The NFL’s top rushing offense from a year ago is already at it again in 2014. The Philadelphia Eagles are leading the way through weeks of preseason action, at least in terms of yards per carry, with a healthy 4.7 average that has them tied with the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks for tops in the NFL.
Some of that success is clearly linked to the offensive line, both the starters who paved the way for LeSean McCoy’s rushing title last season, and the backups who have been surprisingly effective. Of course, having a dynamic group of ball-carriers certainly hasn’t hurt, either.
McCoy and Darren Sproles are household names, yet it’s been players further down the depth chart grabbing the headlines in these exhibition games.
Matthew Tucker has carried 18 times for 86 yards with four touchdowns. Henry Josey has 107 yards on 12 carries, minus a 70-yard scamper that was erased by a questionable holding penalty, plus a 27-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. And Kenjon Barner has already made his mark since arriving in a trade with the Carolina Panthers last week, rushing seven times for 32 yards versus the Steelers.
Even David Fluellen, who was dealt to the Indianapolis Colts, was enjoying a pleasant summer in Philadelphia up until last week. He rushed six times for 25 yards and recorded a 14-yard touchdown reception in one game in an Eagles uniform.
All of that production doesn’t even include Chris Polk, the third-year veteran who has yet to play in a preseason game due to a hamstring injury.
What are the Eagles to do with this embarrassment of riches at the running back position?
At this point, it seems Polk might be a long shot to make the squad after spending 2013 on the 53-man roster as the club’s third running back. Polk looked explosive in limited opportunities last season, becoming the first back in NFL history to run for three touchdowns on only 11 carries—gains of five, 10 and 38 yards.
Unfortunately, Polk’s absence has created opportunities for other players, and they’ve made the most of them. Add in the fact that he’s still not 100 percent healthy, despite finally returning to practice and planning to suit up for Thursday’s final exhibition game, and it becomes apparent who the odd man out will be.
If Polk isn’t 100 percent, there’s little reason to keep him over somebody like Tucker, who spent last season on the practice squad before joining the squad for a few weeks late in the year. Now Tucker is making his bid for a full-time roster spot, and turning some heads while doing so. When a two-time All-Pro like McCoy calls you out by name during his press conference, that’s some high praise.
A second-year player out of TCU, Tucker is a bigger back (6’1”, 227 lbs.) similar to Polk (5’11”, 222 lbs.) who also contributes on special teams. The main difference right now is Tucker is healthy.
Keeping both Polk and Tucker seems like a bit of redundancy regardless, especially when there’s a guy like Josey behind them.
What a story the undrafted rookie out of Missouri is, going from leading the nation with 8.1 yards per carry as a sophomore in 2011, to suffering a “one-in-a-million” knee injury that nearly ended his athletic career, to bouncing back with a 1,000 yard season and landing on an NFL roster.
Officially, Josey has posted 143 yards on 15 total touches this preseason, but his most dazzling carry didn’t even count—a 70-yard jaunt to the end zone that was reduced due to a wide receiver’s holding penalty on the home stretch.
This may seem like blasphemy to say, but Josey could be the best pure ball-carrier on the team. He’s not as strong or elusive and McCoy, and no doubt concerns in pass protection and lack of special teams contribution are what had the rookie buried on the depth chart earlier in training camp. That being said, tremendous vision, footwork and explosion make him a threat to break off a huge gain every time he touches the rock.
At this point, I think there’s enough tape on Josey that he could be hard to pass through waivers, which he would have to do first before being placed on the practice squad—and based on what I’ve seen, the Eagles should not dare let him get away.
As for Barner, the Eagles only send the Panthers their seventh-round pick if the back is active for four games this season, so don’t take the trade as a sure sign he’ll make the team. The move seemed to be in response due to a combination of injuries at running back and to kick returner Josh Huff.
Barner looked like a better running back in one game with the Eagles than he did over the course of an entire year in Carolina—not a huge surprise given the Oregon product’s familiarity with Chip Kelly’s offense. That being said, he doesn’t actually have a lot of recent experience returning kicks or punts, while Huff is reportedly eyeing a return in time for Week 1.
My guess is Barner will be left off of the final roster or only makes it for a cup of coffee. He does have practice-squad eligibility, though, and while Barner was a sixth-round pick only a year ago, teams will probably be scared off by his disappointing NFL resume to this point.
Besides, there’s really no reason to carry five running backs unless it’s a temporary solution. Unless Barner looks like the answer at kick returner, I’m not sure he’s really a necessity.
One thing is for sure, however, and that is the Eagles almost can’t go wrong no matter who they choose. Polk, Tucker, Josey and Barner have all made reasonable cases for a roster spot, but the reality is the Birds probably can’t keep them all. It’s not a bad dilemma to have, but it certainly will be a challenge when final cuts are made at the conclusion of preseason play this week.