participant in practice after sitting the past two games with a quadriceps injury. He said he's ready to play. So are Smallwood and Adams. Darren Sproles remains sidelined with a hamstring injury. Although Clement might be atop the depth chart, the Eagles are expected to rotate three running backs against the Giants.
"That's kind of been our approach, even with Jay, even when he was playing," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "He was always the starter. He was always the guy. But we've always been 'by committee' around here."
If one player emerges as the top rusher, Clement is the most likely candidate. The Eagles' best rushing performance actually came in Week 3, when Ajayi was out of the lineup with a back injury. The Eagles rushed for 152 yards, with Clement and Smallwood each rushing for 56 yards and Adams rushing for 30. Clement's 16 carries led the group. It was the most carries by an Eagles running back this season. That was also the last game Clement played.
"It feels like a long time coming, even though it's only two weeks," Clement said. "I feel great. One hundred percent. Time to play football."
Clement knows the opportunity in front of him. During a meeting this week, running backs coach Duce Staley asked Sproles how rare it is for a young player to get the chance to take on a big role. His message was that "when the opportunity presents itself, stare it right in the face and take the challenge on," according to Clement.
"It's definitely unfortunate to have Jay out, but at the same time, I have to be able to step up," Clement said. "Whether it's me taking a bigger role, Wendell taking a bigger role, Josh Adams taking a bigger role, somebody has to take the lead. I think that's what the front office is looking for: Who's going to be the guy in this group to bring this pack on?"
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh said the Eagles need to "get Corey back to being Corey." Clement proved to be a valuable part of the offense during the Super Bowl run. Smallwood, whose roles diminished last season after the Eagles acquired Ajayi, has rebounded this season with 6 yards per carry. Adams was a standout at Notre Dame who has size and potential, and Sproles' versatility could be an asset to the offense when healthy. But they're different than Ajayi, who had been a Pro Bowler in Miami and has a punishing running style that's difficult to replicate.
"We're going to miss Jay's physicality for sure," Groh said. "To sit here and say we won't miss Jay I think isn't fair. Jay is an excellent running back. But we've gotten these guys a lot of experience. They've played in enough games to be able to go out there and play well and be able to run our system. We're confident in what they can do."
Wentz said Ajayi leaves "big shoes to fill" and noted the characteristics that made Ajayi a key part of the offense. As confident as the Eagles are in the other running backs, they have a different style, so the running game might need to adjust.
"He was a violent, downhill runner that sought contact and loved to feed off that and really got us going," Wentz said. "We feel confident in these guys stepping up. We've seen Wendell step up the last couple weeks and make plays. Getting Corey back out there, that will be big for us. Josh is going to have to increase his role as well. Sproles, as well, hopefully coming back sometime soon."
Of course, the Eagles can find that lead running back elsewhere. Last year, they decided to add Ajayi even though they had LeGarrette Blount, Clement, Smallwood, and Kenjon Barner. An argument could be made that the 2017 group was better than what the Eagles have now, especially with Sproles injured. Plus, high-profile players such as Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell and Buffalo's LeSean McCoy are in trade rumors. There are other potential candidates, such as Atlanta's Tevin Coleman, who would make sense. Howie Roseman must decide what draft pick he's willing to surrender, how much money he's willing to add, and whether the Eagles need to look elsewhere for a productive running game.
It's up to the running backs on the roster to show the front office that a move doesn't need to be made. The Eagles will go with this group – likely sans Sproles – on Thursday. Like Staley told them, it will be an opportunity.