“The defending Super Bowl champion, Philadelphia Eagles, opened up training camp on Wednesday.” Reading that on Twitter felt surreal but here we are, starting the 2018 campaign ready to defend the throne. The Eagles managed to maintain almost the entire group of players that brought Philly its first Lombardi trophy. The team did lose edge rusher Vinny Curry to free agency and released linebacker Mychal Kendricks. However, the roster improved with new additions to the defensive line and the return of key players such as Carson Wentz, who’s eager to prove he deserved the MVP trophy last season. This sets up for an intriguing training camp to start the 2018 season. While some positions are set in stone, this series will focus on important battles as well as spotlighting players who are fighting to make the final 53-man roster. Today we look at the running backs.
Projected Roster Locks: Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Darren Sproles
Fighting For 4th RB: Matt Jones, Josh Adams (R)
Outside Looking In: Wendell Smallwood, Donnell Pumphrey
Just before the trade deadline last season, the Eagles decided to bolster their already physical running style by trading for Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi. The Boise State product was entering the third year of his rookie deal and was featured as the workhorse back for Miami’s first seven games. He totaled 138 carries for 465 yards (3.4 yards/carry), but never consistently broke it loose like the Dolphins had hoped. Instead he was brought into Philadelphia’s crowded backfield to add some more thunder to the LeGarrette Blount-led group. In the same amount of games with the Eagles (not including the playoffs), Ajayi totaled 408 yards on nearly half as many carries (70), raising his yards per carry to an efficient 5.8.
Ajayi now is entering the last year of his rookie contract in 2018, earning just over $1.9 million. The London back burst onto the scene in his 2016 season with the Dolphins when he finished 4th in rushing yards (1,272). During that campaign, Ajayi had three 200+ rushing yard performances and strung together three straight games of 100+ rushing yards. Even last year in Miami, Ajayi was able to crack 100+ rushing yards twice. But he also mixed in a 13 carry 23 yard performance, and an 11 carry 16 yard outing. It’s clear that Ajayi is a boom or bust back, but when his hand is hot, it’s scalding. The starting gig and first carries of the season will be his to lose. I fully expect Jay Ajayi to exceed all expectations. He is entering a contract year and will be motivated to prove that he is a franchise back to either Philadelphia or another team if he hits free agency. Just look at the guaranteed money that Saquon Barkley and Todd Gurley received in their respective contracts. Ajayi will be hungry to secure his own bag after 2018.
Nipping at Ajayi’s heels will be the second-year undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin, Corey Clement. Nobody expected that incredible Super Bowl performance where Clement showcased his dynamic and explosive receiving ability. His entire 2017 campaign was a pleasant surprise after he carved out a scat back role after Darren Sproles went down. Clement will see an increased role this upcoming season and certainly will challenge Ajayi for carries. As the league shifts more and more to utilizing pass catching backs instead of downhill runners, Clement’s talents should pay off. And with Jay Ajayi’s inconsistent history of rushing, there may be a window of opportunity for the second-year back to take over a featured role. The best case scenario as an Eagles fan would be for Clement to remain in his complementary role to Ajayi. That would mean the Jay Train is rolling without any hiccups and Clement can be used as a big time, home run hitting playmaker, similar to the role Darren Sproles played for the past four seasons in Philadelphia.
The legendary 13-year veteran will make his much anticipated return to the Eagles this season after breaking his arm and tearing his ACL on the same play last season. At 35-years of age, any injury is tough to come back from, especially an ACL tear. I expect the Eagles to use Sproles sparingly in the offense next year. He should be back returning punts after Kenjon Barner almost caused heart attacks throughout the city last season. Besides his special teams production, Sproles could have a very interesting role in the slot for the Eagles. With all of the weapons at Wentz’s disposal on the outside, Sproles is sure to have a mismatch in a four wide receiver set on third downs. If a linebacker is in the unfortunate position to try and check Sproles, expect tons of targets to go to the crafty veteran as a lock first down play.
The depth at running back is where things get a little murky. I wrote a spotlight piece on Josh Adams, and expect the Notre Dame product to win the battle for a coveted roster spot, or be kept on the practice squad. Matt Jones seems like a training camp signing only, but should find carries on a different squad. The arrival of Josh Adams bumps Wendell Smallwood out of the picture, seeing as they both are downhill runners with limited receiving ability. Smallwood has proven to be a tough and physical back, but he could not bounce around the line of scrimmage to find open running lanes.
As mentioned before, pass catching backs are becoming more and more trendy in today’s NFL, which should benefit Donnel Pumphrey‘s case to make the team. However, Pumphrey seemed lost as a punt returner during last year’s preseason and his smaller than average stature for a running back (5-9, 170 pounds) did not help his transition to the pros. With two pass catching backs already slated to make the roster, it might be time for Pumphrey to start over with another NFL team.