As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to open training camp on July 25, we examine whether the team is better or worse than last season at each position. We continue with running back.
Darren Sproles Adds Another Dimension
There was something missing from Philadelphia’s second-ranked offense last year—a proper spell for LeSean McCoy. The few times Shady came out of a game, he was relieved by Bryce Brown, who struggled to adapt to head coach Chip Kelly’s zone-read ground attack. Brown averaged less than three yards per carry in nine of the 14 games he registered an attempt, not to mention totaled a meager eight receptions.
That shouldn’t be a problem again in 2014. The Eagles sent a fifth-round pick to the New Orleans Saints to acquire 31-year-old Darren Sproles, who not only figures to help lighten McCoy’s workload, but adds a different dimension to the offense as well.
In addition to being without a doubt the most elusive ball-carrier in the NFL, McCoy is also one of the game's top receivers out of the backfield. Shady finished 13th among all backs in 2013 with 53 receptions, and the 539 yards he totaled were good for eighth.
Sproles, however, is one of the league's premier pass-catchers out of the backfield. He can do damage like a traditional running back would with screens and checkdowns, or he can line up in the slot and run routes against linebackers. In three seasons with the Saints, Sproles averaged 77 receptions, 660 yards and five touchdowns through the air. Oh, and he’s a pretty nifty little running back in limited usage, too.
Brown may very well go on to become a star with the Buffalo Bills, where he was traded over draft weekend, but he wasn’t cutting it here. Sproles may be over the hill, but is still very effective situationally. In this case, it’s about fit, and after all the wheeling and dealing, the Eagles got a better secondary option and third-down back for their offense.
Polk is sort of the forgotten member of the Eagles’ loaded stable of ball-carriers, which is what tends to happen to young, unproven players who share a backfield with the reigning rushing champion and a 10-year veteran. However, Polk did something last season that neither McCoy nor Sproles has ever accomplished, nor any other running back during the post-merger era for that matter.
Polk found the end zone three times in 2013 on only 11 carries. They weren’t all goal-line carries, either. The shortest distance to score was five yards. The next-closest came from 10 yards out. The longest was 38.
Not only did Polk clearly demonstrate some explosion, he was climbing the depth chart toward the end of the season. Polk actually was on the field for more snaps than Brown over the Eagles’ final four regular-season contests.
Polk has a no-nonsense running style that lends itself well to Kelly’s preferred zone-read scheme. He identifies the hole quickly and hits it with authority. Seeing as the diminutive Sproles is not cut out to be a workhorse back, Polk figures to serve as the primary backup to McCoy in the event of any long-term absence, and could play a bigger role in the offense to begin with.
At the very least, Polk should wind up with more than 15 touches in 2014. He probably won’t find the end zone on 20 percent of his touches, but more productivity overall seems likely.
What else can we say about Shady? McCoy won his first NFL rushing title last season. He was named first-team All-Pro for the second time in three years. His peers just voted him the fifth-best player in the entire league. After five seasons, McCoy is a mere 1,065 yards away from becoming the Eagles’ all-time leading rusher, a barrier he can easily cross this season.
And there’s more to McCoy than numbers and accolades. He’s a complete back in every sense of the word. He catches the ball out of the backfield. He’s a plus pass-protector. He’s durable. He can run between the tackles or gain the edge. He will pound the rock at the goal line or hit home runs from 60 yards out. He’s the closest thing there is to a modern-day Barry Sanders.
At 26 years old, McCoy is right in the thick of his prime, and arguably the best back in the league right now. At this rate, when everything is said and done, Shady may wind up being the best back in franchise history.
Henry Josey, David Fluellen
As dynamic as Sproles is, he’s not somebody who is going to assume McCoy’s full workload should the starter be absent from the lineup for any reason. He’s never been utilized like that, and at 31, now probably is not the time to start.
Polk is likely better suited for the full-time backup role, but if those are your only three running backs, things could get a little dicey if there's an injury. The Eagles may want to consider carrying four on the 53-man roster. Rookie free agents Henry Josey and David Fluellen are the leading candidates to slip into that vacany should one exist.
Josey has been the recipient of more media attention between the two. A “one-in-a-million” knee injury caused Josey to go undrafted, though he certainly looked healthy last year while rushing for 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior at Missouri. Few backs are more explosive, as his 7.0 yards per carry ranks 12th in the NCAA since 1956.
Fluellen is more of a dark horse, but he compiled 2,612 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground over his final two seasons at Toledo. He’s more of a pure between-the-tackles type, although he does it well.
It would be nice if the club could save the roster spot and stash one of the two on their practice squad, but I’m not sure Josey in particular would clear waivers. As long as his knee holds up over the summer, that kid could be a real commodity come September. As far as the Eagles are concerned, Josey might be the one guy in camp who could actually replace McCoy without missing a beat.
BETTER OR WORSE?
Better. A second-consecutive rushing title probably isn’t in the cards for McCoy, but he’ll continue to be one of the most dangerous backs in the league. It’s Sproles adding a completely different element to the Birds’ offense that makes this group so much better, though. Last season, the burden fell entirely on Shady's shoulder. In 2014, he’s going to have a lot more help.
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